Category Archives: Telling other people’s stories

The Beekeeper of Aleppo

Nuri is a beekeeper who works with his cousin and business partner, Mustafa.   He lives happily with his wife Afra who is an artist in what was the beautiful city of Aleppo in Syria. As we know brutal war with heavy bombing destroyed the city resulting in trauma and ruined lives.  Nuri and Afra are caught up in this crisis.

Sometimes we forget how beautiful Aleppo was because the only images we see on television are the mass destruction of everything and people being killed or made homeless.   Nuri’s peaceful life as a beekeeper is taken away from him in Aleppo. Both Nuri and particularly Afra find themselves frozen in grief until they make the painful decision to escape so that they can survive. Their relationship is fraught at times, but in the end hopeful as they struggle to overcome their losses and start again.

It is the opportunity to re-start his life as a beekeeper in England that keeps Nuri going on their long and difficult journey to flee Aleppo.  Mustafa escaped earlier and has started an apiary and is teaching fellow refugees in Yorkshire to keep bees. Author Christy Lefteri writes that bees are a symbol of vulnerability, life and hope. 

The story re-creates the dangerous boat trips undertaken and time spent in different refugee camps in Turkey and Greece.  We experience their day to day life in their tent in the camp, rather than just seeing passing images on the television screen. England seems far away for Nuri and Afra and for much of the time impossible to reach.  The Beekeeper of Aleppo is about profound loss, but it is also about love and finding life in the light.

“The heart of the story, however, is not the odyssey across the Middle East and Europe, but the couple’s relationship,” says Lefteri.

The beekeeper of Aleppo is a novel, but Lefteri bases much of it on her own experience of working in Greece in 2016 and 2017 as a volunteer in a UNICEF refugee centre.   Each day she watched thousands of refugees flooding into the country trying to escape persecution and war. In writing this book she is able to make Nuri and Afra’s journey seem far from fiction. As the daughter of refugees, Lefteri’s personal understanding of the trauma created by war must have also fed into what she was writing.

We are living in difficult times, compounded by leaders confusing both true and false news. I remember during the study for my PhD the refugee crisis was all over the news. Now it’s nowhere. Where is all that gone? It still exists, people have still been displaced around the world and in Australia alone around 30,000 people are still trying to settle and have their visa applications formalised.  They’re still traumatised. COVID 19 is profoundly serious, but I’m concerned that we cannot seem to focus on any other difficult issues.

The Beekeeper of Aleppo is a wonderful story that brings the refugee crisis to the forefront of our minds.   It is an excellent book club read as it has notes and thoughtful questions for discussion included.

Hope and a home

Much loved Australian actor Kate Blanchett has collaborated with the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR and film website IMDb to share a “Films of Hope” lockdown watch list which she says will put the spotlight on the growing struggles faced by refugees.

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In this time of COVID-19 it is easy to find yourself focussing inward and concentrating on what life means for you.  These films shine a spotlight on vulnerable others.  The films are inspirational, and I think this can take us away from own worries.  Perhaps for some of us, it limits the amount of light entertainment we are mindlessly streaming in isolation!

The two-time Academy Award winner has curated six films which focus and explore themes around human resilience and isolation as well as what it means to have hope and a home.

The selection features movies from around the world including several of my favourites Babel, The Other Side of Hope, News from Home and The Joy Luck Club. I also add another of my favourites about displacement and home that is not on the list — Lion.

UNHCR Australia National Director Naomi Steer said she hoped Ms Blanchett’s watch list will help connect people but also remind them of the importance of supporting others during the pandemic.

If you have time, please think about making a donation to one of the many agencies working with refugees.  I find it is positive for my state of mind to reach out and help others.  The two agencies I am involved with need financial and other support now –    Edmund Rice Centre WA and CARAD

At the same time watch a movie and be inspired!

joy luck club

 

Violin Lessons

I know that reading is going to be a great solace for me as Coronavirus forces us to spend more time at home. I have done several book reviews on the More to the story website blog and I plan to do others as I am forced to spend time alone which is good thinking and writing time for me.

If you are looking for something different to read I hope you will find my book reviews helpful.  Arnold Zable, one of my favourite Australian writers, has just released a new book called The Watermill.  I have just bought it from my local bookstore and it is readily available from on-line book sellers.

This review however is of an earlier work from Zable – a collection of short stories called Violin Lessons. It is a favourite of mine because it explores displacement and exile in different times and settings including stories from the Jewish refugee experience through to the Greek and other European immigrant experience.   A young boy plays the violin for his mother in Melbourne. Nina Simone sings ‘Pirate Jenny’ in a bar in Berlin. A fisherman plays a flute on the Mekong. And the strains of Paganini resonate in the forests of eastern Poland. From the cabarets of 1940s Baghdad to the streets of war-torn Saigon and the canals and alleyways of present-day Venice, music weaves through each of these stories.

