Category Archives: Refugee stories

They Cannot Take the Sky

The sky is like a friend for a prisoner, because around you everything is metal fences, but the sky, they cannot take the sky.

These words are from a book of stories from people who have been detained by the Australian government for seeking asylum.  Each person reveals in their own words their journey, daily struggles, their fears, hopes and dreams.

The title of the book comes from Behrouz Boochani’s story.  Behrouz is a Kurdish They cannot take the sky coverjournalist and writer who fled from Iran. He has been in detention on Manus Island since August 2013. He writes and reports from inside the detention centre when he can and has over 4,000 followers on Facebook. A film he shot entirely on his mobile phone about the life and treatment of refugees detained offshore, premiered at the Sydney Film Festival recently.

As I read Behrouz’s story and others by people of refugee background, I moved between admiration for people’s resilience and optimism to despair and anger.

The editors have collated the testimonies of more than 20 refugees from Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan. Some have had their claims for asylum granted and have gone on to become outstanding members of the Australian community. Munjed is a surgeon who had to leave Iraq because he refused to mutilate army deserters. Now that our society has decided not to waste his gifts, he is working again and specialising in prosthetic limbs.

My friend Jamila from Afghanistan has also told her story. She was placed in detention as a five year old child with her mother and brother. Thankfully after some time her family were re-united and she now studies law at university in Perth. Others, unfortunately continue to languish in detention.

As Maxine Beneba Clarke writes: ‘This book will make Australians ask –again – of ourselves; what kind of people are we and how did we possibly let it come to this?

The not-for-profit group Behind the Wire is responsible for They Cannot Take the Sky. I suggest you take a look at their website – as well as information on the book they have a podcast, audio stories, videos and a series of portrait photographs. They are also currently running an outstanding exhibition at the Immigration Museum in Melbourne and I certainly hope it tours widely.  It was developed in collaboration with the Museum by Behind the Wire and a volunteer reference committee of individuals with lived experience of seeking asylum.

Singing the book

When a beautiful soprano sang the words Fauzia Sufizada said on her arrival in Australia I did not even try to stop my tears.

I stood still and turned my face up to the sky to let the raindrops fall on it… I will never forget how it felt on my skin and the smell of the wet soil. I looked at Farid and my boys and laughed out loud. I told them I needed a few minutes to just stand in the rain and feel freedom.

These words from More to the story – conversations with refugees were featured in ‘Uncertain Journeys’, a new work by composer Tom Henry and performed recently by the Australian Chamber Choir.

I had the opportunity to meet Tom and he says he drew inspiration for the work from contemporary accounts of separation from home, culture and family common to the refugee experience. He found a copy of More to the story at the Immigration Museum in Melbourne while doing research for his composition and used some words from both Fauzia and Farid’s stories.

The Sufizadas and I feel incredibly honoured to be part of Tom’s moving work, which also features the words of other refugees and extracts from the Ghazals (short sonnet-like poems) by the fourteenth century Persian poet known as Hafiz of Shiraz.

The Choir, under the direction of Douglas Lawrence, will be performing ‘Uncertain Journeys’ as part of a new program around the east coast of Australia before going on tour to Italy Austria and Germany.

The choir has made five CDs and given over 200 performances – many of which have been recorded for broadcast on ABC Classic FM.   We have our fingers crossed that one day we might hear ‘Uncertain journeys’ on the airwaves.

AusChamberChoir2017image

Ways of Being Here

Diverse voices matter in Australia more than ever. Ways of being here is pocket book-sized collection of four short stories that showcases the work of four tWays of Being Here coveralented African writers living in Australia – Raefeif Ismail, Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes, Tinashe Jakwa and Yout A Alaak.

Maxine Beneba Clarke writes in her introduction: “Black people of African descent – black diaspora settlers and migrants and descendants of such – have been living in Australia for over 200 years. Yet local African diaspora fiction has been markedly absent from Australian shelves”.

