Interview with Blackwood Circle of Friends convenor: Tricia Rushton

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The Blackwood circle has partnered with a local Men’s Shed group that refurbishes bicycles to give bicycles and helmets to a northern suburb circle, where far more refugees live today. (Tricia is next to the girl in pink.)

Last week, I spoke to Tricia Rushton, the current convenor of the Blackwood Circle of Friends, a support group for refugees and asylum seekers.

The Circle of Friends was formed in 2002. Tricia became a member of the Blackwood Circle only five years ago, and cannot speak from first hand experience of those early days.

‘What I know about the beginnings,’ she says, ‘is that it was formed because people were so concerned for refugees who were coming from Baxter detention centre and just being dropped off in Adelaide.’

Baxter was Australia’s first purpose built immigration detention centre. It opened in 2002, ten years after the Keating government legislated Australia’s policy of mandatory detention for non-citizens without a valid visa. Members of the Blackwood and the Hills Circle of Friends used to wait at the bus stop in Adelaide to welcome released detainees and even invite them to stay at their homes. Some of these people had been in detention for several years and needed help to adjust to life beyond the high fences and barbed wire.

Today, far fewer refugees reside in Blackwood. Responding to their changing demographics, the Blackwood Circle of Friends decided to focus on three areas:

  1. direct support for refugees and asylum seekers
  2. fundraising
  3. raising community awareness and lobbying government.

Fundraising is important, says Tricia, because the group then has the freedom to use the funds as they see fit. Some of the things they have used the funds for:

  • reunite a mother in Australia with her son after an eight-year-separation (He had been hiding from the Taliban in Quetta, Pakistan.)
  • DNA tests for three African orphans so that they could be brought to Australia to live with their uncle
  • TAFE fees for a highly-qualified couple who are refugees (Their original qualifications are not recognised in Australia. Without TAFE qualifications, they will not be able to work in their area of expertise.)
  • dental work to relieve the agony of a pregnant woman
  • bike helmets.

As good as it is to be able to provide help in this way, Tricia feels that fundraising and direct support is like driving the ambulance to help injured people at the bottom of a cliff. Their third focus area – lobbying government – is crucial, like urging the council to build a fence at the top of the cliff that will prevent people from falling off in the first place. She explains, ‘A lot of the things we pay for are driven by the policies that the government has.’ She talks about Temporary Protection Visas, which are only valid for three years. Often, refugees need legal help, or the services of migration agents to submit visa applications, and this can be very costly.

When I ask her about her motivation to do all this, she points to her parents, who were brought up in Fiji. (Her paternal grandfather was Welsh. He was the first colonial engineer in the sugar refinery.) Tricia’s parents were strongly anti-racist and moved to Australia for a new life. It’s a very inspiring story but too long for this post. I’ll save it for next Friday.

Initially, what intrigued me to about the Blackwood Circle of Friends was the willingness of some of their members to welcome strangers into their homes. For migrants to welcome newer migrants from the same town or village is easy to comprehend. I blogged last week about my grandfather’s shop in Malaya which housed new migrants from China. But welcoming strangers into one’s home is, to me, radical hospitality. Exercising this kind of hospitality requires a certain way of thinking.

Tricia puts it this way, ‘You cannot spend time just thinking about the world or the world’s people and their experiences without thinking: “That’s me; that’s us”. There’s no them. It’s us. To be alive is such a fantastic thing. If you look at the span of history, your life just fans up for this small time, and it’s a terrific opportunity, you know? You should not be leaving the world a worse place than when you arrived.’

Tricia sees her role in the Blackwood Circle of Friends as facilitating a community brought together by their deep concern for refugees and asylum seekers. The Blackwood Circle meets at the Blackwood Uniting Church.

‘The Blackwood Uniting Church is a community-embedded, wonderful institution led by a very visionary pastor. They are very supportive of our work, but the Blackwood Circle of Friends is not a Christian group. It’s a human group.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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An Interview with MacArthur ‘Genius’ Viet Thanh Nguyen — Longreads

2017 MacArthur fellow Viet Thanh Nguyen discusses questions of justice, diversity in literature, and empathy across cultures.

via An Interview with MacArthur ‘Genius’ Viet Thanh Nguyen — Longreads

Just placed The Sympathizer on hold at my local library. Can’t wait to read the spy thriller set in Vietnam, narrated by a Communist double-crossed agent, that melds humour, politics and literature.

My grandfather’s legacy: from general merchant to something more

I always thought of my maternal grandfather as a wealthy man but digging deeper I learn that he was a small town migrant kid who became prosperous enough to provide temporary housing to new migrants.