The Ancient Mariner, the longest story in the collection describes Amal’s journey to Australia by boat as an asylum seeker and the trauma that she suffered as she struggled to stay alive after her boat capsized. She was forced to hang onto a dead body to stay afloat waiting for help.

Zable met Amal recovering from the trauma of nearly drowning at sea and was with her years later at the time of her death from cancer. As a trusted friend he promised to write her story. Despite these two tragic events, this is a truly uplifting story and reminder of our shared humanity.

Zable writes of documenting her story. “Five years after her death I am fulfilling my promise. Yet each time I sit down to write, anxiety rises for fear I will not do the story justice, will not find the words to convey the terror and beauty of Amal’s telling…”

He finds the words; words so lyrical in the choosing that I have to read them several times for their beauty.  Zable is one of Australia’s great storytellers.   I hope you enjoy his work.

violin lessons

What next?

After four years of hard work I have finally submitted my PhD about refugee life stories.  It’s been a thoroughly enjoyable experience – well except for the last few months of endless proofreading, formatting and reference checking!

My colleague, Professor Baden Offord, told me at the beginning of my PhD that it would be a time when I could research a project, delving deeply into subjects dear to me, without feeling guilty that I was sitting and reading a book. He was right. What a joy it has been to read books and articles about stories from refugees from around the world.   I have examined the different ways stories are told and the influence this has on us as readers.  I have studied the way stories make their way into the public domain, and, at the same time, I have written my own manuscript-length collection of stories about women from a refugee background.  This writing has also forced me to examine my own role as a narrator and resulted in me telling some of my own story. My two supervisors, Dr Rachel Robertson and Associate Professor Caroline Fleay, are outstanding scholars and contributed to the joyful learning experience.

Eleven women and three men became co-collaborators as part of my writing, and I feel deeply honoured to have been able to work with them to create their stories.  I collaborated with people from Afghanistan, Iran, Eritrea, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Burma and Palestine.  I have learnt so much and been humbled by their honesty and their resilience.  All of them have agency and voice and a story to tell.  I look forward to sharing them with you in due course.

My thesis is now with two examiners for some time so I am waiting in a kind of limbo.  Most people have congratulated me on submitting my thesis and expect me to be out celebrating.   I’m not.  I don’t feel elated. I feel kind of numb.  Apparently, this is a common feeling for many PhD students after something that has engulfed your life for years has quietly disappeared with the push of a “submit” button.

Hopefully I will officially pass sometime this year, then my goal is to turn the manuscript into a marketable book.  It will need editing and a couple more stories will need to be added.  If you are a woman from a refugee background or you know of someone, don’t hesitate to contact me.  I want to help more people to share their stories.

What became clear throughout my research is that we don’t have access to refugee stories in the style that I write. I use direct testimony from people, conversation and historical context alongside my own reflections to entice the reader to think about their lives, as well as that of the person of a refugee background.

My way of advocating for refugee rights is to tell stories and I intend to keep doing this.

I will also be continuing my work on the board of Edmund Rice Centre WA and, now with a little more time on my hands, will look for other organisations where I can volunteer my time and expertise.  So many need “hands-on” assistance as well as donations.

So far, I have been able to maintain my links with Curtin University.   I am joining other writing colleagues to give an academic paper at a conference in Madrid in June and I continue to stay involved with the Centre for Human Rights Education.  I have worked as a research assistant, co-authored one paper about the challenges of accessing higher education as an asylum seeker and am also working on another journal article.

So, whilst waiting for the examiners’ feedback on my thesis, I am taking a short break and then will be back to my life of writing stories and working at a grass-roots level in society to try and make a difference.

Rose Farid Fauz Paul Piok 2016 (1)

I met Farid, Paul, Piok and Fauzia (L-R) when writing More to the Story – conversations with refugees.

Harmony, peace and understanding

With Harmony Week over for another year I wanted to focus on the unity and friendship that we all share and highlight some stories from the week’s events that you might find enjoyable.

Harmony Week celebrates Australia’s cultural diversity. It’s about inclusiveness, respect and a sense of belonging for everyone.

In Mirrabooka, located in Perth’s northern suburbs, 112 people from 77 nationalities took part in a drumming circle, which made the Guinness Book of Records.  You can watch the joyful, musical result here.

The dark cloud from the Christchurch massacre hangs over us all still, however there have been remarkable expressions of support for the Muslim community, both in New Zealand and here in Australia.  Here is the link to a story about a Muslim man going to a Mosque and meeting a woman of Christian faith in Canberra.

