Everybody Belongs

Australia is a vibrant and multicultural country — from the oldest continuous culture of our first Australians to the cultures of our newest arrivals from around the world.  This Harmony Week 15 – 21 March, that is worth celebrating.  

We especially come together to celebrate Harmony Day on 21 March. Created in 1999 to celebrate unity and diversity, Harmony Day was originally an Australian celebration but is now marked worldwide by conscientious citizens. The continuing theme of Harmony Day is Everybody Belongs.

Here are nine stories that will inspire you during the week. Called Food, Faith and Love in WA they were put together by the WA Office of Multicultural Interests and one of my favourite places, the Centre for Stories

An integrated multicultural Australia is an integral part of our national identity. All people who migrate to Australia bring with them some of their own cultural and religious traditions, as well as taking on many new traditions. Collectively, these traditions have enriched our nation.

There are some fascinating statistics about Australia’s diversity that can be good conversation-starters:

  • Nearly half (49%) of Australians were born overseas or have at least one parent who was,
  • We identify with over 300 ancestries,
  • Since 1945, more than 7.5 million people have migrated to Australia,
  • 85 per cent of Australians agree multiculturalism has been good for Australia,
  • Apart from English, the most common languages spoken in Australia are Mandarin, Arabic, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Italian, Greek, Tagalog/Filipino, Hindi, Spanish and Punjabi.

It’s been heartening to see sport and the arts around the world unite in anti-racism messages over the last several years.  Teams make a stand on the pitch/ground/court before every game. Sport transcends culture. It breaks down barriers and helps to build inclusive communities. Sport brings people together by sharing a common goal.

Our cultural diversity is one of our greatest strengths and is at the heart of who we are. 

It makes Australia a great place to live.

Vale Joan Didion

Joan Didion, the eminent journalist, author and anthropologist of contemporary American politics and culture, died at her home in Manhattan over the Christmas period at 87 years of age. 

One of my favourite authors, Joan Didion was a singularly clear, precise voice across a multitude of subjects for more than 60 years. She was also one of the people who inspired me to be a writer.

A standout female figure in the very male New Journalism movement alongside Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote and Gay Talese, Didion cast her precise, coolly-detached eye over both society and her own life in writing that was collected in books including Slouching Towards Bethlehem, her sharp-eyed journey through the promise and dissolution of California’s 60s counterculture, and The White Album, which began in her economic, astute style with, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”  I used this quote often in my doctorate studies as it seems to capture the very essence of who we are. 

From an early age I wanted to create my own stories and was constantly scribbling ideas on the back of old inventory paper that Dad brought home from his job at the local council. High school English and literature classes fueled my desire to write and although I enjoyed my creative writing classes with the sharp-minded Elizabeth Jolley at university, I found myself being drawn towards the study of journalism and politics. I imagined myself as a younger version of Joan Didion, writing pithy articles that would attract thoughtful readers frequenting cafes and libraries. Of course, I never came close but went on to have a moderately successful career as a journalist. After a succession of different career choices that involved business suits and brief cases, I ended up back where I started as a child, once again scribbling ideas on pieces of paper, and trying to make words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs and paragraphs into stories.    

I write about people because the journalist in me wants to know every intricacy about a person and find the answer to five key questions that fire my curiosity – who, what, why, when and how. Thus, when I ask a person to let me into their lives, I try to enter with respect, compassion, honesty, and fairness. These values are central to me and who I am as a person. Joan Didion seemed to share similar values. 

If you haven’t read her classic The Year of Magical Thinking about the grief of losing her husband, I recommend you add it to your reading list.

Joan Didion

Australia must do more

The Australian government has made much of its assistance to Afghan refugees claiming it has already accepted 3,000 refugees from the country. What they don’t say is that the 3,000 is simply a part of our existing humanitarian intake of just 13,750 places. 

We have done nothing extra to help a country and its people in crisis. Nothing.

The Refugee Council of Australia is calling on the Australian Government to provide an additional 20,000 humanitarian visas to refugees from Afghanistan in its new brief

What’s the scale of the problem? At the beginning of 2021, 2.6 million citizens of Afghanistan were refugees, 239,000 were seeking asylum and 2.9 million were internally displaced. The Taliban’s takeover of the country, culminating in the capture of Kabul in August 2021, is resulting in ever-increasing displacement. By September 2021, UNHCR had reported 22,120 newly arrived refugees in neighbouring countries and 592,531 people internally displaced since January 2021.

Many more people in Afghanistan are yet to be displaced but fear for their lives because of their work as women’s rights activists, human rights defenders, government officials or staff employed by embassies or western armed forces or because of their religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.

For a personal view read the story written anonymously for the Guardian newspaper by a young woman in Kabul who was burning and hiding all her educational certificates in fear of the Taliban. 

