A welcoming voice

Migration Museum
Migration Museum: Nissen Hut recreation

“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.

Pictures In My Heart features artwork such as Neighbours capturing our country, 2003, by Mohammad Andy (back) and Village Mosque, 2004, Anonymous (front, right)

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.


Vonnegut’s Letter to the Draft Board, 1967

When something rings true, time does’t diminish its timbre.

Penguin Blog

It’s fairly rare that the written word moves us to actual tears, but we’ve shed a few reading the very moving letter that Kurt Vonnegut, author of Slaugherhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle, wrote to the Vietnam Draft Board about his son’s registration as a conscientious objector in 1967. Demonstrating the meaning of fatherly love, it details the reasons Vonnegut is proud of his son for making the choice to refuse to fight.

November 28, 1967




My son Mark Vonnegut is registered with you. He is now in the process of requesting classification as a conscientious objector. I thoroughly approve of what he is doing. It is in keeping with the way I have raised him. All his life he has learned hatred for killing from me.

I was a volunteer in the Second World War. I was an infantry scout, saw…

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Acting on orders


I have been listening to the audiobook “Ghostwritten” by David Mitchell, read by William Rycroft. Mitchell is a storyteller par excellence; his words transport me right into scenes as they unfold, for example, into a far flung hostel where a member of a cult group is in hiding after unleashing a gas attack on a Tokyo subway.

As the townsfolk shake their heads, unable to comprehend the motivation behind such senseless killing, a lady in the group, a teacher, suggests that none of the cult group members had chosen specifically to become killers. What they had done, she said, was to abdicate their inner selves.

She elaborated: ‘Society is an outer abdication. We abdicate certain freedoms, and in return we get civilisation. … However, we all have an inner self, that decides to what degree we honour this contract. This inner self is our own responsibility. I fear that many of the young men and women in the Fellowship handed this inner responsibility to their Guru, to do with as he pleased.’


As part of my research into Cambodia for Place of Refuge, I am also reading ‘Facing the Torturer’ by Francois Bizot. In 1971, Bizot  convinced his Khmer Rouge captor, Duch, that he was not a spy. Duch, in turn, worked to secure Bizot’s freedom. The night before Bizot’s release, Duch confessed to Bizot how hard it had been to carry out his duties. Bizot recounted: “Finally, the young commander with whom I spoke every day … had revealed that he had to beat the prisoners himself. … It was nothing more than putting the ardour of his commitment into practice, the action being in proportion to the greatness of the revolutionary ends.”

Putting these two images side by side, one, a fictional cult member who gasses travellers because he believes the world is corrupted, and the other, a non-fictional account of a Khmer Rouge prison guard who vomited the first time he beat his prisoners, his own body rebelling against his task, I reflected on how, from time to time, we justify our actions, by saying that we are ‘acting under orders’.

I thought of the fishermen who delivered food to the Rohingya refugees adrift at sea. Was it their humanity that compelled them? How did the patrol guards feel when they had to tow boats away? (It has been reported that this is no longer the practice.) Did they have to suppress their natural human instinct to help their fellow man? Did they have to convince themselves that they had to a job to do, regardless of how unsavoury it was? That they had to be professional? What would I have done in their shoes?

If a person suppresses their conscience once, does that conscience slowly begin to die? Does it get easier the next time? In 1998, Bizot is startled when he visits a prison museum, and recognises Duch’s face in the exhibit, and ‘discovers the horrifying extent of his actions from 1975 to 1979, as well as his responsibility in the organisation of torture and executions. … I felt myself shivering as I thought of the brilliant young revolutionary I had known compared with this possessed being, who remained my fellow man.’

Bizot writes with great compassion, and also with fear, recognising that he is himself capable of evil, and capable of justifying evil. Each time we silence our conscience in the name of a ‘greater good’, do we deaden ourselves a little?