Don’t just stand there, do something!

Daryl Teague’s souvenir made in a refugee camp prosthetics workshop

“These people have a chook tied under the bed so that it lays eggs,” said Dr Daryl Teague, explaining what the chicken was doing in a Red Cross hospital ward.

From January to April 1983, Daryl worked for the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) in eastern Thailand. When he arrived, there were around 50,000 refugees living in the Khao-I-Dang UNHCR refugee camp.

Writing a book on refugees is, at times, harrowing. Nothing like tales of rape and torture to induce despair. It was therefore a very pleasant change to be drinking tea, eating cake and viewing slides in Daryl and Wendy’s gracious home as part of my research for Place of Refuge.

“Here’s a guy I operated on two days before,” continued Daryl. “He’s very lucky to have kept his leg. So I told him: you’ve got to stay in the ward and have your leg up on two cardboard boxes. Anyway, I’m walking around and bloody hell, what are you doing out here? You’re supposed to have your leg up … and he turns round and he’s made a sling so that when he sits down his leg is still up. And I thought, you are so imaginative and …”, he searches for the right adjective and finally settles on “enterprising”, this last word spoken with admiration.

“Most of the time we’re operating on blown up limbs and bodies, but this little boy came in and he had a harelip and I did a harelip repair on him. He’s about 5 and we got the parents to come in and look at him. They were just totally thrilled.”

That afternoon with Daryl and Wendy recast the Cambodian Khmer Rouge tragedy for me. As Daryl reminisced about his patients, some by name, I saw that it had been more than a mercy mission; it had been an adventure. This was made possible by Wendy’s support, no small matter considering that volunteering was not without its risk – once a bomb landed so near to the doctors’ sleeping quarters that they thought a truck had backed into their building. The bomb had, in fact, struck a large kitchen in the refugee camp, killing several workers.

War and pain and injustice exist today as they did when Daryl went to Cambodia. Being aware of human suffering and believing that we can do nothing about it induces a kind of social blindness. We turn a blind eye because it is too painful to see such horror and do nothing.

But if we can look at evil in the face and ask ourselves: what we can do about this? what gifts and resources do we have? what lies within our circle of influence? then perhaps things will start to change, the change, whether big or small, a testament to goodness and mercy and hope. In Daryl’s words, emailed to me after proofreading this post: There is honour amongst refugees.


Emerging Artists Mentorship

Monarch Butterfly emerging
Mosdell Emerging

I am deeply grateful to be the recipient of an Arts SA Independent Makers and Presenters Grant, in the Emerging Artists Mentorship category. As a result of this grant, I will have the privilege of being mentored by poet, writer and teacher Dr Mark Tredinnick.

Writing is a solitary activity, and writing a book takes a long time, so long that there are days when I’m beset with doubts: Is this any good? Will it contribute anything true to humanity? Should I really gag the world with another book?

Although Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard said that these doubts are no more than mosquitoes to be ‘repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged’, dissenting voices in my head are not easily quelled. The support and belief of family, friends, and bodies such as Arts SA, strengthen my resolve, and give me the means, to keep going.

The category name – Emerging Artists Mentorship – is itself a hopeful one; it lends itself to the belief that an artists can emerge, from someone, somewhere, and that mentorships facilitate that process. This hope compels me to continue to sharpen the tools in my toolbox, to continue to string words into sentences, tame sentences into paragraphs, and sculpt paragraphs into stories.

The story I want to tell is the story of Adelaide, made up as it is of the stories of many people, some who have undertaken perilous journeys to get here, to make this place their home. The genre is creative non-fiction. The title is Place of Refuge.