Category Archives: Telling other people’s stories

Ways of Being Here

Diverse voices matter in Australia more than ever. Ways of being here is pocket book-sized collection of four short stories that showcases the work of four tWays of Being Here coveralented African writers living in Australia – Raefeif Ismail, Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes, Tinashe Jakwa and Yout A Alaak.

Maxine Beneba Clarke writes in her introduction: “Black people of African descent – black diaspora settlers and migrants and descendants of such – have been living in Australia for over 200 years. Yet local African diaspora fiction has been markedly absent from Australian shelves”.

Ways of being here is a terrific read. You can read it slowly, dipping into it over time, or in a few hours on an afternoon or evening you might have free. Either way, I guarantee you will want to read it several times. These beautifully written stories will capture your imagination and your attention. The four write of love, loss, the challenge of living between cultures, intergenerational clashes, of being made welcome and of being isolated.

Rafeif Ismail’s moving story, ‘Light at the end’, about two young women has language that sings off the page with emotion.   He writes: “When did you become this desperate, desolate thing? When did the world’s colours dull and laughter have a price? Fear is the chain you wear, shackling you between walls of loneliness, shame, regret and, most terribly, hope.

Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes story, ‘When the sky looks like the belly of a donkey’, tackles the cultural challenges of starting a new life in Australia – a place so different from your home country. Yirga also captures what could be a group of typical Aussie blokes with insightful writing. The story about Ermi, usually mis-pronounced by many of his workmates as Army, is one I have heard from many migrants and people of refugee background. It is about starting at the bottom of the ladder, trying to fit in and always missing the people left behind. I laughed and I cringed but by the end of the story I smiled with hope.

All four short stories provide a valuable opportunity to reflect about the lives of others.

Ways of being here is published by Margaret River Press and the Centre for Stories, 2017

City of Thorns

“No one wants to admit that the temporary camp of Dadaab has become permanent,” Ben Rawlence writes in his haunting book City of Thorns. Ben visited the camp for the first time as a researcher for Human Rights Watch. The next year he City of Thornsreturned for what would be the first of seven separate visits to follow and write about the lives of nine inhabitants.

I highly recommend this book because it gives those of us from a privileged background real insight into everyday life in a refugee camp.

He captures the daily lives and stories of nine people caught in limbo at Dadaab. The camp was originally founded in 1992 to serve the 90,000 refugees fleeing Somalia’s civil war. No one imagined that an entire generation of children would be raised there, or that so many more refugees would rush in, as the political chaos and famine in Somalia continued. “Neither the past, nor the present, nor the future is a safe place for a mind to linger for long,” he continues. “To live in this city of thorns is to be trapped mentally, as well as physically.”

I met Ben at the Perth Writers Festival and was fortunate enough to interview him on a panel with other writers. He is deep thinker who has witnessed the best and worst of humanity. He articulated what I have come to understand – thousands of people in many different refugee camps around the world have little hope of leaving. They are waiting for a new beginning that sadly may never come.

He mixes the portraits of the camp’s residents with big-picture accounts of the regional turmoil that drove them there (famine, the ascendance of Al Shabaab, corruption in the government and civil war). I was interested in his style of writing and the desire to personalise the stories of refugees and give context about countries and the situations they face because it is the way I wrote More to the story- conversations with refugees.

His stories about the people in Dadaab are brutally honest and insightful.   I found as a reader I became invested in their lives. What happened to Muna and Monday and the others? I worried about Guled, a former child soldier, and my heart ached for Kheyro and her determination to get an education. After many years in camp Muna and Monday were some of the lucky ones to be re-settled in Australia.   I breathed a sigh of relief but Ben explained at the Festival that while their lives were safe, unfortunately things had not gone well since they arrived. Sometimes that is the reality when people arrive in a new country and face other challenges on top of the trauma they may have already experienced.

The book demonstrates extraordinary human resilience and the choices people have to make to survive.

