“I remember the first night we arrived in Pennington Hostel. We were allocated with a little compartment within the Nissen Hut, and the first person, the first Australian person, that we met was a member of ICRA (Indo-Chinese Refugee Association) and the first thing they ask is “Welcome, and what can I do to help you?”
“Now, they assist us in so many practical ways, and navigating our way around Adelaide in our early days of settlement, but most importantly, ladies and gentlemen, they made us feel welcome, and feel right to be optimistic about the new life that we hope to establish here,” said His Excellency the Honourable Hieu Van Le, as he declared the 2015 Australian Refugee Association (ARA) Oration open.
The work of welcoming goes on, and last night, I bought one such work, Pictures in my Heart. This book has a sad beginning. In 2003, Dr Habibullah Wahedy, a respected member of the Hazara refugee community in Murray Bridge, a rural South Australian town, killed himself when he learnt that he could be sent back to Afghanistan.
To stave off a mental health crisis, writer and counsellor, Fiona Hamilton, and artist, Miranda Harris, were invited to work with the refugee community, and they used lino-cut printing and clay work to give the men avenues to tell their stories and express their emotions. The resulting artwork has since been exhibited around Australia.
For me, the most poignant moment last night was when Miranda told the audience that she had been pregnant when the art project was ongoing, and how it meant a great deal to the Hazara men when they were finally able to hold her baby, as it had been so long since they had held their own sons and daughters. At that time, it took around 4 to 8 years for their Temporary Protection Visas to be processed, during which they could not sponsor their family from Afghanistan.
Going back to last Friday’s ARA Oration, Race Discrimination Commissioner, Dr. Tim Southphommasane, the main speaker, expounded Australia’s obligation to allow people to seek asylum from persecution, while maintaining Australia as a sanctuary for those already here. “There is clearly a philosophical and political tension between human rights and membership sovereignty,” he said.
When a member of the audience asked where the positive welcoming voice in today’s society was to come from, Dr. Southphommasane replied, “Well, it is to come for all levels of society. Quite often we lament leadership at the very top, if we feel that such leadership is not forthcoming in the right doses, then perhaps there is a special responsibility for us to do more, to provide leadership at the bottom.”
Asylum seekers are not just people stuck out at sea, or in a detention camp; many share the schools and shops and roads we use everyday. It surprised me when I realised this, a realisation brought about by a friendship I struck up with a young mother in my neighbourhood. However, she is only eligible to apply for a Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) because she arrived by boat, without a valid visa. So, even if she is found to be a genuine refugee, the best she can hope for, as the current policy stands, is a TPV, an extension of a few more years of protection. When that extension runs out, she could still be sent back to her country. It may therefore not be right to feel too optimistic about the new life she hopes to establish here.
Even so, knowing that despair is debilitating, we must cling to hope. The alternative, as Dr Wahedy demonstrated, is too terrible.