So as an affluent and safe country, Australia must do more. Helping just 3,000 people is not enough. The Refugee Council is lobbying the government to accept 20,000 refugees. We have done it before when we assisted Chinese Vietnamese and Syrian and Iraqi refugees in crisis. 

We have a long relationship with Afghanistan. Over 20 years, Australia deployed 39,000 defence personnel to Afghanistan at a cost of $10 billion and spent $1.9 billion on projects to support women’s empowerment, human rights, education, health, and good governance. 

We can’t just sit by and let all our excellent work disappear under the hands of the Taliban. We need to step up and match the work done by other countries around the world.

Accepting 3,000 refugees is not enough.

We could have done better

During the two decades in which Australia was ensnared in an unwinnable war after trailing the US into Afghanistan, successive Australian leaders like Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull all spoke reassuringly about how they would not desert the Afghans.

However, this is exactly what we have done.

Afghan friends following the unfolding drama in their former homes can’t believe that after all the fighting, after everything they and their families went through the Taliban is back. Violence, discrimination and persecution of women and young girls has returned. 

The Taliban is stronger right now than at any time since the US invasion. The United Nations reports record civilian casualties. In recent weeks, the militants have stepped up offensive in key cities Lashkar Gah, Kandahar, Kunduz and Herat.

This is critical. The Taliban has strongholds in rural areas but taking back cities is a decisive change potentially tipping the balance of power in its favour. Foreign Policy magazine this week said: 

“The urban offensives also have demographic implications. If the Taliban seize cities, the insurgents would bring an even more sizeable share of the population under their control.”

Australian journalist Stan Grant who worked as a foreign correspondent in Pakistan and Afghanistan has written thoughtfully about the issue based on his experiences

In 2014, former Australian Army Colonel and defence strategist for US General David Petraeus and Security Advisor to Condoleezza Rice, David Kilcullen, forecast exactly what is now happening in Afghanistan. “The worst-case scenario is not that ISIS and al-Qaeda continue to be rivals, it’s that they pal up. You end up with a precipitated withdrawal from Afghanistan, creating space for the Taliban to come back, just like ISIS did in Iraq.”

Kilcullen continues to write about the situation.

I pictured an Australian soldier today, back from extended tours of duty in the Middle East, watching the news on television. The hard-fought battles to defeat the Taliban in places like Uruzgan province and to then improve security and assist villagers re-build their lives, must have seemed a complete waste of time. The country seemed to be back where they had started from. Right in front of them on the screen all the good work that he or she thought they had done, was unravelling in fast moving pictures. 

Several years ago, at the Byron Bay Writers Festival, I interviewed Major General John Cantwell, Commander of Australian Forces in Afghanistan in 2010, and I asked him was the effort by Australian, and allied forces, worth it? What had we achieved in Afghanistan? Was it worth all the lives that had been lost? Cantwell answered that even though such comments seemed disrespectful to a life-time soldier, steeped in a sense of duty and service, he had to answer, “No. It wasn’t worth it.”

The whole mess has been summed up in the Guardian Australia by writers Paul Daley and Ben Doherty as a tragic and wasted opportunity. 

We could have done more. 

We could have done better. 

We’ve let the people of Afghanistan down.

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.”

New Voices

If you are looking for something different to read over the holiday period, you might want to check out the fabulous website of Words without Borders. The latest issue features short stories from four Afghan women writers among other things.

In modern Afghanistan, years of chronic instability and internal displacement have created a challenging environment for writers of all kinds. Twenty different flags have flown over the country since the beginning of the twentieth century. Changes in rulers, monarchs, emirs, and presidents, as well as revolution, Soviet invasion, and Taliban rule, have led to clashing political ideologies and the imposition of widespread restrictions not only on everyday life but on freedom of speech and expression, particularly for women.

All four writers mention the difficulty of finding the peace and space required to concentrate on writing. Finding the space to write is but one challenge; the war-scarred country feels permanently on edge, locked down long before the pandemic. This atmosphere is conveyed in Sharifa Pasun’s “The Decision,” and Maryam Mahjube’s “Turn This Air Conditioner On, Sir,” where just leaving the house can be a matter of life or death.

Peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban are deadlocked and the militant group continues to launch deadly attacks. Amid the surge in violence throughout Afghanistan the Taliban have denied they are deliberately targeting journalists, human rights campaigners, and women. This is clearly not true.

Joan Didion, my favourite essayist, said “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means, what I want and what I fear.”  

By reading these four short stories on Words without Borders perhaps we will understand what some Afghan women are thinking and seeing, what they want and what they fear. We’ll understand lives different from our own and that can only be a good thing.

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.  

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.

images

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