Ban Loong Chan
Literal Translation: Shop of Ten Thousand Prosperities

 

When I was a little girl, my family drove from KL to Ipoh so often that I memorised the small towns along the way: Slim River (half-way point), Bidor (eat duck noodles in double-boiled herbal soup), Tapah, Kampar, Gopeng, Ipoh.

Some of the one-street towns appeared as a brief anomalies that whizzed past my backseat window. Those concrete shops looked as if they had fought valiantly against the rainforest for their place and won.

By contrast, towering limestone cliffs flanked the approach to Ipoh. The challenge in our little car was to be the first to spot the Mercedes Benz sign high up on the hills. It indicated that we had arrived.

The Ipoh of my childhood was for holidays and extended time with my cousins. My grandparents’ living room had a concrete and glass aquarium, and portraits of my grandparents and great-grandparents on either side of a towering grandfather clock. At some point during every Chinese New Year, my mother or one of my aunts would say, ‘All line up and kiss Gong Gong.

My grandfather was practically bald, apart from a comb-over. He wore slip-in suede shoes and walked in a shuffling gait. He would be guided to a chair, from which he received kisses and presented ang pows.

I remember the feel of his scratchy stubble as I leaned forward to peck him on the cheek. With good humour, he would give me a red packet as a hand-coloured version of his younger self smiled from a portrait photograph on the wall.

An early portrait of my grandfather, Loh Mee Loon
My maternal grandfather, Loh Mee Loon (1903 – 1993)

The going rate, for as long as I can remember, was ten Ringgit. And so, my image of him as a wealthy businessman, who drove the first Mercedes Benz in Ipoh (so I have been told), appeared to me fully formed, set in concrete, so to speak.

My grandfather, Loh Mee Loon, owned and operated Ban Loong. Initially, he sold all sorts of weighing scales and was also a tinsmith. His shop stood in the centre of Old Town, Ipoh. He had bought it 1926.

My maternal great-grandfather, Loh Siew San (1867 - 1947)
My maternal great-grandfather, Loh Siew San (1867 – 1947)

His father, Loh Siew San, had migrated from China and settled in Sungai Siput, a small town north of Ipoh. I try to imagine the kind foresight, self-belief and courage that compelled my grandfather, a small town migrant kid, to stretch himself to purchase a commercial property in the tin-mining capital of Malaya when he was only twenty-three years old.

In those days, migrants and mail came by long ship journeys. A husband who had sent for his wife might have relocated by the time she arrived. To address this problem, my grandfather opened his shop to new Chinese migrants. Ban Loong provided temporary accommodation and food in exchange for labour and soon became a community hub.

Then came the destruction of World War II. Bombs rained from Japanese planes. After the war, my grandfather saw an opportunity in the destruction and expanded his business to hardware supply. Business prospered as the townspeople began rebuilding.

In 2015, when the hardware business was no longer viable, grandson Ir. Loh Ban Ho decided to commit himself to preserving the building. It is fortuitous that Ban Ho is a civil and structural engineer. The old colonial building required new engineering solutions. To meet fire safety standards, the wooden staircase and wooden first floor were dismantled. A  steel framework was constructed within the old walls to carry the weight of a new concrete slab.

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Ir Loh Ban Ho, a grandson of Loh Mee Loon, pointing to the original shop signage now hanging in the restored building.

‘We basically built a new building within the old one. It was three times more expensive than building a new shop, but we didn’t want to tear down the original structure,’ said Ban Ho.

Fittingly, the restored shop now is Ban Loong Hotel, a testament to the foresight, can-do attitude and hospitality of my grandparents’ generation.

Next Friday: an interview with Tricia Rushton that almost made me cry. She’s a very busy woman, who has worked on projects as diverse as building stronger families, Indigenous Financial management and refugee support.

 

An Interview with MacArthur ‘Genius’ Jason De León — Longreads

‘Anthropology is what people leave behind. It could be as recent as this morning.’

‘Smugglers are complex human beings.’

To paraphrase this classically trained anthropologist.

One of the photographs in this piece really moved me. There were no people in that photograph, which shows me that this anthropologist is right. Objects move us, but only because of their connection to people.

The anthropologist studies the objects left behind by migrants as they cross the border.

via An Interview with MacArthur ‘Genius’ Jason De León — Longreads

Rohingya in Singapore – not advisable?

Last week, I shared Theophilus Kwek’s article where he suggested that even though Singapore is a small country, it can try to find creative and mutually beneficial ways to help Rohingya refugees. This new article by Tan Teck Chye presents counter arguments, suggesting why this would be fraught with problems, such as the exploitation of asylum seekers.

If my house were on fire, I won’t hold it against the good people who take me in and give me shelter if they could not guarantee my longterm prospects.