Ways of being here is a terrific read. You can read it slowly, dipping into it over time, or in a few hours on an afternoon or evening you might have free. Either way, I guarantee you will want to read it several times. These beautifully written stories will capture your imagination and your attention. The four write of love, loss, the challenge of living between cultures, intergenerational clashes, of being made welcome and of being isolated.

Rafeif Ismail’s moving story, ‘Light at the end’, about two young women has language that sings off the page with emotion.   He writes: “When did you become this desperate, desolate thing? When did the world’s colours dull and laughter have a price? Fear is the chain you wear, shackling you between walls of loneliness, shame, regret and, most terribly, hope.

Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes story, ‘When the sky looks like the belly of a donkey’, tackles the cultural challenges of starting a new life in Australia – a place so different from your home country. Yirga also captures what could be a group of typical Aussie blokes with insightful writing. The story about Ermi, usually mis-pronounced by many of his workmates as Army, is one I have heard from many migrants and people of refugee background. It is about starting at the bottom of the ladder, trying to fit in and always missing the people left behind. I laughed and I cringed but by the end of the story I smiled with hope.

All four short stories provide a valuable opportunity to reflect about the lives of others.

Ways of being here is published by Margaret River Press and the Centre for Stories, 2017

City of Thorns

“No one wants to admit that the temporary camp of Dadaab has become permanent,” Ben Rawlence writes in his haunting book City of Thorns. Ben visited the camp for the first time as a researcher for Human Rights Watch. The next year he City of Thornsreturned for what would be the first of seven separate visits to follow and write about the lives of nine inhabitants.

I highly recommend this book because it gives those of us from a privileged background real insight into everyday life in a refugee camp.

He captures the daily lives and stories of nine people caught in limbo at Dadaab. The camp was originally founded in 1992 to serve the 90,000 refugees fleeing Somalia’s civil war. No one imagined that an entire generation of children would be raised there, or that so many more refugees would rush in, as the political chaos and famine in Somalia continued. “Neither the past, nor the present, nor the future is a safe place for a mind to linger for long,” he continues. “To live in this city of thorns is to be trapped mentally, as well as physically.”

I met Ben at the Perth Writers Festival and was fortunate enough to interview him on a panel with other writers. He is deep thinker who has witnessed the best and worst of humanity. He articulated what I have come to understand – thousands of people in many different refugee camps around the world have little hope of leaving. They are waiting for a new beginning that sadly may never come.

He mixes the portraits of the camp’s residents with big-picture accounts of the regional turmoil that drove them there (famine, the ascendance of Al Shabaab, corruption in the government and civil war). I was interested in his style of writing and the desire to personalise the stories of refugees and give context about countries and the situations they face because it is the way I wrote More to the story- conversations with refugees.

His stories about the people in Dadaab are brutally honest and insightful.   I found as a reader I became invested in their lives. What happened to Muna and Monday and the others? I worried about Guled, a former child soldier, and my heart ached for Kheyro and her determination to get an education. After many years in camp Muna and Monday were some of the lucky ones to be re-settled in Australia.   I breathed a sigh of relief but Ben explained at the Festival that while their lives were safe, unfortunately things had not gone well since they arrived. Sometimes that is the reality when people arrive in a new country and face other challenges on top of the trauma they may have already experienced.

The book demonstrates extraordinary human resilience and the choices people have to make to survive.

City of Thorns by Ben Rawlence is published by Portobello, 2016.

What’s it like to live in a refugee camp?

We’ve all seen the images. People desperately waiting for help outside in the blazing sun in front of rows of white tents. A child behind barbed wire, covered in dust, gazes into the lens of a news camera. This is true for many thousands of refugees.

But that’s just part of the story. Camp Domiz is a Syrian refugee camp in northern Iraq where many Kurdish-Syrian refugees have sought shelter.

As the number of refugees grew, the camp gradually transformed from a temporary refuge to a makeshift town, where people live and work, go to school, start a business, get married, argue and try to have fun….otherwise how would you get up each day and keep going?

This award winning interactive documentary allows you to scroll through hand-drawn maps, drawings, photographs, and short video impressions of life in a refugee camp.

