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.

Break the Bias

Women in Australia have been fighting for the right to equal pay since early this century. The principle of equal pay for equal work was recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Since then, women’s right to equal remuneration has gained increasing international support. Australian women workers were granted equal pay in 1969.

Twenty years ago, ten years ago, five years ago, I kept thinking well at least my granddaughters will not have to fight for equal pay and respect like I did. But that simply isn’t true. Despite laws against pay inequality, those same battles continue to be fought.

I spent most of my working life in Perth – except for a decade in Hong Kong where amazingly I faced no discrimination and always received equal pay. But here in Western Australia, the gender pay gap is the largest in Australia at 21.9%, with men earning approximately $23,000 more over the course of a year than women. Western Australia is followed by Queensland and then NSW as the states with the next highest pay gaps. 

I am so angry about this situation. We have to keep talking about the gender pay gap and bringing it into the open. When I discuss this with most of the men I know, they are appalled… they simply don’t know.

I tried to think of some positives for this week’s International Women’s Day and there are many.  Young women have once again found their voices led by Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins. If you didn’t hear the joint address by these two young women at the National Press Club early in February, I urge you to take 30 minutes to listen to it. 

I hope we see the change they are so passionately advocating for reflected in a change of Federal government at the coming elections. If ever there was a government with a tin ear about women and women’s issues, it’s this one. 

The #metoo movement has developed into a strong force in discussions around the world. So much for those who said it was a fad!  I know many women (myself included) who signed up to support #metoo about their experiences of discrimination in the workplace and we are still a powerful cohort for change. 

Personally, I will keep advocating and writing for women everywhere.

Enough is enough.

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

Human Rights Day

Human Rights Day is observed every year on 10 December – the day on which the United Nations General Assembly adopted, in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

As the chair of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, Eleanor Roosevelt was the driving force in creating the 1948 charter of liberties which will always be her legacy: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She made an insightful speech that is still as relevant today as it was then. 

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world…Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

This year’s theme relates to ‘Equality’ and Article 1 of the UDHR – “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

My thoughts this year are with friends in Afghanistan and Burma whose human rights continue to suffer under harsh regimes.  

But I am also thinking about the fact that here in Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander people still suffer in many instances from a lack of human rights.

This day is also the last day of the international campaign 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, which calls for the prevention and elimination of violence against women and girls.

In other areas, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the world to a major crossroads: either we take the route of collective action and address the pervasive inequalities that have risen across the globe, or we continue on the route filled with deep-rooted injustices and pervasive inequalities.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights empowers us all. The principles enshrined in the Declaration are as relevant today as they were in 1948. We need to stand up for our own rights and those of others. We can take action in our own daily lives, to uphold the rights that protect us all and thereby promote respect among all human beings.

I found this link to the United Nations exhibits on human rights. There are some extraordinary images from talented amateur and professional photographers from exhibitions for the general public that have been showcased over the years at United Nations Headquarters.  Something to think about.

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.

Celebrating a Centenary

PEN was one of the world’s first non-governmental organisations and amongst the first international bodies advocating for human rights. It was the first worldwide association of writers, and the first organisation to point out that freedom of expression and literature are inseparable – a principle PEN continues to champion today.  

PEN International began in London in 1921, a hundred years ago. Within four years there were 25 PEN Centres in Europe, and by 1931 there were several Centres in South America as well as China.

As the world grew darker just before the outbreak of war in 1939, PEN member Centres included Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Egypt, India, Iraq, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Palestine, Uruguay, the US and others. All the Scandinavian countries were included as well as several countries in Eastern Europe. Basque, Catalan and Yiddish Centres were represented, too.

Today with 155 centres in more than 100 countries, PEN acts to preserve endangered languages, support translation, protect the freedom to write, and expand the space for writers worldwide in the belief that literature can build communities.

Words without Borders, a wonderful organisation, is celebrating the PEN Centenary with some excellent new fiction. Written by Words Without Borders contributors who have ties to PEN centres in three countries, the stories from Nazlı Karabıyıkoğlu (Turkey), Kettly Mars (Haiti), and Mohamed Magani (Algeria), with translations by Ralph Hubbell, Nathan H. Dize and Edward Gauvin, make some great reading! You can find the stories on the Words without Borders Website

Check out your local PEN chapter around the world and get involved. Click here for the Perth Chapter

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.

Reflections this Refugee Week

Unity is the theme of refugee week this year and I can’t think of anything more apt. The volatility of life in recent times has shown us unequivocally that we need to work together, often merely to survive, let alone to thrive and progress.

Refugees make such a positive impact in this country. If you look, there are inspiring stories everywhere. I particularly enjoyed reading Hava Rezaie’s story about her work as a refugee women’s rights advocate in Afghanistan, Iran and now in Australia.

Sharing food has always been a special part of refugee week and many television channels have been featuring programs dedicated to food from different countries made by refugees.  Here is a selection of recipes from refugees that you might enjoy exploring. 

Finally the Refugee Council of Australia is advocating for over 6,000 refugees who are stuck in an indeterminable limbo.  These children, women and men have already been granted permanent humanitarian visas to enter Australia. But they’ve been denied entry – some missing out by mere days when the borders closed because of the pandemic. On every level, this is just a dreadful situation. 

In just over a year of COVID-related travel restrictions, more than 500,000 people have been able to enter Australia. These include returning citizens and permanent residents but also many who are neither – including movie stars, tennis players, business people and skilled migrants who were given automatic exemptions.

From refugees living without work rights for over seven years in Indonesia, to those in sprawling refugee camps in Jordan, families are now trapped, awaiting our nation to fulfil its promise to get them to safety.   

My hope is that we never lose sight of those people in vulnerable situations. Let’s take the opportunity to start afresh and rebuild our lives together… in unity. 

Ageism is a Global Challenge

According to a recent United Nations Report ageism is a global challenge. 

Every second person in the world is believed to hold ageist attitudes. This leads to poorer physical and mental health and reduced quality of life for older persons as well as costing societies billions of dollars each year.

If you are over fifty and reading this, the concept will not be news to you. In established Western societies being ignored or being unable to find a job are often the reality for people over fifty, particularly if you are a woman. 

My colleague, Liz Byrski, wrote a really thoughtful book called Getting on: some thoughts on women and ageing. She writes: “once past fifty, older women begin to sense that they have become invisible. From visual displays in the mall to the pages of magazines and television screens at the heart of our home, young women with perfect skin, bouncy, enhanced breasts, pouting lips, long straight hair and perfect teeth gaze down on us.”

But the UN report on ageism also highlights the challenges for more vulnerable people during the COVID 19.  “The pandemic has put into stark relief the vulnerabilities of older people, especially the most marginalised, who often face overlapping discrimination and barriers.”   This refers to those who live in poverty, those with disabilities, who live alone or belong to minority groups. Women from a refugee background who live in refugee camps are particularly hard hit.

Ageism costs our societies billions of dollars. The discrimination means people of the older generation are not getting the care they require physically and mentally.  And as Liz writes the ageing population is traditionally viewed as a problem – a drain on financial resources, health, housing and community services. She argues that living longer and living well are the triumphs of a civilised society. We must do more to include people as they age.

Estimates in Australia suggest that if 5% more of people aged 55 or older were employed there would be a positive impact of AUD $48 billion on the national economy annually.

“Ageism harms everyone – old and young. But often it is so widespread and accepted that will do not recognise its detrimental effect on our dignity and rights”.

Micelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human rights

We need to fight ageism head-on as a deep-rooted human rights violation.

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