City of Thorns by Ben Rawlence is published by Portobello, 2016.

2016 in review

I thought I would take this opportunity to reflect on 2016 in relation to refugees, asylum seekers and the importance of stories to help us understand what is happening in the world.  There were many low points, but also some inspiring highlights that made me marvel at the strength and humanity of others. I hope you’ll take time to read this longer post from me.

It was a challenging year in Australia and the international community. The conflict in Syria worsened but I am hopeful that the tentative peace deal brokered by the Russians may help.   syrian-refugeesThe escalating violence and insecurity continued in South Sudan and Yemen.   We saw an amazing welcome initially from Angela Merkel and Germany in welcoming thousands of fleeing refugees as the crisis of displaced people had a dramatic impact in Europe. Populist groups in the UK, USA, Austria, Denmark, Germany, France and the Netherlands used the world’s biggest refugee crisis to spread fear and hate, inflaming tensions about people who may be different to us. In Australia where I live, the re-emergence of the One Nation party led by Pauline Hanson, has reflected these sentiments.

Walls, both physical and metaphorical, have been built in countries around the world to stop many of the people most in need from seeking help. According to the UNHCR, 1 in every 113 people globally is now either an asylum-seeker, internally displaced or a refugee.

As a writer and former journalist, I followed with fascination and often despair the twitter postings of Bana al-Abed, a young seven-year-old girl whose postings offered the world a glimpse into the deprivation and violence in the besieged city of Aleppo. Bana and her family were recently evacuated to the Turkish capital.

I worried about writer and journalist friends in some of the world’s trouble spots. I could only be thankful that people like my friend Karl Schembri were able to post on the ground reports from tragic situations in Yemen and Syria. Ben Doherty and the team from nauru-filesGuardian Australia continued to lead the way with the most in-depth updates on the refugee and asylum seeker situation as it related to Australia. In a global exclusive, the Nauru files which included over 2,000 documents showing the despair and horror of Australia’s offshore detention, were leaked to the Guardian. This was followed by graphic reports on the ABC’s 4 Corners that also screened around the world.

I know, as someone who worked in news for many years, a picture can tell a story “better than a thousand words” In 2015 it was the image of Aylan, the two-year-old Syrian refugee, lying face down on a Turkish beach that seemed to galvanise western countries into responding to the urgency of the Syrian refugee crisis. Australia increased its refugee intake by 12,000 to help Syrian and Iraqi refugees.  After a very slow start (why did it take nearly a year?) 2016 finally saw some of these refugees arrive in Australia.

In 2016 it was the image of young Oman in the back of the ambulance, which I am sure will show up in all your news feeds, as one of the photos of the year. oman-in-ambulanceThis photograph and video seemed particularly poignant and tragic to me. Oman was wearing shorts and a t-shirt featuring a cartoon character. His hands were in his lap. In a moment of pure horror, he lifted his left hand to his face, ran his fingers through his hair and then back down the side of his face before putting his hands back in his lap. He looked at the palm of his hand covered in blood and, unsure what to do, turns it over and wipes it on the seat. In that moment, he could have been our son, our grandson, our brother or our nephew, trying to get something off his hand. He looked straight at the camera, from a bright orange seat in the back of an ambulance where medics were rescuing people amidst the violence and chaos, towards the voices. He blinked and looked away… but I couldn’t look away from Oman.

yusra-mardiniOn a brighter note there was the uplifting news of a refugee team being selected for the Rio Olympics. I was drawn to 17 year old Yusra Mardini who saw terror in the eyes of her fellow passengers as the inflatable dinghy she was in trying to cross the Mediterranean began taking on water. Most of the people in the boat could not swim, but 17-year-old Yusra could, and she dragged them to safety.

The year ended with good news in Australia with a landmark decision in the Federal Court of Australia that ruled against the Minister of Immigration on the question of citizenship for people of refugee background. The case, brought by the Refugee Council of Australia with pro bono legal support, provides hope for 10,231 people that the department confirmed were in similar situations. This group of people from a refugee background have had their citizenship applications ‘put in the bottom drawer’, as the Department has dragged its feet in offering this large group of new Australians citizenship.