As I moved around different parts of the map and listened to some of the stories I couldn’t help thinking about my very comfortable life and the fact that I was sitting in my very comfortable study with all I needed to hand.

It is a reminder that refugees don’t just spend months – they can spend years or even decades in a refugee camp hoping for re-settlement.

I recommend you take a look at this impressive documentary and imagine how different your life would be in a refugee camp.

Refugee-Republic-UNHCR

Australia’s Death by Numbers

While spending some time overseas for Christmas and New Year, I was touched by a powerful article I read in the New York Times by Roger Cohen, a journalist who has worked for over 15 international media outlets.  It is helpful to be away from your own country sometimes to “look back in from the outside.”

While I don’t always agree with Cohen’s views, this opinion piece written after a five day visit to Manus island struck a chord with me.  Cohen makes the point “Despite being a signatory of all major international human rights treaties, Australia has instituted an indefensible policy of cruelty as deterrence.” He also describes Australia’s detention system as a process where “human beings have been left to fester, crack up and die.”

While it is too late for Faysal Ishak Ahmed, there is  at least a little comfort that his death will be examined by the legal and constitutional affairs references committee, which is already inquiring into allegations of abuse of asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru.  I am not sure there is much hope of change with this review, but at least it, and articles like Roger Cohen’s, continue to shine a light on the appalling situation on Manus and Nauru.

You can read the full article here.

faisal-ishak-ahmed

Faisal Ishak Ahmed

2016 in review

I thought I would take this opportunity to reflect on 2016 in relation to refugees, asylum seekers and the importance of stories to help us understand what is happening in the world.  There were many low points, but also some inspiring highlights that made me marvel at the strength and humanity of others. I hope you’ll take time to read this longer post from me.

It was a challenging year in Australia and the international community. The conflict in Syria worsened but I am hopeful that the tentative peace deal brokered by the Russians may help.   syrian-refugeesThe escalating violence and insecurity continued in South Sudan and Yemen.   We saw an amazing welcome initially from Angela Merkel and Germany in welcoming thousands of fleeing refugees as the crisis of displaced people had a dramatic impact in Europe. Populist groups in the UK, USA, Austria, Denmark, Germany, France and the Netherlands used the world’s biggest refugee crisis to spread fear and hate, inflaming tensions about people who may be different to us. In Australia where I live, the re-emergence of the One Nation party led by Pauline Hanson, has reflected these sentiments.

Walls, both physical and metaphorical, have been built in countries around the world to stop many of the people most in need from seeking help. According to the UNHCR, 1 in every 113 people globally is now either an asylum-seeker, internally displaced or a refugee.

As a writer and former journalist, I followed with fascination and often despair the twitter postings of Bana al-Abed, a young seven-year-old girl whose postings offered the world a glimpse into the deprivation and violence in the besieged city of Aleppo. Bana and her family were recently evacuated to the Turkish capital.

I worried about writer and journalist friends in some of the world’s trouble spots. I could only be thankful that people like my friend Karl Schembri were able to post on the ground reports from tragic situations in Yemen and Syria. Ben Doherty and the team from nauru-filesGuardian Australia continued to lead the way with the most in-depth updates on the refugee and asylum seeker situation as it related to Australia. In a global exclusive, the Nauru files which included over 2,000 documents showing the despair and horror of Australia’s offshore detention, were leaked to the Guardian. This was followed by graphic reports on the ABC’s 4 Corners that also screened around the world.

I know, as someone who worked in news for many years, a picture can tell a story “better than a thousand words” In 2015 it was the image of Aylan, the two-year-old Syrian refugee, lying face down on a Turkish beach that seemed to galvanise western countries into responding to the urgency of the Syrian refugee crisis. Australia increased its refugee intake by 12,000 to help Syrian and Iraqi refugees.  After a very slow start (why did it take nearly a year?) 2016 finally saw some of these refugees arrive in Australia.

