Imaginary encounters

I was recently invited to join a group of writers to visit the exhibition of Everything is true by Abdul-Rahman Abdullah at the John Curtin Gallery at Curtin University.  Our goal was to each produce a short piece of creative writing in reaction to one of the artist’s sculptures.  Organised by Associate Professor Rachel Robertson at Curtin University, I was pleased to be part of such a writing adventure. 

Eleven writers shared their work with an attentive audience at a function at the gallery. Each of the readings – imaginary encounters- were quite different.  Mine was written about a 2019 sculpture called ‘Little Ghost’.

Abdul-Rahman Abdullah is an Australian artist whose practice explores the different ways that memory can inhabit and emerge from familial spaces. The exhibition runs until mid-April.

Little Ghost

I see you.  Why can’t you see me?  I am human just like you except I live in a war zone.   The bombs fall every day and sometimes they hit near my house or my Auntie’s house next door. Usually, the air echoes with a warning siren and we all run toward the underground cellar when we hear the planes.   

My brothers know what sound each plane from each country makes. I am not sure there is any difference.  It didn’t matter when my mother was hit returning from the market with fresh fruit and vegetables in her basket.  The bomb sliced through her body.  Her blood seeped into the sand staining it like rust. Random tomatoes and apples rolled across the ground. 

It wasn’t safe to get her body from the street for hours. My father carried her over the potholes and the past the bullet ridden houses to bring her home for us to bury. I cry every night for mama.  

My grandmother makes me cover up hoping it will keep me safe from the eyes of the invaders. But she doesn’t know she has made me invisible to everyone else.   I am so alone under my cloth.  I weep my silent tears among the voices.

Little Ghost by Abdul-Rahman Abdullah

Amina’s story

“Australia is my home now, not Sudan.  Everything is normal here.  People don’t have guns pointing at you and your family.   I feel safe,”

Amina is a refugee from Sudan who escaped persecution to come to Australia with her husband and children.  After a very difficult decade for the family, in 2000 Amina’s husband explained to his family that they must escape from their country.  They could all see the violence was worsening.  Amina sighed and quietly told me: ‘you can’t live like that.’

“Our family needed to be safe and away from all the fighting.  We were locked in our home a lot of the time.   Villages, and even people, were being set on fire around us.  My husband travelled ahead of us to secure somewhere safe in neighbouring Egypt.  I was glad to get out.  I was scared of the violence, but I was also scared of what the future would hold for my family.”

Everyone settled in Egypt as best they could and seven months after fleeing the horrors of Darfur and claiming refugee status through the UNHCR the family were accepted as refugees by Australia for re-settlement.

“I didn’t know what to expect.  This country called Australia seemed so far away and we were leaving my mother, father, brother, and other family behind.  When we moved into our first rented place in Perth, we had nothing.  No furniture – nothing.  I couldn’t imagine how we were going to manage in this strange country as I spoke no English.  I persevered and gradually I began to feel better.  Australia was normal and safe.  There was nobody with a gun.”

She made an effort to become involved in new things and joined the language classes and other activities at the Edmund Rice Centre WA. “It opened my eyes to how life could be. Everyone was so friendly.   No-one was judgmental and it didn’t matter what country you came from, or what your religion was everyone was treated equally. It was like a big family. I knew I had found my place.  I had a family again.  I belonged.

Amina was very motivated to learn and grew in confidence working in a variety of different jobs as well as alongside her husband in his business over many years. Recently she decided to seek another employment opportunity in aged care. She gathered all her study certificates, most of which are qualifications for working with the elderly, wrote a resume, was offered an interview and was ultimately successful, returning triumphantly to celebrate her new job with her friends and family.

Amina has seven children who are all doing well at school and university.   Her husband owns and manages a retail outlet and they have called Australia home for nearly 20 years. I thought back to how Amina described herself when she arrived in Australia as a frightened, lonely woman who knew no-one. Over the years she has studied to become a successful businesswoman with a close knit, loving family.

“Of course, I am much happier now.  We are settled and in our own home and we have become Australian citizens. I’m still tired with all the work, of course, but that’s ok most of the time.”

Weaving Culture

In celebration of NAIDOC Week, I thought I would feature a wonderful program at the Edmund Rice Centre called Weaving Culture that brings women of a different background together.

Having worked in the Mirrabooka community for several years, Kylie Graham and Esther Kickett became aware of the gap in education of many newly arrived migrants about Noongar culture and people. To address that gap they created Weaving Culture, a program where women from migrant, refugee and culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds come and learn about Noongar culture from Noongar yorga (women) through weaving and yarning.

The opinions and beliefs of many new arrivals have been influenced by the media and white educational systems – leading to the impression of negative stereotypes and general uneasiness about Aboriginal people. Weaving Culture was founded and run by Noongar women, in a way that is culturally appropriate for all involved. It is hoped the program will educate participants and enlighten them about Aboriginal communities, culture, and connections.

It has also been a great way of finding commonalities between the cultures as the women talk animatedly while weaving, each learning from each other.

Weaving Culture is also reflective of the ongoing commitment of the Edmund Rice Centre as they work with people from refugee and migrant backgrounds as well as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

There are many ways across Australia to celebrate NAIDOC Week and recognise the history, culture, and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.  The theme this year is Always Was, Always Will Be, which recognises that First Nations people have occupied and cared for this continent for over 65,000 years.  Programs like Weaving Culture build understanding and trust in these principles.  

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.

Book cover

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.

steve and I (1)

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.

Logo

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.

gor-davtyan-share-a-meal-02-768x576

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.

take action

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.