Sunday, December 23, 2012

This Christmas I will be celebrating the beauty in diversity

I've just returned home from a month overseas, spending time on the Thai-Burma Border with ethnic refugee groups from Burma. Hundreds of thousands of people in border camps are on the verge of removal back into their country, as the military junta presents an image of political liberalisation to the outside world. However, the reality inside is entirely different.
At times I felt completely broken by the unspeakable stories of oppression, injustice, abuse and appalling violence that is occurring against many ethnic groups in Arakan, Shan and Kachin states. While in other cases, ceasefire arrangements between the military run government, and other minorities are on tender hooks. And as reports continue to be released of villages being burnt down; the women raped; and the men taken away into forced labour, countries including our own in Australia continue to ease sanctions and invest directly into the country, leading to the Burmese government getting more funding to continue this violence. To hear directly from the people I worked with who are being affected by these atrocities, please visit their sites (Women's League of Burma (WLB); Kachin Women's Association Thailand and Human Rights Watch for the latest information)

While I was in Rangoon earlier this month monks protest to recent government abuses, Reuters 2012

Yet, despite all this, I return back to Sydney feeling entirely hopeful about the people I had the privilege to work with. I realise now, more than ever, that these people are not victims, but rather - they are survivors. To be a victim means you have been beaten or defeated, yet these people are far from defeated. Whether it be the WLB uniting with governments world wide to force the military junta to act during the 2008 Cyclone Nargis - allowing for people to receive aid; or starting up groups like the Back Pack Health Workers who risk their lives, trekking for days through the land-mine filled jungles of Burma to deliver basic medical and food supplies for those in desperate need. These people of Burma will not rest until peace and stability is brought to their homelands. There is tremendous amounts of beauty in the diversity that exists with the people of Burma, even amidst an uncertain future.

Returning home this week, one story in particular has stayed with me

A ship that picked up 40 Burmese shipwreck victims after 30 hours in the sea has spent a week trying to find a port to accept them. These desperate people saw the drownings of up to 160 of their fellow Rohingya, a persecuted minority group who have not had medical treatment and are short of food and lack clothes (The Age)

Knowing that some of my new friends could have been any of those people stuck on that boat, made me reflect on the current policies of this country.
Rather than lead the way in sharing the load, Australia has joined nations that say to refugees, go away, you are not our responsibility. It is a shameful abrogation of a humanitarian duty that, in a better world, we would perform with compassion and pride.
Is this what the reality of our policies have come to? They were set up in the guise of preventing more deaths at sea, but already, up to 160 people have become victims of this offshore process, knowing they could not arrive in Australia and seek the protection and freedom they are entitled to. I would welcome any of these friends into Australia with open arms.

A week before leaving on this trip, I am still consumed by a small event that has troubled me. Out with some refugee families we were in the idyllic surrounds of Bondi, visiting Sydney's Sculpture by the Sea when some of the younger boys were playing in the area, conversing in Arabic, another young boy of the same age came up to them and shrieked 'Gross! You guys can't even speak English. Go away!"
Never mind that the boys speaking Arabic, all of the age of five, COULD speak English, but in addition to that also knew Persian, Greek and Arabic...
Never mind that within the space of months at an Australian school, they're miles ahead of the other children in class...
Never mind that these children have had to overcome unspeakable torture and trauma so early in their lives, and just arriving here has been a miracle...

I would not for a moment suggest that the young boy who came over and taunted the other boys had learnt this from anyone directly - 'to put down another for being different to you', but what does it say about our wider culture, when something that is different is so quickly dismissed, or insulted, even in children at such a young age?

What will it take for Australians to recognise the beauty, courage and triumph of these survivors, instead being consumed by the paranoia of fear that their differences are a problem?

We fail to recognise the beauty of the difference that is presented when refugee communities comes to this country.
We also fail to recognise the vast and immense social, economic and civil contributions refugee communities make to Australia.

Tomorrow, The Salvation Army staff will be putting on special events with the asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island. At a time in Australia where we will be celebrating the opportunity to share and come together with families and friends, it is essential that we remember our brothers and sisters offshore, who are being kept away because they are some how 'different'. While there is little to 'celebrate' with the men, families and children who are currently detained in harsh conditions offshore, it is vital that we remember that these people are survivors. And when we can, we must instil a message of hope and remind them that there are many in Australia who wish to celebrate their differences, but also celebrate the many, many things we have in common.

