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.

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