By Jessie Taylor
When I was approached by the Castan Centre to write a blog for refugee week, my heart sank. To be clear, I’m delighted to write for the Castan Centre (which I proudly identify as the birthplace of my human rights consciousness), but I just don’t know what to say anymore. What can I write about? Should I add my voice to the chorus of sadness, despair, disappointment and exhaustion at the state of our nation and its refugee policy? Should I pour out a requiem to those who have lost their lives in pursuit of freedom in Australia? Should I wax lyrical about how betrayed I feel by Australia’s first female Prime Minister, whom I so wanted to respect and admire? Should I respond to recent calls to abandon the Refugee Convention? To ‘stop the boats’, ‘smash the people smugglers’ business model’ and ‘send them back where they came from’?
No. There are mountains of interesting, incisive, intelligent writing on all of that. The problem is: I can’t bring myself to read any more of it.
So I’m going to change the tune; more for my own benefit than yours, dear reader. I can’t bear any more negativity. Not because I think it is unmerited, but because if we don’t have hope, we may as well pack up and go home. So I’m not going to publish any negativity (apart, of course, from in the preceding two paragraphs which we’ll call a preamble so it doesn’t count).
I am going to tell you some good news. I am going to recount stories of beauty, kindness, and the best parts of human nature. I am going to show you the soft, warm, fuzzy, generous underbelly of Australia– the part that we glimpse so rarely; the part that you’d be forgiven for being unaware even exists.
The first good news item takes us to The Famous Spiegeltent, and finds me introducing to you Persephone Bates D’Arbela. Persephone is seven years old, and she’s the daughter of David and Michele Bates, who have the extremely enviable task of traveling the world producing Spiegeltent festival seasons.
Persephone saw a news program about children in Australian immigration detention centres (on World Refugee Day 2013, we’re at record numbers of detained kids in Australia, by the way, but obviously that’s a matter for another blog).She was struck by the fact that kids in detention don’t have toys and books to play with, and decided to change that. She got in touch with ChilOut and made a deal: if she could collect toys, books & other fun things, ChilOut would liaise with the Department of Immigration and get the treasure to kids in detention.
Well. I wouldn’t be calling Persephone’s bluff any time soon.
Persephone organized media coverage, and invited Canberrans to donate. She organised and sold out a screening of Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea in the Spiegel Garden. She made speeches in public, bluntly stating that “children aren’t criminals, so they shouldn’t be treated like criminals”. The donations filled a huge wicker chest over, and over, and over, and over again.
As she proudly showed me some of the choicest items in her haul, their significance struck me deeply. There was a puzzle that I had owned as a child, and a copy of The BFG. We sniggered gleefully about refugee kids adding wizzpopper, swizzfiggling and frobscottle to their vocabularies so early on. There were dolls, trucks, building blocks and fairy wands. Most of the toys were not brand new; they were beloved playthings, passed from one child to another, from outside to inside the wire, as a symbol of welcome, love and sameness.
The next thing I want to share with you is very close to home.
It’s possible that you are already acquainted with my mum. She’s the former Howard-toutin’, refugee-suspectin’, Liberal-votin’, middle class Aussie who wasn’t afraid to say she didn’t want asylum seekers (especially Muslims) entering Australia. For many years, she and I butted heads terribly. Dinner time was fraught. Voices were raised. Doors were slammed. Vinaigrettes were spilled. You get the picture.
But then, in February 2010, my mother was faced for the first time with a refugee story that she couldn’t ignore. The arrival of my foster son Jaffar into our family was a moment where mum was confronted with what it really takes to turn a person into a ‘boat person’. Here was a 14 year old kid speaking matter-of-factly about how the Taliban killed his brother and sister in front of their parents on the doorstep of their home, what life is like in an Indonesian prison cell, and what two weeks on a leaky boat can do to a person.
In the face of one boy’s story, my mother became a refugee advocate. Her about-face was swift and absolute. She has turned rogue in her upper middle class social circle. Get her on a good day and she sounds like an ASRC mythbuster. She has spent the past three years setting her friends straight on refugee policy (“No, it’s NOT illegal to seek asylum. And if you’re worried about them not integrating, why don’t we bring them over for a BBQ at YOUR house, hmmmm??” – an actual quote, god love her!), writing letters to MPs, and advocating to get Jaffar’s family away from dire danger in Quetta and reunited with Jaffar in Australia. Last month, she finally succeeded. The 5am journey to the airport to pick them up was one of the most overwhelmingly moving experiences of my life.
The few weeks since that time have been blessed. The family has been embraced by the Australian community, and given a home, warm clothing, furniture, food and friendship. St Michael’s Grammar – the school that gave Jaffar a scholarship from Year 9 to Year 12 – has just extended a full scholarship to his 7-year-old brother Ali, from Year 2 to Year 12. The Parents and Friends Association has donated his uniform, which he wears with glowing pride. His Year 2 class made a “Welcome to Grade 2” poster for Ali, with photos & messages from every child in the year level, to help him learn the names of his new classmates and to make him feel welcome. Their parents have brought in a mountain of clothing and books for Ali so high that it is causing storage problems in reception! When it gains momentum, kindness is a formidable and unstoppable force.
Last night, I got a call from an old friend. She had become aware of a quiet two-bedroom bungalow with a modest bathroom and kitchenette with a peaceful garden in an affluent suburb of Melbourne. The owner doesn’t want any rent; she just wants to provide a home for a refugee family. She is one of so many in our community who are so willing to do so much to support asylum seekers. There are so many unsung heroes. There is a wonderful, vibrant, positive group of people who visit people in detention. They are lights in the darkness, every single one of them. (Melbournites can join in here).
One of the most dynamic popular movements in recent memory in this country is called ‘Welcome to Australia’. The simplicity and universality of its message attracts supporters from all walks of life. (Speaking of walks, the annual Welcome to Australia ‘Walk Together’ is on Saturday 22 June. Get down to your local walk if you can!).
There are people giving material aid to asylum seekers on bridging visas and in community detention who, but for the assistance of welfare agencies & the generosity of donors, would be totally destitute (there is currently a huge need for breakfast cereal, Myki cards, mobile phones, nappies & maternity items, kitchenware and warm winter blankets. Help if you can).
The elephant in the room, of course, is that the suffering experienced by bridging visa holders and people in detention is a deliberate construct of government policy. This policy is designed to punish, deter and deny, and its savagery is eye-watering. But instead of letting that stifle us and dull our spirits, let’s take it as inspiration.
In the face of a toxic mass of cruelty, there is enormous capacity for kindness. The worse we treat asylum seekers as a nation, the more need and opportunity there is to show love and welcome as individuals. Those of us who yearn to see compassion are not alone. While we can’t always feel it, there are tens of thousands of other voices crying in the wilderness for kindness and decency. Perhaps one day we will see our collective hopes realized on a national stage. Until then, we will continue to welcome whenever we can, to show our most recent arrivals the very best of ourselves as individuals, and to resist becoming overwhelmed by the tidal wave of mean-spiritedness. We may not be able to decide who comes to this country, but we can help determine the circumstances in which they come.
Jessie Taylor is a Melbourne barrister and Castan Centre alumna. She is senior Vice President of Liberty Victoria and co-creator of Between the Devil & the Deep Blue Sea.
The Castan Centre’s annual appeal is running throughout June. If you’d like to contribute to our policy, public education and student programs, click here.