Topside Nauru, ABC, 2012

On Christmas Day tomorrow, I will be with family and friends sharing in an abundance of food and drink and we will be able to reminisce on the year that has passed; celebrate our achievements including new members to the family; laugh at our mistakes; and then look forward to the opportunities of a new year soon upon us.
Not only will I be celebrating the much diversity that exists within my family and friends, but also the commonalities between us. I will do this in the knowledge, that this is exactly the same celebration that is required of future Australians who are detained offshore, but also in the midst of much violence in their home countries.

This Christmas, I will be celebrating the beauty in diversity.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Going to Nauru...

To say that these last few weeks have been a whirlwind would be a massive understatement. In the midst of new policy recommendations from the expert panel on asylum seekers, we’ve gone from on shore to off shore processing – polar opposites in providing support and protection to people fleeing to Australia from some of the most dangerous and volatile places on earth.

For over six months, I’ve been in the privileged position where I have been involved in supporting asylum seekers by providing community based alternatives to detention centres. It has been a humbling, and hugely rewarding experience. Together with those we care for we’ve: laughed together; eaten together; sung together; prayed together; danced together and occasionally cried together. We’ve seen the highs of new friends being granted permanent protection in Australia and being able to transition into a productive and fulfilling life in the Australian community – utilising their skills and experiences from their home countries to give something back to the community. We’ve seen new friends become reunited with family members, begin new journeys as Australians and ultimately, receive the dream of being accepted in our country without the fear and knowledge of being persecuted from where they have come from.
Knowing how successful and empowering this process has been for not only the people who have sacrificed everything to be here, but also the social and economic benefits to Australian society; it came as a huge shock to learn the government would be undoing four years of policy development in a matter of a few days.

You need only look at my twitter feed to know that I lean a little to the left on this issue, but I'm also aware that we can ill afford to sit idly by, while policy of this magnitude is being enacted without responding. I have no doubt that people would disagree or object to having a presence on a policy they don’t support, but the reality is: the two major parties both support the reopening of Nauru and Manus Island. Do we stand by and do nothing?

A couple of weeks ago, I was in a privileged position where I was one of the first to see what Nauru would be like for new arrivals.

While the conditions are not ideal - to completely rubbish Nauru would seem unfair given the warmth and genuine kindness that I experienced amongst local Nauruans.
But, without going in to too much detail, the intent of creating a deterrent has been well and truly established. But that’s why we’re there. To make sure we can provide some humanity and hope, in an incredibly difficult environment - an environment, which for many will be where they’re based until the vast majority of them are granted protection in Australia.

Overlooking the coastline

A few days after returning from Nauru, I spent some time on the weekend visiting some new friends who had recently come into our community care - they are a beautiful family with two young children who I have no doubt will come to be future leaders and innovators in Australia. Their mother has studied software and I.T. at university, and their father agriculture. Already they are volunteering with local organisations, contributing their invaluable skills and knowledge to support the wider community of Australia. If they are successful in gaining permanent protection in Australia, they will easily find work as they transition and settle into this country permanently.
While I was sharing some tea with these friends, I suddenly felt overwhelmed with emotion. Overwhelmed with the knowledge that families like this would no longer be able to settle into Australia, but spend a time determined to be of 'no advantage' off-shore in Nauru and Manus Island. I had to hastily leave as I became overcome with despair, anger and frustration at how future Australians would be treated.

This process should be an insult to our intelligence.

Is dumping people on an island thousands of kilometres away the the best thing we can come up with?

How do we change the conversation on this issue? How do we change the language which presents asylum seekers as a burden; victims; poor; diseased and as lesser than the rest of us? The many people I know are: brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, teachers, leaders, powerful, courageous and ultimately future friends and future Aussies.

I don’t pretend to think for a second, that the complexities of this issue are simple to solve. I also don’t think that hundreds of people dying at sea is acceptable. Having spent time with people who have lost family and friends in the recent tragedies, my heart sinks at the thought of people sacrificing everything, only to find their lives have ended at sea.

