The Kabul Peace House

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.  

The words of Margaret Mead inspire the unlikely hero of this book, Afghan doctor Insaan, to establish a hopelessly idealistic project: to build and maintain a community of young Afghans devoted to the principle of non-violence.

Insaan has brought together a group of men and women with harrowing backgrounds from Afghanistan’s rival groups including Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks.  Usually fighting each other in a bitter tribal warfare that has torn Afghanistan apart for decades, the 40 young people start to build peaceful multiethnic communities. 

The Kabul Peace House is a book of fascinating opportunity by well-known writer and community worker Mark Isaacs.

To contrast this compelling story Isaacs also documents the depressing history of Afghanistan which has been wracked by war since the Soviet invasion of 1979.  This brutal conflict lasted ten years and was followed by years of civil war and then an invasion led by the US post 9/11 to defeat the Taliban.  While hope is shared among the young people of the Kubul Peace House it is hard not to feel a sense of déjà vu as the Taliban once again rise to take back power and feudal wars continue.

Isaac’s characters are large on the page including Hojar, a young woman making a new life for herself with education and Horse, a child shepherd supporting his family of eight. They and others risk their lives to join this radical experiment – a glimpse of what a new Afghanistan could look like. People come and go throughout the story as the Peace House moves from the mountains to other humble sets of premises.

Issacs starts his book with the following questions:

“What kind of world are we becoming when 65 million people do not have a safe place in their own countries?   What kind of world are we nurturing and accepting?”

If you are interested in discovering how small pockets of communities interested in peacebuilding not violence can make a difference, this is a book for you.

The Kabul Peace House reminds us that even in the most challenging times, hope, love, and peace can flourish. 

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

The “refugee woman” label

Refugees are not a homogenous collective of people.

As I have highlighted throughout my work over many years the word “refugee” often has negative connotations, despite the many achievements of people from a refugee background.  When we talk about “a woman refugee”, these assumptions grow.

Researchers Lenette and Cleland have demonstrated there are recurring themes in how women from a refugee background are portrayed in the media and by some NGOs. A detailed analysis of UNHCR publication images demonstrate that the common picture of a refugee has been reframed in the last 60 years from “the heroic, political – mainly male – individual to a nameless flood of poverty-stricken women and children”

Refugees are often depicted as vulnerable mothers with children or babies that echo the Christian image of the Madonna and child. This imagery supports the representation of a woman with no political agency or voice and is often used by NGOs and the media to elicit sympathy. In these circumstances, one can often underestimate the fact that people, even in stressful situations, are more robust and are capable of making decisions. This kind of image erases the refugee voice, and renders their stories unheard.

Given refugees often experience war, veteran war correspondent Kate Adie reminds us that “the history of the war has been almost entirely written by men…and many general histories have no female names in the index”.

Surely, we all must support Aide’s view that women should not be written out of history.

Oboz uchodzcow Jowle w Garowe , Somalia

Is Australia racist?

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A new study conducted by the University of Technology Sydney and the anti-racism group All Together Now, has found that racism is a systemic issue in the Australian media – with more than half of the race related opinion pieces in the mainstream press deemed to be negative in terms of race.

Of the 281 media articles sampled during a twelve-month period, 57% were found to be negative when discussing race.  Slightly more than a third of articles wrote inclusively about race.

It gets interesting when you look at the background of those journalists – 96% of the articles were written or produced by media commentators with Anglo-Celtic or European cultural backgrounds.  What does this say about our journalists? I used to be one.  I’d like to think I was always fair and wrote with respect and a moral compass.

You can read or download the full report, or take a look at a short essay on the report in the Saturday Paper.

The researchers found those presented negatively were mainly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, African Australians and Muslim Australians – mostly Muslim women.  Based on six years of research and writing about people from the margins or from a refugee background, none of this surprises me.

I do, however, struggle to balance the fact that we are one of the most successful multicultural countries in the world, yet racism still rears its ugly head. Over the past century, one of the most defining trends has been globalisation and the increasing migration associated with it. Multiculturalism has become a defining feature in many of the world’s economies with Canada, the United Kingdom, and South Africa examples of nations that have embraced a strong immigrant receiving tradition. Similarly, Australia has a robust tradition as a country built upon migration that continues to this day.  This seems to contrast with the anti-immigrant rhetoric that is heard at home and overseas.

Do you think Australia is a racist country or is it our media and some governments?

 

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.

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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.

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