Category Archives: Refugee stories

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.

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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.

The Seven Ages of Woman

My friend at Radio National Australia, Susan Maushart, has produced a wonderful new series called The Seven Ages of Woman.   Some of you might remember ‘the seven ages of man’ speech from Shakespeare’s As You Like It which is among the most celebrated passages in English literature. Susan decided it needed a fresh approach – from a woman’s perspective!

Her series of the stories is about seven Australian girls and women, each poised at a critical moment in her life journey. From child to senior and from different cultural backgrounds and experiences they each reveal what it’s like to be female – right at this moment.

Susan and I re-connected after she read my book. She realised that to have a truly representative group of Australian women in her series, there needed to be at least one woman from a refugee background included. She asked me who I knew and I took her to meet the team at the Edmund Rice Centre WA where I spend a lot of time as a Board member and supporter. Like me, Susan was impressed by the grass roots work being done at the Centre. It was there that Susan met Bella.

Bella is a young woman in her twenties with a refugee background who works at the Edmund Rice Centre. She inspires all women every day through her work and life. I love spending time with her.  And you will too as you listen to Bella’s story in the Seven Ages of Woman.

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Refugees bound for Rio Olympics

With all the hype about individual stars competing in the Olympics from so many different countries and widespread concern over drug-taking and testing, you may have missed the news that this year, for the first time, a team of refugees will compete as well.

The International Olympic Committee announced the selection of 10 refugees who will compete this August in Rio de Janeiro, forming the first-ever Refugee Olympic Athletes team. They include two Syrian swimmers, two judokas from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a marathoner from Ethiopia and five middle-distance runners from South Sudan. You can read all about their stories here.

Their stories are all inspirational, none more than the 18 year old Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini. Here is just part of her story:

As the flimsy vessel started taking on water, 16 year old Yusra knew what to do. Stranded off the Turkish coast with about 20 other desperate passengers, the teenager from Damascus slipped into the water with her sister, Sarah, and began swimming and pushing the boat towards Greece in an extraordinary act of courage.

“There were people who didn’t know how to swim,” says Yusra, who represented Syria at the FINA World Swimming Championships in 2012. “It would have been shameful if the people on our boat had drowned. I wasn’t going to sit there and complain that I would drown. I am a swimmer… I could help”.

Not long after arriving in Germany in September 2015, she started training with a club in Berlin. Now 18, she is preparing to compete in the women’s 200-metre freestyle event in Rio.

Yusra is yet another reminder of the resilience many refugees show as they flee persecution and war. I personally will be cheering her and her team mates on. I hope you will too.