However, I fear that the current slogans of ‘stop the boats’ don’t have the intent of wanting to save lives behind them, but rather prevent incredibly resilient and brave souls from ever reaching our shores. Any policy that recommends ‘turning back the boats’ which in the past has caused hundreds of deaths, can never be entertained if we’re talking about ‘saving people from drowning’.

I don’t want to sound na├»ve and suggest that the issue of asylum seekers and refugees can be fixed with one simple policy change: worldwide 42.5 million people ended 2011 either as refugees (15.2 million), internally displaced (26.4 million) or in the process of seeking asylum (895,000).

This issue is bigger than us.

But we are also big enough to know we can play a large role in the region in creating a safe, humane and sensible passage for refugees to arrive in our country. Exporting our responsibilities to other countries is not a sign of the welcoming and compassionate Australia that I know and love.

The biggest question that has been posed to me by friends and family who care about this issue, is what now? If the two major parties have agreed to this policy, how can I make a difference?

Right now there are thousands of people in and around our communities who need our love. Who need our support. Who need our generosity. Who need our hospitality.

Respond with love.

Two of my favourite examples of how people are making love practical for future Aussies is through Welcome To Australia and First Home Project. Check out their sites. Donate, Support and Connect with what they’re doing.

I hope that through this blog, I can share some of the positive stories coming from on the ground, but also some of the harsh realities of what life is like for new arrivals on Nauru or Manus Island.

I’ll leave you with part of the statement made by the Salvation Army Eastern Territory in response to providing support and services to new arrivals who will be living on Nauru and Manus Island.

We are a people of action who stand with the vulnerable and oppressed, and therefore commit ourselves to give our very best to serve those who will be transferred for off-shore processing.
The Salvation Army recognises the enormity of the task ahead of us, but is determined to do it's best to support people who are placed there, and to help them prepare for the day when freedom finally arrives.
Providing emotional support and practical assistance to the men, women and children transferred to the islands will not be easy. Many will be bitterly disappointed that their perilous journey across the sea has been fruitless. Many will be distraught by the prospect of long periods of waiting for a determination of their refugee status and separation from their families. We bring over a century of experience and skill to this task, and boundless amounts of faith, hope and love. We are convinced that even in the darkest circumstances, light and good can emerge. We recognise the challenges of providing quality care in conditions that initially will not be ideal, and undertake to treat every person with respect and dignity—striving to use our contact with them to enhance their lives and futures.

The sun rising in Nauru...

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

I use to think we were the good I'm not so sure

Dear Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott,



While I grew up, I use to think that we (Australians) were the good guys. That we were the country of a 'fair go', and had the hearts of compassion, good will and kindness to help out a person in need. I use to think that we would do the 'right thing' in any situation, simply because it was the 'right thing to do'. But after yesterday, I am in serious doubt that we hold any sense of fairness, or of what is right. I'm beginning to think that the 'leaders' of our country will do anything for personal gain, and play on the minds of the credulous, fearful and misguided in society by riding on the politics of fear, division and ignorance.


Last night I was having a meal with a mate...we talked sport, swapped stories, had a few laughs, spoke of our families, shared our dreams for the future and discussed the age old conundrum - women and relationships. I could have been with any of my mates any where in this country.


But for some reason, this mate is different.


His name is Ali. One night, 17 years ago, he returned home to find his brother had been killed and his father beaten unconscious by the Taliban. Their crimes? Being Shi'a Hazaras. Knowing they would be back for him later that night, he had no choice, but to grab what little belongings he had and flee immediately across the border to Pakistan. Ali spent the next fourteen years living in a country that didn't recognise his situation. He was unable to work or get basic health services and his children were unable to go to school. They lived in constant fear. Friends would be killed and would disappear. Life was so grim that his wife instructed him that for the sake of theirs and their children's lives he needed to find safety. Terrified, Ali risked his life and made his way to Australia to seek refuge. It took him 3 months to get here, and he would spend 18 months locked up in 'prisons' around the country, shipped around like cattle, treated like a criminal.


