Category Archives: Refugees in WA

Future decision makers

One of the enjoyable aspects about being a writer is that I sometimes have the opportunity to visit schools and talk to students. More to the Story – conversations with refugees has been out in the market for over three years now but it is still being used in a number of high schools around Australia for English, social sciences and several other subjects. The response from students and teachers continues to be heartening.

Recently I visited Churchlands Senior High School in Perth and was so impressed with how the teaching staff were approaching the topic.  Apart from reading chapters of my book (which was lovely to see), some had examined speeches by Julian Burnside QC, others had examined different writers on refugee issues, or the work of a refugee rapper from South Sudan. Students spent time looking at different media reports to understand the power of language and how it is used to empower and disempower.

The overwhelming message from students about how Australia treats asylum seekers is one of astonishment and outrage.  As one young student said to me: ‘I just can’t understand why we treat people like this – it is a fundamental human right to be able to seek asylum.  How does this happen?’

The students wanted to know about Operation Sovereign Borders and what I thought would be a reasonable intake of refugees each year.  I explained the average of 13,000 people wasn’t enough for a large, rich country like Australia and, for me, 100,000 – a similar number to Canada – would be more appropriate.  I also reminded students that they didn’t have to agree with me, and they could build their own positions supported by facts.  The students are examining all the positions that people take on refugees and asylum seekers in Australia and will be working on their own persuasive essays in the coming weeks.

Perhaps the most interesting question was whether I thought attitudes were better now compared to when I returned to Australia ten years ago.  Sadly, I don’t think they are.   Australia remains a contradiction to me.  It is a great multicultural country where people from all over the world live and work happily, but there are pockets that can sometimes become loud and spiteful. I think our obsession with refugees who come by boat and how we treat asylum seekers has hardened over the years.

In fact, I think Australia’s position is dehumanising and mean and violates Australia’s obligations under international law.

That said, one class asked me if I was optimistic about future changes to the legislation and attitudes.  I am, because the decision makers will be young people like my classes.  They are respectful and welcoming to many different nationalities and backgrounds in their classroom. The future is theirs to shape.

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A man of vision

Twenty-one years ago, a man saw a great need for more education-based services for people from refugee and migrant backgrounds and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. He could see how to make people more welcome, and with decades of teaching experience, he knew how to help people bridge the gap from being “a new arrival” in Australia to becoming a contributing member of society.

I write of Steve Bowman, the retiring director of the Edmund Rice Centre, in Western Australia. I am privileged to serve on the board of this “grass roots”, community, not for profit organisation that continues to make a difference in thousands of lives.

I first became aware of Edmund Rice when I was writing More to the story – conversations with refugees.   As I was starting to research and learn more about the community service groups that helped refugees, so many people said to me: “you must go and talk to Steve at Edmund Rice; they do great work.”  They were right. I walked in the door to do an interview and have stayed involved ever since.

You can find more information about the Centre and the valuable services it provides at www.ercwa.org.au.  For this post however, I want to focus on Steve and the power of his vision.

A former Christian Brother, Steve worked throughout Western Australia including significant time in the Pilbara and Kimberley where he found joy in teaching people from a different culture to his own.  He also spent time travelling, studying and volunteering with different organisations in Sydney, Ireland and the United States.  He describes this time as one of spiritual richness and reflection.

On his return to Perth with a determination that has become his trademark, and with the support of the Christian Brothers, he opened the doors to a building in Perth’s northern suburbs that would become the Edmund Rice Centre WA.

Steve was inspired by the life and vision of Edmund Rice, the Irish businessman who more than 200 years ago responded to the needs on his doorstep by dedicating his life and resources to the liberation of the poor through education.  Along with volunteer teachers and helpers Betty and Alan O’Neil, Pat Chinnery, Sue Catling, Mary Britton, Matt Lobo and Brothers Geoff Seaman, Peter Thrupp and Phil O’Loghlen, they taught English, computer, skills and art and craft classes to newly arrived refugees.

In the process, they created what Steve called “common ground” where people of all faiths, cultures and backgrounds could come together and learn. Clients over the years have described the Centre as “their family” and “a place where they belong.”

