Every two seconds

The UN Refugee Agency’s annual Global Trends study released last week found 68.5 million people had been driven from their homes across the world at the end of 2017. This is an increase of 2.9 million on last year’s figure and is the biggest increase the UNHCR has seen in a single year. It now means that a person is forcibly displaced from their home every two seconds – more people than the population of the United Kingdom.

The number of asylum-seekers awaiting the outcome of their applications for refugee status is 3.1 million, by the end of December 2017. People displaced inside their own country accounted for 40 million of the total.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, reminded us that ‘No one becomes a refugee by choice; but the rest of us can have a choice about how we help.’

For those of us in communities around the world who want to help, that can mean practical acts such as lobbying governments, writing letters, volunteering, or donating to agencies that help people of a refugee background like: MercyCare, Save the Children, Red Cross Australia, CARAD and the Edmund Rice Centre WA.

But most importantly, I believe, it means staying informed and knowing the facts. This latest UNHCR report makes for sombre reading and it is a long document. However I urge you to read the “Trends at a Glance” at the beginning of the document and watch the short video on the website about people like you and me with individual hopes, hardships and stories.

As always, behind these confronting numbers are real lives.

Giles Duley image

Woman2Drive

This month Manal al-Sharif was planning to return to Saudi Arabia, the country of her birth, to drive freely down the main streets on her own, when a ban on women driving is lifted.

However, as the historic date of 24 June drew closer Manal received death threats while six other prominent human rights activists have been detained in Saudi Arabian prisons.

She decided it is safer for her to stay in Australia where she now lives.  “I think I can be a stronger human rights advocate outside of Saudi Arabia where my voice can be heard around the world. They would lock me up again if I returned,” she said in a recent interview.

Manal has been part of a movement in the Saudi Kingdom advocating for women’s rights and the right to drive a car without a male chaperone. Her memoir Daring to Drive also gives us rare personal insights into everyday life for women in the country.

The book describes her strict commitment to Islam in her younger years and how that slowly changed.  Manal graduated from university with a Bachelor of Science focussed on computer science.  She then secured a position as an information security consultant, one of the few women to do so, at Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s biggest oil company.  It was from this point in time that she sought fearless ways to break through taboos.  It was not easy, as the opening paragraph shows.Manal al Sharif

‘The secret police came for me at 2 in the morning. As soon as I heard the words Dhahran Police Station, I was terrified. My brother slammed the door shut and locked the bolt. There was a pause. Then the knocking started again.’

Manal spent a week in a cockroach infested prison for driving a car.  She did not commit a traffic offence, but the police told her she ‘broke orf’ – a tradition, custom or practice.

When I interviewed Manal at the recent Perth Writers Week, she still seemed a little surprised that her book has become a best seller around the world.  Manal has also been recognised with the Havel Prize for Creative Dissent Award at the Oslo Freedom Forum and Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential women in the world.

‘I have always wanted to tell my story.  I am a Muslim girl born in Mecca and now I am an activist.  I did not know my story would be of interest,’ she told me.

I can assure you it is… I highly recommend her memoir.

#WithRefugees

refugee week 2018 logo

Refugee Week is an annual activity to raise awareness about the issues affecting refugees. It provides an opportunity for us all to recognise and better understand the courage and contribution of refugees.

This year is the 20th anniversary of Refugee Week in Australia, which runs from Sunday 17 June to Saturday 23 June. Refugee Week coincides with World Refugee Day on 20 June.

There will be events and celebrations everywhere so I encourage you to think about joining in.

The Refugee Council of Australia has chosen #WithRefugees as the theme for Refugee Week 2018. In Australia, it is the responsibility of our Government, as well as each one of us, to ensure people forced to flee their homes from persecution can live with dignity and with hope. Two of the ways “people power” has made a difference this year:

  1. People have been lobbying their local councils to set up refugee welcome zones to begin to connect with everyone in the community through cultural and information events there’s been great success in the areas of Margaret River, Lithgow, Scarborough, Joondalup and Gippsland. If your local council is yet to sign up as a refugee welcome zone, don’t give up.
  2. Thousands of people have helped amplify the voices of the people trapped in offshore detention — including Behrouz, Joinal, Aziz, and Imran— by sharing and liking their stories. Behrouz Boochani won the print/online and multimedia category in Amnesty’s media awards for his journalism from Manus. Please link up to their FB pages and follow what’s really happening in offshore detention facilities and settlement programs.

As the Refugee Council of Australia reminds us:

A ‘Refugee’ is a person; boy, girl, woman or man. Not a label, but a human being with a beating heart, just like you and me.  And the refugee experience can be prolonged. Today there are more refugees than ever, and only by standing together #WithRefugees can we begin to change this.

Stories that shape us

Isn’t this a great theme for a writer’s festival?   I’m looking forward to participating in the Margaret River Readers and Writers festival that runs from 1-3 June in the picturesque south west of WA.

Each of us builds a narrative about ourselves and I’m lucky enough to interview three writers with many layers to their stories. Even though two are fiction writers, each has been influenced by their own stories.