Personally, it was an amazing year with my book More to the story –conversations with refugees published by Margaret River Press selling very well. There are a small number of copies left that can be purchased online. I participated in writers festivals- the highlights being Big Sky in Geraldton and the Perth Writers Festival. I was a guest at community events, such as the Katanning Harmony Festival, where I gave the address on Australia Day. I gave library talks and attended book clubs throughout the year to help raise awareness about refugees and asylum seekers. Throughout the year I met hundreds of people, many of whom told me they were inspired to volunteer for organisations working with people from a refugee background including CARAD, Refugee Rights Action Network and Joining the Dots’ Welcome Dinner Project. More of you have signed up to receive information or made donations to organisations like the Refugee Council of Australia,  Australian Red Cross, Amnesty International and Edmund Rice Centre WA where I am proud to serve on the board. I truly believe that hundreds of people who have read the personal stories featured in the book have taken time to reflect on what is happening around the world and in their own lives.

MYAN group 2016One of the year’s highlights for me was my involvement with Shout Out, a public speaking program for young people from a refugee and migrant background run by the Multicultural Youth Advocacy Network. I feel very privileged to have been a part of helping some fabulous young people to develop their personal stories and public speaking skills.

Perhaps the most satisfying experiences in 2016 came in schools where I spoke. I started the year on a high with the Margaret River Senior High School Social Justice group – why don’t more schools have a group like this?  I visited schools in the Geraldton region and elsewhere around Western Australia, and ended my engagements at Churchlands Senior High School with a day full of talks to different classes. We know that many schools around Australia now have More to the Story in their school libraries or are studying it as part of the curriculum.

I continued to be inspired by my close friends – Paul and Naw Bi from Burma; John, Farid and Fauzia from Afghanistan; Piok and Akech from South Sudan. We made more new friends as our lives became more involved with people from a refugee background – some of whom I hope will feature in my next book. We celebrated Karen New Year, Eid and other festivals with people of different cultural backgrounds. We heard sad stories, tragic stories and inspirational and happy stories

And finally I made good progress on my doctoral studies about life writing and human rights in relation to refugees. I am approaching the half way mark of a four year course and I hope my research and writing might make a small difference. As 2016 drew to a close I like to believe that hope can shine a bright light in darkness.  There are some thoughts on this from World Vision that you might like to read.

I hope you’ll keep following this website in 2017. You can sign up to follow it and receive information as I post – just click the button on the right.  Sometimes it is helpful to have useful information about an issue in one place and don’t forget you can contact me via the website or join in the conversation via the More to the Story facebook page.

I wish everyone peace in the coming year.

Human Rights is Nothing Without Stories

To mark International Human Rights Day on Saturday December 10 I attended a wonderful event at The Centre for Stories in Northbridge, and listened to a great panel of speakers discussing why stories matter.  Each had a different perspective and it was one of the most thoughtful afternoons I have experienced.

Chair and Director of the Centre for Human Rights Education at Curtin University, Baden Offord, set the scene for a crowded room of people.  We heard from Mary Ann Kenny from Murdoch who also acts as a lawyer for refugees and asylum seekers. Her heart breaking stories illustrated how the power of social media makes it easier for those in detention or in the community care to communicate. Mary Ann’s stories moved us all to tears. John Ryan gave us the view of an educator and talked about what concerns students and teachers in schools have. Yasue Arimutsu gave her first-hand experience of how some Japanese people struggle to find a clear identity and Yirga Gelaw Woldyes shared his own personal story as a boy growing up in Ethiopia. I was particularly taken with his point that it is possible to feel a sense of dislocation in your country when language is taken away or not respected.

After a break for coffee and chocolates at afternoon tea, we re-convened for an open and stimulating discussion. Baden concluded by reminding us that human rights theory is nothing without stories.