From three classes a week with 24 people 21 years ago, the Edmund Rice Centre now welcomes over 75 people a day to over 1,000 classes of English per year.  Hundreds more take part in other community classes and thousands of young people participate in sport, arts and youth leadership programs.

Steve became a leader in the sector and the wider community, as he built an organisation with an unprecedented reputation for providing quality service to some of the most marginalised people in the community.

At his recent farewell morning tea, one of the many people who asked to speak said  “One of the many things I learnt from Steve has been the need to be present, the need to listen and the need to be compassionate.”

Steve Bowman inspires me and reminds me often that if everyone took just a little time to contribute to their communities in some way, we would make the world a better place.

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A world of stories

 

Refugee Week, 16 -22 June, provides a wonderful opportunity for people around the world to celebrate the contribution refugees make to our society.  It’s also a time to raise awareness, remembering and honouring the often-perilous journey that refugees have taken to reach Australia and other countries.

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For many people, Refugee Week provides an opportunity to meet a refugee for the first time. This year’s theme for Refugee Week is A World of Stories which makes food the focus and asks you to “Share a meal, share a story…”  With that in mind, the Refugee Council is encouraging businesses, community groups, schools, and individuals to hold a food event (breakfast, morning tea, dinner) where they can hear stories from this year’s Refugee Ambassadors, while sharing some of their favourite meals. This can be done by either inviting a refugee to your event, watching a video or listening to stories in other ways.

There’s a lot of information on the website and similar organisations around the world also provide advice.  If you are planning an event in Western Australia, I can highly recommend the speakers bureau at the Youth Affairs Council of WA.  For a modest fee, a young person is available to talk, share their story and answer questions.

There are many public events around the world for Refugee Week.   If you do nothing else, take time on World Refugee Day on 20 June to look out for some stories such as this one about a woman whose parents came to Australia after the second world war.

Or you could buy a book.  Behrouz Boochani’s book about his imprisonment on Manus Island No friend but the mountains  is excellent, or They cannot take the sky, a collection of direct testimonies as stories, is also a thoughtful read. I have a suggested reading list on my website you may like to investigate.

I will be thinking about my new friends – those refugees who entrusted me with their stories, and the positive lives they have built for themselves here in Australia.

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Refugees create jobs

Recent Australian Bureau of Statistics data revealed that people who arrived in Australia as refugees are the most entrepreneurial migrant group. ‘This builds on earlier research showing people of a refugee background tended to work several jobs in their first few years in Australia to build capital to start their own businesses,’ the ABS said.

Today, Australia is more multicultural than ever before. We live this reality in the food we eat, the music we listen to and, most importantly, with the people we choose to spend time with.

Refugees are not taking Australian jobs, they are creating new ones. There are so many good stories around about big and small enterprises but I wanted to highlight one.

The Fare Go food truck is a social enterprise food truck operated by people from refugee and asylum seeker backgrounds. Started by CARAD – the Centre for Asylum Seekers, refugees and detainees in Western Australia, the Fare Go food truck gives us the opportunity to eat, share and connect over food from different cultures while empowering refugees and asylum seekers through employment.

I was pleased to see that the Fare Go enterprise has been chosen to participate in the Pitch for Good event in October.  Impact Seed, StartSomeGood and City of Perth host the event which is essentially a triple-decker live crowdfunding campaign!

It is such a great event – and the finalists are all doing amazing work. Each have the chance to ‘pitch’ their idea to up to 250 people, all of whom are interested in social enterprises and keen to make a difference. There is a cost to attend and all money goes to the enterprises participating. You can find out more about the event and book to attend here.

Fare Go food truck

The ever burning candle

The power of telling people’s stories never ceases to amaze and inspire me.

In association with the Centre for Stories, three established playwrights have been working with three local story tellers to bring a portion of their stories to the stage at The Blue Room Theatre. My good friend Fauzia Sufizada is one of those story tellers.