BY TAN TECK CHYE Theophilus Kwek’s article on asylum policies (“Safer Waters: An Asylum Policy for Singapore?”) is well-intentioned but requires further consideration before it can be applied to reality …

via LETTER: Asylum Policies Must Consider Risk of Exploitation — Singapore Policy Journal

Hosting New Migrants: on the capacity to welcome

Welcome Sign to a Home
Welcome By Delforge

When we first arrived in Adelaide, we stayed in a two-bedroom unit off Goodwood Road. My sister’s old school friend had arranged for us to live there while the occupant-bachelor was away for a holiday. Two weeks or so later, he was due home but we still hadn’t found a place to rent.

Fortunately, through our new church, we met a university lecturer who said that his family had space for us.  They lived in a double storey brick bungalow with two separate entrances – one on the top level for the family, and one on the bottom level, which was rented out to international students.

It was summer, and the students had not yet returned. The lecturer had devised an ingenious scheme of using grey water for his fruit trees. He had peach trees in his backyard, and he used to lug in boxes of peaches for us to help ourselves. I had never before tasted such peaches, picked when ripe from the tree, simply bursting with sweetness.

Neither the bachelor nor the lecturer accepted rent from us. We invited the lecturer to come downstairs to share a meal with us (the rest of his family were away), but the sense of indebtedness lingered.

We eventually found a rental place on a sub-divided plot of land. It was a compact home, with three small bedrooms and a bay window that looked out to pink standard roses lining the front porch. This became our first home in Adelaide.

We lived there for two or three years. At different times two new migrant families moved in with us until they found their rental properties. The entire family – mother, father, child/children, luggage – would take up our master bedroom, and my family retreated to the back two rooms. Nowadays, when I drive by that tiny house, I wonder: how did we all fit?

But I don’t remember it being onerous. I also don’t remember any evidence, in these two instances, to the saying, ‘Fish and guests in three days are stale.’

Perhaps it was because we  didn’t move heaven and earth to accommodate our guests. I didn’t cook special food, and we let them do the dishes and mop the floor when they offered. It took the pressure off me to be the perfect hostess. While we were close enough to have some shared history, we had enough distance so that we were courteous to one another, and refrained from comparing or critiquing child-rearing practices, content to let it be that each family has different habits and standards.

It may be due to selective memory, but I remember those two occasions as fun times, like adult versions of extended sleepover parties. Our children were around the same age, so the kids had a few extra playmates. We took turns cooking. They copied my tiramisu recipe and I admired their Thermal Cooker: bring soup to the boil in a pot, put the pot into an insulating cylinder, let the soup cook on latent heat for three or four hours, and by dinner enjoy bak kut teh, pork falling off the bone.

When I drive by those pink standard roses now, I almost think the house must have expanded. Resources have the capacity to grow to accommodate the intentions of the heart.

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When I interviewed Malcolm Fraser, I asked him why Australia did not take any of the 2,500 refugees from a freighter, the Hai Hong, that was languishing in Malaysian waters in November 1978, local authorities having refused the freighter permission to dock.

He said, ‘Maybe Australia felt it was doing enough with the numbers we were taking out of the camps, in Malaya in particular. I think we’ve all got to accept that there could be more people than you can easily, totally accommodate. That’s why as many countries as possible should keep their doors open to refugees. So that no one country gets pushed too far, which is only going to arouse anti-refugee sentiment.’

How far is too far? This is not an easy question to answer because there is an elasticity to capacity. It grows or shrinks depending on how the host community regards newcomers: bane or blessing? And this is where the rhetoric around immigration and asylum seekers has a real effect on how welcoming a society is and its capacity to provide refuge to those fleeing war and terror.

Next Friday: how my grandfather accommodated Chinese migrants in Malaya and what that did for his business.

A time to plant, and time to pluck up what is planted.

Thank you Susanne Timpani – I didn’t know this story behind Newman’s Nursery. I love the place and have lovely memories of enjoying high tea there surrounded by beautiful plants.

Season to journal

a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted

Ecclesiastes 3:2

6791998594_1876dd3a9a_zIn the late 1800’s, the Neuman family immigrated from England to the fledgeling colony of South Australia. Following a tough beginning, including the loss of their son on the voyage, they eventually took a significant business risk. When they established a plant nursery in a remote area on the outskirts of the city,  many considered it madness. Yet it was a huge success, attracting customers from all over Adelaide to purchase plants.

I hiked into the area recently to view the old ruins of the homestead. Isolated tracks such as Perseverance Rd and Torture Hill reflect the challenging setting. In the remote location, I found it difficult to imagine a thriving business. And then I noticed clusters of tiny orchids growing amidst the native flora, seeded from plants of previous generations.

7223023796_a58e1d4bd9_zIn 1912 a major flood ruined…

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