Of the many celebrations held during Harmony Week, one always close to my heart is the big Harmony Festival in Katanning.  This year they celebrated 10 years for this great community event.  I wrote a chapter about this regional town in Western Australia in More to the story – conversations with refugees, and told the story of John Nazary who lives there.  Katanning is a true multicultural community, the most ethnically diverse regional centre in Western Australia that is home to people from some 50 different language groups.  Katanning has always welcomed refugees and migrants.   You get a sense of their inclusive community from this video on their website.

I hope we can all take the desire for harmony further than this week. Let’s help make our communities, and the world, a better place.

Harmony Week 2019 email footer

A big weekend of stories and ideas

Regular readers and those of you who know me, understand I am a big supporter of Literary Festivals around the world.   They bring readers and writers together in exchange of stories and ideas.   There’s time for laughter, sadness and reflection.  The Perth Writers Week has just concluded, and I have to say it lived up to expectations.  Here’s some of the writers I interviewed and saw in action which might provide some good reading tips.

What fun I had with children’s writer Dianne Wolfer as we discussed navigating children’s literature at the Perth City Library.   We were lucky enough to have a really engaged group of librarians, teachers and parents attend, all of whom contributed their own ideas and suggestions.  Dianne will be blogging soon about a resource list of ideas she has put together.   I’ll send links once I get it.

Dianne Woolfer and Rosemary Sayer

Dianne Woolfer with Rosemary

The highlight of the festival for me was attending a Sunday breakfast chaired by the fabulous Alan Dodge, former Art Gallery of WA Director and art historian.  Amanda Curtin, Gail Jones and Amy Sackville were the guests and it was a wonderful opportunity to travel through their books each with an art focus.   The conversation was entertaining and informative – it was a really lovely way to spend a Sunday morning.

Alan Dodge, Amy Sackville, Gail Jones and Amanda Curtin

Alan Dodge, Amy Sackville, Gail Jones and Amanda Curtin

On the last day I chaired a panel with a variety of authors who all grappled with the concepts of freedom, identity and language. Heather Morris, Future D Fidel, Balli Kaur Jaswal and Carly Findlay, are very different people who have written vastly different books. It was interesting however to identify and explore some commonality within the themes we discussed. I highly recommend their books.

Heather Morris, Future D. Fidel, Balli Kaur Jaswal and Carly Findlay

Heather Morris, Future D. Fidel, Balli Kaur Jaswal and Carly Findlay

If you have never been to a writer’s festival, look out for one near you.   You can go by yourself or with a friend.  It’s an opportunity to hear from authors and thinkers you know or find new ones to get to know.   You don’t have to do anything other than buy a ticket, turn up and be prepared to enjoy yourself.

The Day of the Imprisoned Writer

“When another writer in another house is not free, no writer is free” – Orhan Pamuk

Today is the Day of the Imprisoned Writer, an annual, international day intended to recognise and support writers who resist repression of the basic human right to freedom of expression and who stand up to attacks made against their right to impart information.

Globally writers are increasingly targeted and silenced by their governments as the climate for freedom of expression continues to deteriorate.

Salil Tripathi, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee said:

“This is a day of solidarity and action. It’s a day in which PEN’s global community stands with those writers who are paying a heavy price for their commitment and belief that we all have a right to express ourselves freely and peacefully. It is a day on which we say, in one voice, that they are not alone. It is also a day on which we tell those governments who seek to silence writers that we will continue to stand with them and against any authority, system, or power that views the right to free expression as a threat.’

In Burma anyone outspoken against military rule has been routinely locked up in prisons for years. Currently there are 43 prisons and over 50 labour camps holding political activists. We know many are writers, but have no idea of the exact number. Most recently, Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were jailed. These two journalists have been sentenced to seven years in prison on retaliatory charges of violating the government’s colonial-era Officials Secrets Act. Working for an international news organisation, they reported on a story of profound global significance a crisis: millions of Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Burma.

In China more than 50 journalists and bloggers are currently detained in conditions that pose a threat to their lives, according to the Independent PEN centre of Chinese writers.  Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel peace laureate and winner of the RSF Press Freedom Prize, and Yang Tongyan, a dissident blogger, both died in 2017 from cancers that were left untreated while in detention. Under tougher internet regulations, members of the public can now be jailed for the comments on a news item that they post on a social network or messaging service, or even just for sharing content.

Closer to Australia, one of the most public figures in the current refugee crises illegally detained and kept in limbo on Manus Island is Kurdish journalist Behrouz Bouchani. Behrouz is one of many hundreds of people on Manus Island who are denied their human right to seeking asylum. I highly commend his book No Friend but the Mountains which was laboriously typed out on a mobile phone from detention.

Most of us don’t have to consider our freedom to write every day, but thousands of writers do. PEN Perth Patron, Peter Greste argues that we need to make freedom of expression a much bigger part of the public conversation. The problem, he says, is that press freedom around the world has been eroding since 9/11, because governments have been using national security as an excuse.