Earlier this year, Ali got the chance to start living in community awaiting the final outcomes of his visa. He spent everyday for over 4 months volunteering at a Salvation Army family store. He was one of the best workers and when he was granted his protection visa only last month, the staff had no hesitation to put him on as an employee. Ali loves working there. He says it's his chance to say thank you to Australia and to help some of the 'needy' of the Australian community out.  Ali is 'different' because he arrived here by boat, but he is no different to any of my mates.


I am in a privileged position where I hear stories like this everyday. Courageous, resilient, passionate and generous people wanting to contribute and to build a hard working, diverse Australia that their families can be proud of.


I am proud to call Ali a friend.



Ali giving back to the community because he wants to 'build a strong Australia'


Yesterdays 'solutions' to a global 'problem' were disturbing - turn boats around to Indonesia which has caused hundreds of drowning previously; send people to a country where their human rights aren't recognised; or transform one of the few schools on a tiny Island who needs education into a prison to house people fleeing for their lives.


Why is it seen as weak or unpopular to formulate a welcoming and compassionate process for people like Ali to get to Australia? What does it say about our country when we can't put in place basic human rights for the worlds most vulnerable?  Why can't we increase our refugee intake or process asylum seekers before they get here? We've done it before and it's worked! It's cheaper, it's more humane and we give people like Ali the chance to contribute to our amazing and vast country.


Multiculturalism isn't a label or tag of this country. It's who we are. Why do we make it something to fear?


My Dad's ancestors were boat people, my Mum's parents fled as refugees across Europe to find safety until they finally made it here. How are we so different?


As the political furore continues today, please remember what the 'right thing to do' is. Please remember that we can be the good guys. We can take the leadership and responsibility to develop a regional response to continue to develop a country that believes in a 'fair go' and that we can welcome people to Australia.



Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Willowra Blues

I've had the privilege of visiting Willowra in the Northern Territory twice this year. It's a beautiful Warlpiri community about 340 km northwest of Alice Springs. I love travelling down the Anningie Station Road, taking in the beautiful surrounds of the Tanami Desert and knowing that when you suddenly stumble across the bizarre sight of donkeys, you know you've hit this little community north of Ti Tree.
With the ancient smiles, cultural wisdom and surreal scenery that exist there, it seems somewhat contradictory to be talking about the feelings of grief I've had in my past two visits. However, sadly, my last two visits to the community have coincided with the tragic deaths of two young people.

With lives that are constantly changing, and little stability, the one thing that seems to linger around communities, is sorry business - the ceremony that takes place after someone has died. If it's not in their own community, it's a neighbouring community, or in town in Alice. The toll this emotional turmoil takes is immense. I still remember the sudden weight that fell on my shoulders as I entered Willowra in February where only a few days earlier a 16 year old girl had unexpectedly died. I was feeling gloom, upset, frustrated...yet I didn't even know the girl! I can't imagine how members of community were feeling. As I walked through sorry camp putting out my hand to members of the community to acknowledge their loss, the pain on their faces was unbearable to witness.

Then, a fortnight ago, I was making my way back to Willowra. The feeling was great. I was enjoying catching up with people I hadn't seen in a while, and starting to feel like I was really developing some strong relationships with the community. Then suddenly on the Wednesday morning as I was gathering up some of the young Mum's for playgroup a maroon car sped past and pulled out the front of one of the houses. What was all the commotion? What was going on? We had to check it out...and as we drove up some Warlpiri was spoken, and it became apparent. There had been a tragic accident just 20 km out from Willowra. A young man had died.

I'm still confounded by the emotions I experienced at being present at a moment, when people found out about the death of a loved one. Having experienced deaths of loved ones in my immediate family in my own life, I empathised with their feelings. But their grief is often and regular. Within the space of less than six months, they lost another family member. I am really challenged as to how these people can move on. Yet, time and time again they do. Every time they get knocked down, they get up again.
Sorry Business is such a large part of their lives, and I understand why. It is an outpouring and sometimes very public display of their grief and sadness that is felt after losing someone. By acknowledging this grief and mourning their loss, I suppose it's the only way they can try and move on. That's not to say that all their pain will go away or becomes bearable, but at least it will keep them going until it inevitably occurs again.