I’m thrilled that Fauzia’s story, which was adapted by Chris Isaacs, an award winning writer who has worked around the world, was primarily inspired by my book More to the Story: conversations with refugees. English is Fauzia’s fifth language and she was brilliant in a solo performance. She asks her audience to imagine her life as someone from a refugee background.

Fauzia Sufizada is lost on a bus to White Gum Valley.  She is in a room in Peshawar watching a Norwegian freighting ship on TV.  She is reading her father’s poetry in Kabul.  She is stepping off an airplane in Perth. She is in a chair in the theatre – and she’s talking to you.

The other two stories that were brought to the stage were equally as engaging.  Due to popular demand an extra show has been scheduled for Saturday 4 August. Click here to make a booking.

Fauzia's play

Fauzia Sufizada (third from left) with a few fans after the show

Take action

You may have heard recently about how the Australian government is making cuts to the Status Resolution Support Service (SRSS). This program provides asylum seekers in the community, who are awaiting the outcome of their protection visa application, with a basic income (89% of a Centrelink Newstart Allowance) and casework support. New tightened eligibility criteria will mean that around 500 people in Perth may no longer have access to this program.

CARAD logoCARAD is a fabulous organisation in Western Australia that has assisted thousands of refugees and asylum seekers with a range of services. Their latest newsletter reports they are witnessing many people facing destitution and homelessness as a result of no longer having a safety net of financial and casework support available to them.

They are calling on people to take action by finding out the facts and getting involved via the following methods.

ADVOCATE – Engaging with your local Member of Parliament is an effective way of demonstrating that you care about justice, non-discrimination and upholding human rights for all. Advice on how to go about writing to your MP is on the CARAD website.

DONATING FOOD – With more and more people relying on their food bank to provide food for their families CARAD is seeking donations. Their website outlines the food and non-food items that are most often needed.

VOLUNTEER – CARAD has many volunteer roles on offer including homework support, English tuition, assisting with the food bank program, and helping out at the CARAD office. They also have a new Food Truck project just getting off the ground and are looking for people who have skills in vehicle mechanics/maintenance, hospitality/food industry, small business management, marketing or event management. Their volunteer information sessions are held every month – here are the ones coming up:

  • Thursday 26 July, 12pm
  • Tuesday 14 August, 5.40pm
  • Wednesday 15 August, 12pm

More information on volunteering is on the CARAD website. If you would like to get involved in the Food Truck project please contact: foodtruck@carad.org.au.

MEMBERSHIP – By renewing your membership or becoming a CARAD member you will give weight to their vital advocacy work, stay up-to-date on news and events and can actively participate in the organisation. More information on membership and on how to make a donation is on their website.

If you are located elsewhere in Australia there are a range of other organisations you can support that assist asylum seekers and refugees.

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Everyone belongs

Yesterday’s Harmony Day, promoting inclusiveness and belonging, brought to an end a week of celebrations around Australia. I was lucky enough to attend several wonderful events celebrating Harmony Day and was inspired to hear of some great initiatives happening in Western Australia.

One of the highlights of the week for me, was seeing a video clip called Same Drum. Recently released by students of Aranmore Catholic College in Perth this three-minute video was created during a series of workshops with students from the Intensive English Centre. It’s sung in three African languages – Swahili, Dinka and Kinyarwanda – as well as English. The project was devised by artist and filmmaker Poppy van Oorde-Grainger. It’s gone viral! I really recommend you take a look.

I attended a major event at Curtin University for the launch of the 2017 Catalyst Report. The Catalyst Youth Summit was held over three days and once again, provided nearly sixty young, multicultural Western Australians the opportunity to build relationships, speak with politicians and work together to develop solutions to issues that face their peers. The report is up on my Research and Reports page.

And lastly, as usual the town of Katanning in the Great Southern region of WA put on a fantastic celebration for Harmony Day. I have a personal connection with Katanning as I wrote a chapter about its extraordinary success with multiculturalism in More to the Story. While I couldn’t get there this year, I have heard the Shire, local businesses and community groups put on a great event full of local food, music, performances, art and activities. With 6,000 people attending over the weekend Katanning knows how to celebrate! Check out the photos on their Facebook page.