As a storyteller, I have always felt that it is impossible to fully understand a place or a person without engaging with all the stories of that place or person. In this way we surely have a better chance of finding a shared humanity. To do that, of course, we need to find better ways of listening and respecting each other. It was suggested to me through the week at a conference called ‘Re-imagining Australia’, that we need to give up something so that there is more room in our lives for contemplation – and that allows for a better way of listening.

One of my favourite Australian writers, Kim Scott, was also at this conference. When it opens, if you visit the new Perth Stadium at Burswood in WA you will see a poem written by Kim and etched around the walls in Noongar and English welcoming people – it is beautiful. I was particularly taken with these lines:

Travelling, we are many peoples; 

But our footprints make us one.

Let’s all think more about everyone’s footprints around the world.

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Rosemary with Baden Offord, Director of the Curtin University Centre for Human Rights Education

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Baden Offord, Yasue Arimutsu, Mary Ann Kenny, Yira Gelaw Woldyes and John Ryan at The Centre for Stories 2016 International Human Rights Day event

The Seven Ages of Woman

My friend at Radio National Australia, Susan Maushart, has produced a wonderful new series called The Seven Ages of Woman.   Some of you might remember ‘the seven ages of man’ speech from Shakespeare’s As You Like It which is among the most celebrated passages in English literature. Susan decided it needed a fresh approach – from a woman’s perspective!

Her series of the stories is about seven Australian girls and women, each poised at a critical moment in her life journey. From child to senior and from different cultural backgrounds and experiences they each reveal what it’s like to be female – right at this moment.

Susan and I re-connected after she read my book. She realised that to have a truly representative group of Australian women in her series, there needed to be at least one woman from a refugee background included. She asked me who I knew and I took her to meet the team at the Edmund Rice Centre WA where I spend a lot of time as a Board member and supporter. Like me, Susan was impressed by the grass roots work being done at the Centre. It was there that Susan met Bella.

Bella is a young woman in her twenties with a refugee background who works at the Edmund Rice Centre. She inspires all women every day through her work and life. I love spending time with her.  And you will too as you listen to Bella’s story in the Seven Ages of Woman.

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Personal insights on Iraq from my friend Karl

It’s nearly a week since the military operation to recapture Iraq’s second city from the Islamic State began.

For more than two years, the Islamic State has held Mosul, in northern Iraq, in a stranglehold. People who have fled say the militants terrorize people, conduct public executions, recruit children as fighters, forbid communication with the outside world — all in the name of enforcing a brutal regime they call Islamic – which it is not.

The UN estimates the worst-case scenario is 1.5 million people at risk. We all hope this is not the case. A friend of mine Karl Schrembi is working with the Norwegian Refugee Council based in in Erbil, where refugee camps are hastily being constructed – a mere 80m kms from Mosul.

I first met Karl in 2010 in the tropical paradise of Ubud, Bali with Janet De Neefe at the writers and readers festival. At that time he was stationed in the Gaza strip on the front line with Oxfam. His personal insights as a humanitarian aid worker (and a poet) helps us all understand the true cost of war.

For those who know Karl – he assures me is doing OK and his agency is working hard along with other aid agencies to do what they can. We can only hope that he, and all who do this important work, will continue to stay safe.

Here are some links to Karl’s interviews on the BBC, ABC radio and NY Times.

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The Forgotten Children

The human face of Australia’s tough border policies can be seen through the eyes of more than 100 refugee children living on Nauru – some for more than 2 years.

forgotten-children

Four Corners spoke to children and young people recognised as refugees, released from detention, but trapped in limbo. The recently aired program included footage filmed for Four Corners and smuggled out of the country, that showed children talking of their experiences over the last three years. It was hard to watch.

One of the more telling quotes came from a teacher who had worked with them “You could see the light drain out of their eyes. You could see them go flat.”

What are we doing? Who are we as a country?

If you didn’t see the program please follow this link.