I'm back in the comfort of Sydney now, but still very much have the people of Willowra and indeed all Indigenous communities in my thoughts. It's easy to be reflective when your thousands of kilometres away from what's occurring and don't have to experience the harsh realities of what's going on. Just like it's easy for beaurocrats, who at the same distance away can make decisions impacting on peoples' lives without really understanding what's going on. All I know is that these events are happening right now in our backyard, and we need real politicians with vision to stand up for what is right by our Indigenous brothers and sisters.

I'd like to leave you with a few shots from my visit earlier this year in February, fresh after some rain, with the grass green, and the creek flowing. Despite all the gloom and doom I've expressed, I'd love for it to give you a sense of the hope and resilience that Indigenous Australians have, in the stunning surrounds that encapsulate this community.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Dreaming of Ethiopia

As a child in the 1980s, I saw children starving in Ethiopia on TV, and I imagined myself as a missionary in deepest, darkest Africa…

I sleep in a different bed in a different village most weeks, but I am fortunate to have a bed. I travel hours by car, or sometimes plane, each week to get to work, but it's a beautiful country that most people never see – not even in photos. Summer days are very hot, winter nights are very cold; it's a country of extremes.

I work in health so I spend a lot of time with women and children and I hear many stories. In one village of 300 people, one that has never been at war or experienced a natural disaster, I meet three children in the one day under ten years of age whose mothers have died. On average, these people attend at least 40 funerals in their lifetimes.

I sit with a woman whose child isn't growing well and I am concerned for his health. I ask her where she is living. Her husband is in jail, and she lives with his family in her mother-in-law's home. There are 14 people in one three-bedroom house, with one fridge (that doesn't work) and one toilet (that also doesn't work).

Similar stories are repeated throughout the places I visit. The tales of despair, hopelessness and lack of control over their own lives can become overwhelming. Why do people even get up in the morning?

The sad part is this is not "imaginary". It's reality – and not in Ethiopia but in remote Aboriginal communities here in Australia. I am working in parts of my own country I didn't know existed when I dreamed of Africa as a child.

When the Prime Minister apologised earlier this year, I sat eating my breakfast with a tear in my eye. As I walked to work, I wondered how the people around me felt. I talked to the women in the clinic. Some had watched it, others had heard there was a party in Tennant Creek. I mentioned I'd seen people I knew from other communities on TV. This sparked much conversation in Indigenous Language and then one older lady spoke up: "Someone from here should have gone there, or those people should have come here and said it."

To a group of young mums, the confusion was around who the Prime Minister was: somehow news of the election and change of Government had missed this part of Australia. For these women, more important was what would happen next in their community. Would the community phone be fixed, so I could call to let them know the next time I was coming to the outstation where they lived?

I am learning so much. What would it be like to speak two or three languages, plus English, yet not be able to read and write? How would I get my voice heard? Would I have a voice?

I've never been to Africa, and I no longer dream about it. Trying to work out what it means to be white in this part of Australia is challenging enough.

Dreaming of Ethiopia: Elise Rolfs; 2008

I know when I set out for Central Australia; I set out in the hope of answers. Answers to questions like ‘why are Indigenous Australians 12 times more likely to develop diabetes compared to Non-Indigenous Australians?’; ‘why are Indigenous Australians 40% more likely to commit suicide compared to Non-Indigenous Australians?’ and ‘why on average will Indigenous Australians die 17 years earlier than Non-Indigenous Australians?’

However the reality is, the more I see, the less I seem to know.

There is only one thing that I know is for certain - the resilience, determination and wisdom that exists with the first Australians; and the only way that we're going to find answers to 'Indigenous problems', is by listening to 'Indigenous solutions'.

While my time here is slowly coming to an end, I hope I can share some of my thoughts on what it's been like to live in the red centre and try to make sense of the bureaucratic nonsense that takes place here.

As one of the traditional owners from New Haven said to me when he held my arm next to his 'our colours on the outside might be different, but on the inside all humans bleed the same colour; we're one blood'.

I hope I can enlighten some of these statistics to human faces and what it's been like to witness the oldest living culture in the world.

While I do still dream of Africa...for the moment trying to work out what it means to be white in this part of Australia is challenging enough.