Still glowing from her Stella Award short listing, I will interview my friend Shokoofeh Azar about her book The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree. It is a chance for us to visit the world of magical realism and understand real life events in Iran after the 1979 revolution. It is the moving story of a family told in the style of classical Persian literature.  Here is an excellent interview with Shokoofeh that gives you some more information.

My second interview is with Mohammed Massoud Morsi an Egyptian/Danish/Australian writer. If you visit his website you’ll see he is a photographer and so much more. I spent two hours with him over coffee this week and we could have talked for much longer. We will be discussing his latest book, Twenty Two Years to Life, which is a work of fiction, based on a true story. His raw and powerful words took me, as the reader, to the realities of daily life for an ordinary family living in Gaza.

My final interview is with Sisonke Msimang. We will trace her life through the lens of race, gender and democracy. Sisonke’s memoir is called ‘Always Another Country’. If you get a chance have a look at her TED talk. you will hear her question our emphasis on storytelling, as well as spotlight the decline of facts.

I round out my festival participation in an enticing session called Coffee and the Papers on Sunday morning. Fellow panellists Ian Parmeter, Nikki Gemmel and Chris Nixon and I will dissect recent news events. Should be interesting!

I’ll let you know about any new writers I discover at Margaret River.

Enlightenment of the greengage tree cover  twenty-two-years-to-life cover  always another country book cover

Freedom to read…freedom to write

As I write, hundreds of journalists and writers are in prison.

More than half of those jailed for their work are behind bars in Turkey, China, and Egypt. The pattern reflects a dismal failure by the international community to address a global crisis in freedom of the press.

Founded in 1921, PEN is a worldwide association of writers with a common concern for the art of writing and freedom of expression. PEN groups campaign all around the world on behalf of writers who have been silenced by persecution or imprisonment.

Peter Greste photo

Peter Greste

PEN Perth is one of 147 PEN international centres around the world. As part of its major launch and fundraising effort, PEN Perth will welcome award-winning and internationally recognised foreign correspondent Peter Greste to the city on Thursday 31 May. In 2013, Peter spent 400 days in an Egyptian prison on false charges. PEN International worked alongside thousands of individuals and organisations around the world to campaign for his release.

Joined by Victoria Laurie, Peter will speak to issues of media censorship, freedom of expression in times of war, human rights, the role of writing, and how people can participate as private citizens in safeguarding democracy.

As a former journalist and as a writer, I believe it is essential we speak up for freedom of expression at all times. We must always remember the importance of writing in our society, no matter where we live in the world. Renowned Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk reminds us:

“When another writer in another house is not free, no writer is free”.

I urge you to join up to your local PEN branch to stay informed. PEN Perth is still developing a website, but in the meantime you can follow activities on the Facebook page and subscribe via the Centre for Stories website.

Remembrance and hope

On 25 April I attended my local Anzac Day service to pay respect and remember all Australians who served and died in war and on operational service. It is one of Australia’s most important national occasions, similar to Remembrance Day in the UK and Memorial Day in the US. It marks the anniversary of the first major military action fought by Australian and New Zealand forces during the First World War.

My Grandfather and Great Uncle George were among the first landing troops at Gallipoli. Grandad survived that disastrous campaign and went on to fight throughout the rest of World War One on the western front in Europe. Tragically, we lost Uncle George on the first day.

During the Second World War my father and several uncles served in the air force. So it was probably no surprise when three of my brothers followed them into military service. Personally, I am relived none of them were still in the forces by the time Australia sent troops into Afghanistan and Iraq. So, on Anzac Day I always take time to reflect on the number of Australians currently serving in the military, and those on active service, in different parts of the world.

But Anzac Day goes beyond the anniversary of the landing on Gallipoli in 1915.   While it is a day to think about the freedoms that have been won, I also pause and think about the futility of war and how little we have learnt from history.

I meet many people from a refugee background all the time whose families have been impacted by war. I know some of their stories, but others are too traumatised or frightened to speak of their past lives. When I ask them what they most enjoy about living in Australia, the usual answers are freedom and peace. I daresay not too many Australians think about this these days.

Not a week goes by when I don’t think about other what’s going on in different countries. Millions of lives are still affected by different conflicts and war. Countries are still being torn apart over power, religion, culture or other issues. I don’t know the answers, but I continue to hope for a world with more peace, justice and inclusivity for everyone.

Uncle Ray, my Dad and Uncle Blue

Uncle Blue, my Dad and Uncle Ray

Writing is like breathing

I am thrilled for my friend Shokoofeh Azar, who has been shortlisted for this year’s Stella Prize.

A major literary award, the Stella Prize seeks to recognise and celebrate Australian women writers’ contribution to literature and champion cultural change. Named after one of Australia’s iconic female authors, Stella Maria Sarah ‘Miles’ Franklin, the prize was awarded for the first time in 2013.

On a previous blog I reviewed Shokoofeh’s book The enlightenment of the greengage tree and I highly recommend it to everyone.

I also recommend listing to a great interview with her on the Stella website. It’s a Q&A format and I just love Shokoofeh’s answers: “First of all, I am a writer because I can’t stop myself writing. Writing, like breathing, is essential to my life. Secondly, it’s the only way I know to fight for my values in Australia and Iran, and for humankind.”

The 2018 Stella Prize winner will be announced this week – on the evening of Thursday 12 April.