In 2016 it was the image of young Oman in the back of the ambulance, which I am sure will show up in all your news feeds, as one of the photos of the year. oman-in-ambulanceThis photograph and video seemed particularly poignant and tragic to me. Oman was wearing shorts and a t-shirt featuring a cartoon character. His hands were in his lap. In a moment of pure horror, he lifted his left hand to his face, ran his fingers through his hair and then back down the side of his face before putting his hands back in his lap. He looked at the palm of his hand covered in blood and, unsure what to do, turns it over and wipes it on the seat. In that moment, he could have been our son, our grandson, our brother or our nephew, trying to get something off his hand. He looked straight at the camera, from a bright orange seat in the back of an ambulance where medics were rescuing people amidst the violence and chaos, towards the voices. He blinked and looked away… but I couldn’t look away from Oman.

yusra-mardiniOn a brighter note there was the uplifting news of a refugee team being selected for the Rio Olympics. I was drawn to 17 year old Yusra Mardini who saw terror in the eyes of her fellow passengers as the inflatable dinghy she was in trying to cross the Mediterranean began taking on water. Most of the people in the boat could not swim, but 17-year-old Yusra could, and she dragged them to safety.

The year ended with good news in Australia with a landmark decision in the Federal Court of Australia that ruled against the Minister of Immigration on the question of citizenship for people of refugee background. The case, brought by the Refugee Council of Australia with pro bono legal support, provides hope for 10,231 people that the department confirmed were in similar situations. This group of people from a refugee background have had their citizenship applications ‘put in the bottom drawer’, as the Department has dragged its feet in offering this large group of new Australians citizenship.

Personally, it was an amazing year with my book More to the story –conversations with refugees published by Margaret River Press selling very well. There are a small number of copies left that can be purchased online. I participated in writers festivals- the highlights being Big Sky in Geraldton and the Perth Writers Festival. I was a guest at community events, such as the Katanning Harmony Festival, where I gave the address on Australia Day. I gave library talks and attended book clubs throughout the year to help raise awareness about refugees and asylum seekers. Throughout the year I met hundreds of people, many of whom told me they were inspired to volunteer for organisations working with people from a refugee background including CARAD, Refugee Rights Action Network and Joining the Dots’ Welcome Dinner Project. More of you have signed up to receive information or made donations to organisations like the Refugee Council of Australia,  Australian Red Cross, Amnesty International and Edmund Rice Centre WA where I am proud to serve on the board. I truly believe that hundreds of people who have read the personal stories featured in the book have taken time to reflect on what is happening around the world and in their own lives.

MYAN group 2016One of the year’s highlights for me was my involvement with Shout Out, a public speaking program for young people from a refugee and migrant background run by the Multicultural Youth Advocacy Network. I feel very privileged to have been a part of helping some fabulous young people to develop their personal stories and public speaking skills.

Perhaps the most satisfying experiences in 2016 came in schools where I spoke. I started the year on a high with the Margaret River Senior High School Social Justice group – why don’t more schools have a group like this?  I visited schools in the Geraldton region and elsewhere around Western Australia, and ended my engagements at Churchlands Senior High School with a day full of talks to different classes. We know that many schools around Australia now have More to the Story in their school libraries or are studying it as part of the curriculum.

I continued to be inspired by my close friends – Paul and Naw Bi from Burma; John, Farid and Fauzia from Afghanistan; Piok and Akech from South Sudan. We made more new friends as our lives became more involved with people from a refugee background – some of whom I hope will feature in my next book. We celebrated Karen New Year, Eid and other festivals with people of different cultural backgrounds. We heard sad stories, tragic stories and inspirational and happy stories

And finally I made good progress on my doctoral studies about life writing and human rights in relation to refugees. I am approaching the half way mark of a four year course and I hope my research and writing might make a small difference. As 2016 drew to a close I like to believe that hope can shine a bright light in darkness.  There are some thoughts on this from World Vision that you might like to read.

I hope you’ll keep following this website in 2017. You can sign up to follow it and receive information as I post – just click the button on the right.  Sometimes it is helpful to have useful information about an issue in one place and don’t forget you can contact me via the website or join in the conversation via the More to the Story facebook page.

I wish everyone peace in the coming year.