It’s a mystery how the personal stories of the thousands of refugees and asylum seekers who make their way to Australia – by boat or air – rarely manage to make it to the media.
There’s the odd success story that gets written about. But what about when the real success is actually surviving?
The preferred default position of media in this country is to play along with the dehumanising of asylum seekers as queue jumpers or potential security risks.Razor wire on Christmas Island, image via sbs.com.au.
This month, Medicins Sans Frontieres, the internationally acclaimed humanitarian medical group, has been on TV and online unashamedly trying to bring to our attention to the great work they do working in war zones and refugee camps.
MSF is also keen to put a face to the “illegals”, or “queue jumpers” that politicians like to use and abuse in their pursuit of a vote. Of course asylum seekers are not illegal because seeking asylum is not illegal. Under the UN Convention on Refugees, asylum seekers are not required to have any documentation and requires us to treat them as we would any other non-citizen.
And there are no queues; there are UNHCR processing camps that are bursting at the seams in which refugees can languish for years on end waiting to be processed. The UNHCR itself says less than 1% of the worlds refugees might be settled in any given year.
Believe it or not, Australia isn’t the destination of choice for all that many of them. In fact, the statistics show the number of asylum seekers coming to Australia is minuscule compared to those who go to Europe or elsewhere.
Still, some continue to believe we are being swamped. Still, some see them as queue jumping terrorists-in-the-making who have fled their homeland not because they have been persecuted or have been displaced by war, or have been subjected to poverty, rape and torture, but because they see an Australian nirvana where the issue is such a hot political potato there is no real border control policy.
And still, many Australians see just numbers rather than real people who have survived conditions none of us can even imagine and who come from culturally rich backgrounds.
Enter historian Ann-Mari Jordens. When she was a child in the western Sydney suburb of Lakemba, “some very strange people appeared” in the neighbourhood. These people were post war Europeans. From this memory, developed a desire to tell the stories of newcomers, from those who came at the end of the last world war, to those some politicians seem these days to think it’s prudent to demonise.
Her book Hope: Refugees and Their Supporters in Australia Since 1947 has the capacity to end the negative, misinformed public debate on refugees and asylum seekers.
If it were compulsory reading on the high school curriculum, who knows – the next generation of politicians might actually make the world a better place.
Between the covers of this book are the stories of 12 refugees, from Germany, Hungary, Chile, Vietnam, Afghanistan, South Africa, Iran, Kosovo, Burma, Sudan and Liberia, all told in their own voices. There are also the stories of the carers and enablers who pave a gentler path to resettlement in a new and very foreign place.
Ann-Mari says her aim in writing Hope was to instil some pride in Australians for their openness and willing to accept newcomers. The disconnect between this and the fear mongering of some politicians and the right wing shock jocks is startling.
She told an audience at the book’s launch in Sydney that none of her refugee subjects experienced racism. That may say more about where those in Ann-Mari’s book finally settled.
A survey released last week by Monash University finds Sydneysiders to be more racist than Melbournians and that 66% of the 15,000 people interviewed had a negative view of the governments handling of boat arrivals.
Still, it’s a negativity clearly not felt by everyone.
I met one of her subjects – Atem Dau Atem, a young man from Sudan. His introductory words in Hope are just a sketch of a life lived in the most difficult of circumstances.
“I fled Sudan at 12 with my family to a refugee camp in Ethiopia. After it was attacked by rebels in 1991, I wandered with thousands of Sudanese refugees, twice escaping conscription as a soldier. After ten years in the Kakuma camp in Kenya, I came to Australia in 2002.”
Atem settled in Canberra, which he found welcoming.
“I haven’t encountered racism in Canberra, but when people meet me, the first thing they see is that I am black. I think people associate black skins with drug taking, alcohol and stupidity, so I feel that wherever I go I have to prove myself,” he writes.
“I feel that I need to tell people, ‘Look, you know, I am as intelligent as everyone else. My colour doesn’t make me stupid.’ I am also tall and thin, so when I interact with people, I feel that I am seen as representing a group, as a Sudanese, not as an individual.”
Atem has finished a Medical Science degree and is now doing his PhD.
And there is Mustafa Jawadi, a Hazara Afghani and a Shi’ite Muslim pictured here (image via The Canberra Times) whose family fled first to Iran and then to Australia by boat courtesy of people smugglers when he was just ten. He spent three years in the Nauru Detention Centre before being accepted as a refugee.
His first encounter with Australians was on the Navy vessel, which intercepted the boat he was travelling on.
He writes: “The Australian sailors were very good with kids. They had women officers who brought pencils and books to us so we could write and draw things. They were trying to make us happy.
“It was hard for Dad and the other adults, who were wondering what was going to happen to us. In the smugglers’ boat we had two suitcases with clothes and other things in them, but they were all lost at sea.”
Mustafa spent time in detention on Christmas Island and two years on Nauru where he saw other asylum seekers go on hunger strikes and sew their lips together with needles. When they were finally accepted as refugees, he remembers his mother cried. Mustafa was 13. Now he’s a fully qualified mechanical engineer and next year he plans to enrol in engineering at university.
The last word goes to Mustafa.
“Now that we have permanent resident visas we feel more secure, and in about a year we can become Australian citizens. I would like to ask Australian people to just be nice and friendly to people who come from other countries. To sit down and ask them questions, to learn how they came here and how they have travelled.”
Hope is full of just that. Stories about real people who came seeking refuge, and who have built new and better lives.
MORE ARTICLES BY MONICA ATTARD
*Monica Attard OAM, is a five-time Walkley award-winning Australian journalist – including the Gold Walkley Award for Excellence in Journalism 1991. She was the host of the ABC’s PM, the World Today and Media Watch.She spent 28 years at the ABC, leaving to start up The Global Mail where she was, until recently, the Managing Editor. In 1997, Monica published a book entitled Russia: Which Way Paradise? documenting her time there as a foreign correspondent.