Category Archives: Telling other people’s stories

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.

 

The year ahead

This time last year I wrote a blog looking back on the previous year for people from a refugee background. In 2018 I thought I would direct my gaze towards the future.

While I don’t have a crystal ball, I hope that 2018 holds the promise of better things for over than 65 million people worldwide, who are refugees, asylum seekers or displaced people. The situation in places like Yemen and Bangladesh reminds us there is much to do.

refugees fleeing - by Mohammed Salem

Photographer – Mohammad Salem

The refugee crisis remains a global issue requiring a global solution. Nearly one in every 110 people is fleeing war or persecution. This cannot be managed by one nation, governing body or multinational organisation alone. I read an interesting article ahead of the 2018 World Economic Forum held in Davos, Switzerland that asked: What if multinational businesses welcomed refugees displaced by social and political upheaval and worked with governing bodies to assimilate them into our global workplaces?

I’ll share one example on the Davos website that recently moved me. After making a 2,300-mile journey to Berlin, Mohammad Basel Alyounes, a Syrian refugee and accountant by profession, was greeted by a German news crew. When asked what he hoped for his new life in Germany, he said, “I want to work for Ernst & Young (EY).” An EY manager in Germany saw the interview, used social media to locate Alyounes — and EY hired him. He now works with their German Diversity Charter refugee support team.

Wouldn’t be great if more companies around the world took this approach?

Some countries continue to do more than others, just as individually some people do more than others. I’ve loved talking to people who have got involved with volunteering and working with refugees. There are some ideas on this website of organisations you could consider helping, either by volunteering time or donating money.

In Australia, our harsh Sovereign Borders policy remains in place and we continue to only accept around 13,000 refugees a year through our humanitarian program (plus a one-time additional 12,000 people from Syria). Canada accept 250,000 refugees per year.

Some bright news in 2017 included the re-settlement in the US of several hundred men who had been detained on Manus Island indefinitely by the Australian government – although many more wait for an outcome. In a recent edition of The Saturday paper there was a particularly moving article written by Imran Mohammad who is a Rohingya refugee held on Manus.

Manus protests

Peaceful protests continue on Manus

Also pleasing is the increasing number of university scholarships being provided to those who came to Australia seeking asylum.

Personally, I feel the number of Australian voices speaking out about inhumane policies in relation to refugees is increasing and getting louder. One of my main hopes for the year ahead is that more people take the time to learn about what is really happening in Australia and around the world.  My go-to resources in Australia are The Refugee Council of Australia and The Guardian Australia which is usually the only newspaper that provides detailed factual reporting about the issues and thoughtful insights. The latest opinion piece from Tim Costello, Chief Advocate for World Vision, comparing his visits to Bangladesh and Manus Island makes sombre reading.

For a global perspective, I follow the United Nations six monthly reports and updates and Human Rights Watch as well as a number of other sites listed on this website.

Sometimes, it is hard to stay positive and not be overwhelmed by the sheer size of the problem, but I always remind myself that making a difference in one person’s life can sometimes be enough.

Books of the year

I love this time of the year when you can sink into a good book. Depending on where you are in the world, you could be reading in your deck chair in the summer garden or snuggled up in your favourite chair by the fire. I’m really looking forward to taking a break from work and study and some guilt-free reading time

As the year comes to a close it can be a time for reflection, regardless of your culture or religion. I’ve been thinking about the many interesting and inspiring books I have read this year and wanted to give you some recommendations. It’s hard to pick the best but I have chosen two fiction and two non-fiction books for your summer/winter reading list or as a Christmas gift suggestion.

Fiction

Shokoofeh Azar’s The Enlightenement of the Greengage Tree is an introduction to the wonderful world of magical realism and I highly recommend this for a different reading experience.

This year I re-read an old favourite and thought I would include it. Café Scheherazade by Arnold Zable traces the experience of Jewish survivors whose lives reflect the courage of refugees everywhere.   Arnold is one of my favourite authors – a master story teller.

Non- fiction

City Of Thorns by Ben Rawlence is my stand out book for the year.   It traces nine lives in the world’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab in Kenya. It is haunting and at the same time inspiring.   I was lucky enough to meet and interview Ben at this year’s Perth Writers Festival.

Not Quite Australian by Peter Mares is easy to read and informative at the same time.  I learnt so much from this book. Peter discusses how temporary migration is changing Australia. Did you know there are more than a million temporary migrants living in Australia today? Case studies, personal stories and supporting data are compelling in this book.

There are so many more books and I am sure you have your own favourites… I’d love to hear from you about your list. 

Season’s greetings to all and happy reading.

P.S. I am really looking forward to a new release called The Power of Good People – surviving Sri Lanka’s Civil War by Para Paheer with Alison Corke.

 

 

Respect and dignity

Rosemarys Dad (1)

My father, Colin Sayer

My late father was driven by a set of simple values all his life: that all people deserve respect and dignity whoever they are. He often said, ‘I don’t care if you are the Queen of England or a street sweeper – we’re all human and just the same.’

Those values were imprinted on me and today help define who I am. Every day as I continue my PhD studies in human rights and the writing of refugee stories I am reminded of my Dad’s values and by the common threads of humanity that bind us all.

I had the chance to reflect on this a few weeks ago at the Australian Academy of the Humanities two day symposium with its theme of humanitarianism and human rights. Academics, writers and thinkers discussed what it meant to be human and compassionate and what happens when we are not.

My dad would have laughed about the application of academic and social theories to something he saw as so straight forward. I can imagine my explanations of why I needed to study and research these issues as well as be an advocate for human rights. I think it would have baffled him.

However, he would have been horrified at the racist policies of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party and the election of Donald Trump with his nationalistic and divisive views. We would have talked about why people are frightened and how that fear has been shrouded in a security discussion that positions asylum seekers and refugees as potential terrorists… or someone different to us… someone seen as ‘other’. I’m sure he would have been concerned about security issues too, but we would have come back to our shared values of respect and dignity when we discussed the situation on Manus Island or the treatment of people by the Australian government who have been found to be refugees and still don’t have permanent residency and access to the services they need.

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Kim Scott, Author

If he’d been at the event he also would have loved writer Kim Scott’s moving and intimate portrait of his life as young Aboriginal boy searching for an identity and a sense of belonging. While my dad was never short of a word, and certainly had strong views on many issues in society, he loved meeting people from different backgrounds and went out of his way to do so. He loved a good story and he listened well. He was empathetic – although he would have told me not to use fancy words.

Like many writers and commentators, I have come to believe that this lack of empathy for others allows some in society to express more racist views and to see human rights violations as ‘not their concern.’ Without empathy, my dad’s values of dignity and respect for everyone seem a distant concept.

human rights conference

Photograph by Barat Ali Batoor