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

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.”

Father of the Lost Boys

Father of the lost boys is Yuot A. Alaak’s memoir of walking through the deserts and the jungles across three continents in Africa to seek safety after his home was destroyed in the second Civil War between North and South Sudan. 

I interviewed Yuot during the 2021 Festival of Literature and Ideas in Perth and had the pleasure of spending time with him while he shared his story.

It is a remarkable testament to his grit and fortitude, but it is also an ode to his father, who as an educator and important community leader in South Sudan, was responsible for leading 20,000 boys and associated refugee groups from Ethiopia to Sudan and on to the safety of Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.

The group became known as ‘the lost boys of Sudan’ and for many years their story and suffering were unknown.  Yuot writes “we kept waiting for the United Nations to come and help us,. Often the boys were under attack from not only the North Sudanese but also from the military of South Sudan that wanted to recruit the boys as child soldiers. Yuot himself trained as a child soldier when he was nine years old.

The boys first became refugees when they reached Ethiopia. During this time Yuot’s father was imprisoned and tortured. They were told by radio that he was dead and believed this to be the case for many years. Thankfully, his father lived and managed to find his way to the family and the lost boys.  He took on a leadership role with the refugees. Yuot’s father always said, “the pen is mightier than the sword” and did all he could to keep the boys safe from various opposing forces.

Organising his charges into groups of 1,000 with a head teacher, several other teachers, head boys and a few soldiers, he marshalled the big groups of boys in a military like operation to criss-cross various countries.

One of the more gripping parts of this memoir is the crossing of the Gilo River by the group. Fighting a swollen river with strong currents, Yuot’s father obtained twelve canoes and in a mass exodus they shuttled as many boys as possible across the river in canoes all day and all night. Some of the boys swam across on their own and they feared for their lives. Some drowned and some were taken by crocodiles.   In the end not all escaped as they were fired upon by competing armies.

Yuot writes passionately about the rest of their trek and arrival at Kakuma where they were the first refugees in the camp. Now decades later the refugee camp houses 180,000 people. 

His pride in his father, who is truly a remarkable man, shines through.  Eventually all the family were reunited and Yuot explains how they escaped to Nairobi where they still feared for their lives.  They were finally accepted as refugees by Australia years later.  

This is a story of triumph. There is humour too, as Yuot describes settling into his new home and learning what it meant to become an Australian.

Yuot arrived in Australia at the age of 14 and spoke no English.  He went on to learn the language, finish Year 12, and be accepted to university where he obtained degrees in engineering and geoscience.  He now works for one of Australia’s largest mining companies and enjoys writing.

This is an inspiring read and the publisher Fremantle Press has provided some great book club notes.

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.

International Human Rights Day

During this week we celebrated International Human Rights Day.  On the 10th of December we remembered the day the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed in 1948.   It is a milestone document that guides much of international law today covering the inalienable rights which everyone is entitled to as a human being, regardless of race, colour, religion, sex, language, political opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status.

In this year of COVID19 the theme is recover better- stand up for human rights.  The pandemic exposed failures and exploitation of poorer people around the world.   While there were heart-warming examples of people coming together in more caring ways during COVID19, I feel those suffering in refugee camps were almost forgotten.  

Social distancing simply isn’t possible for the one million Rohingya refugees who live in Cox’s Bazar refugee camp, in south eastern Bangladesh. Families live in close quarters inside flimsy bamboo shacks, using communal toilets and water facilities. Sometimes the most basic items, such as soap, are lacking. It is one of the most densely populated places on earth.

I think how lucky I am to live in Western Australia where life has been relatively normal with exceptionally low case numbers. But then I reflect on the cruelty of the Australian government’s decision to slash support to people seeking asylum in the 2020-21 Budget. This decision, according to the Refugee Council of Australia, puts over 100,000 people, including around 16,000 children, at further risk of homelessness and destitution.  Refugees are living in Australia on various temporary visas because the government will not recognise a large cohort of people who came to Australia seeking asylum.  These are the forgotten people.

During this year, while attempting to publish stories about the lives of refugees, I was told by several publishers that the reading population has “refugee fatigue”. Is that true? If it is, what does it say about our humanity?

Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the declaration’s authors stated, “human rights begin in small places, close to home.” During this week of international rights, I know I could do more in standing up for human rights. Maybe we all could.

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.

The Year of Welcome

Refugee Week is held every year in June to recognise the important role refugees play in society. This year the focus is on welcome. Living in a world of COVID-19 has often meant we’ve been thinking about ourselves and our own safety, but we shouldn’t forget those on the margins, whether as part of the Black Lives Matter Campaign or refugees and asylum seekers needing our help.

The Refugee Council of Australia has fabulous resources on their website, but I particularly recommend the facts page.  There is so much misinformation and propaganda on refugees, and this page provides a counterbalance. Refugee week is a great time to learn more.

From 14 to 20 June there are many activities available on-line. Refugee week promotes harmony and togetherness, aiming to unite individuals, communities, and organisations from many different backgrounds behind a common cause. “Through Refugee Week, we aim to provide an important opportunity for asylum seekers and refugees to be seen, listened to and valued.”

The welcome theme is also a reminder that, regardless of our differences, we all share a common humanity.  The organisers have joined forces with SBS Food Online. You’ll be able to watch and cook along with people from refugee backgrounds as they share delicious dishes from their home cuisines and tell us what each dish means to them.

Members of Australia’s refugee communities are also offering up their talents to bring an exciting week of entertainment.  Think creative arts, thought-provoking discussions, movies and more. 

For a full list of events and other opportunities in Australia so you can get involved, go to the website.