On 15 November I ask you to think about your own freedom of expression and sign up to join PEN International which promotes literature and defends freedom of expression world-wide. You can also join a local chapter of PEN wherever you are and receive newsletters and updates straight to your inbox.

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Feast and Fiction

I always enjoy writers’ festivals that are innovative with their programming, and the Ubud Readers and Writers festival coming up on 24-28 October fits the bill.

Now in its 15 year, I continue to be impressed with how this festival stays true to its goal to transcend cultural and geographical borders to create a truly global community. I always say the Ubud Festival is where East truly meets West in literature.

This year, not only do I get to interview Professor Gillian Triggs, former president of the Human Rights Commission in Australia, and Jane Caro, one of my favourite social commentators, but I will also be hosting a dinner where I interview three internationally acclaimed novelists.

Where else would you have Anurahda Roy from India, Gail Jones from Australia and Fatima Bhutto from Pakistan together in one session? Despite their different heritages and styles, in varying ways each novelist explores common themes of life and death, home and belonging. Individually they are all literary stars but hearing conversations with all three in one evening over a sumptuous dinner should be a feast for the mind and the body.

Each writer will be speaking with me during a different course at dinner at one of Ubud’s pre-eminent restaurants, Bridges. Over entrée I’ll interview Anuradha about her novel All the Lives we Never Lived; during main course Gail Jones will join me to discuss her latest book The Death of Noah Glass; and over desert we’ll gain insights into the turbulent Pakistani dynasty that is Fatima Bhutto’s family and her forthcoming novel The Runaways.

I’ll review some of the authors and their books in the coming months. This is one festival that must go on your bucket list!

International Women’s Day

International Women’s Day is a worldwide event that celebrates women’s achievements, from the political to the social, while calling for gender equality. It has been observed since the early 1900s and is now recognised each year on 8 March.

In Australia, it has just been confirmed that in 2018 the gender pay gap is 22% – which makes me question just how far we have come on the road to gender equality for women. The principle of equal pay for equal work was introduced in my country in 1969, so how can there still be such a disparity?

There is no doubt women from a refugee background face much bigger issues than pay equality. Issues such as persecution, conflict and often violence.   Some of these threats are quite distinct from those that men and boys face. According to the Women’s Refugee Commission, 50% of female victims of sexual violence are 15 years old or younger. In the world’s conflict zones 10 million girls are not in school; girls account for only 30% of refugees enrolled in secondary school.

As I enter the last year of my PhD at Curtin University, my research and writing is concentrated on how the stories of refugees are narrated.  I did not set out to focus on women, but that is how my four years of study has turned out.

So, on this International Women’s Day, I am choosing to celebrate by sharing some success stories about women of a refugee background.

While I can’t share the stories from my PhD research yet, I wanted to give you some links to stories from women who have faced much more challenging backgrounds than most of us and yet have found a way to not only survive, but to thrive.

And finally, to gain some insight into what is going on in Western Australia – that could also be applicable in other countries – look at Ishar Multicultural Women’s Health Centre  which encourages the health and wellbeing of women of all ages and from all cultural backgrounds, as well as the Edmund Rice Centre WA.

Sisterworks catering - refugees

Sisterworks Catering – a Melbourne business run by women from a refugee background

Writers Week is here

The Perth Writers Week is almost here. It starts on Monday 19 February and runs until Sunday 25 February.  I am pleased to be involved again this year, and particularly to be chairing two discussions that demonstrate, once again, that there is always more to the story.

On Sunday I will be interviewing Saudi Arabian woman Manal Al-Sharif who is best known for her YouTube videos for the Women2Drive campaign.

Manal campaigns for women’s rights. Her life story of being raised under a religion of strict fundamentalism to her change to an activist who fights women’s equality in a society that is unequal is incredible. Her book Daring to Drive is a story of resilience. I can’t wait for the conversation.

Manal will also be participating on panel conversation on Saturday called ‘Free to Love, Free to Learn’.  She is joined by Amal Awad who has written a book that is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the Middle East. It’s called Beyond Veiled Clichés. The third participant is Tess Woods who draws on her Egyptian heritage, cross cultural marriage and her insider’s knowledge of professional football (She’s a physio in her day job). Her book is called Beautiful Messy Love and is set in Western Australia.

Will Yeoman, who is curating his first festival, has also catered for my love of crime writing.   I re-unite with Alan Carter who splits his time between Australia and New Zealand these days. We’ll be discussing his new book Marlborough Man at a free event on Wednesday at the fabulous Perth city library.

The full program is available on line or you can pick up a free, easy to read, printed program from most good bookstores. If you are not in Western Australia, some of the Perth Writers Week sessions will be recorded by ABC radio and available as podcasts.

I’ll see you there.