Interview with Blackwood Circle of Friends convenor: Tricia Rushton

img_3590
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.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

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.

IMG_3475

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 Crack in the Immigration System

FullSizeRender
Amber Glass by my Front Door

My home was built in the late 1960s, a federation-style house with amber glass, faux gold fittings and slate floors. For a middle-aged entity, this double-bricked beauty is holding up pretty well. But, of course, cracks are starting to show.

A crack in the mosaic bathroom floor finally flacked off. That loose tile let down several of its neighbours and they scattered everywhere. I gathered them into a snap lock bag, intending to google ‘How to fix a mosaic floor’, and added it onto my to-do list.

I procrastinated. A week later, I inadvertently vacuumed up another little tile. I notice that the fault line getting longer, the hole bigger, uglier, dirtier. And it all started with a single crack in the system.

IMG_2671
A Crack in the System

On 4 August, a leaked phone transcript between President Trump and Prime Minister Turnbull revealed what the two leaders talked about in January. Turnbull asked Trump to honour a refugee swap deal, but Trump said he didn’t want the US to become a dumping ground and demanded to know why Turnbull hadn’t let them out.

Turnbull explained that the refugees on Nauru and Manus were not bad people, but ‘in order to stop people smugglers, we had to deprive them of a product.’ But Trump is not convinced about the kind of people he is being asked to consider. Later in the conversation, he says, ‘I hate taking these people. I guarantee you they are bad. That is why they are in prison right now.’

Trump may have vocalised a growing public perception. After all, it is hard to believe that a civilised government like Australia will lock people up indefinitely unless they were bad or dangerous in some way.

As a result, some ordinary, compassionate Australians now fear associating with refugees or helping them because because of the taint of illegality, of being on the wrong side of migration law.

People who would have previously said hello to a stranger, or invited a new neighbour for dinner, now think twice, and maybe walk on by. (Not all refugees are in detention, many are in community. It depends on their date of arrival in Australia, whether they came by boat, whether they received legal help, whether they had a friend to explain a letter to them, a whole host of factors that can sometimes seem as random as the roll of a dice.)

Indefinite mandatory detention was introduced to fix a crack in the immigration system but is threatening to introduce a crack in society and a crack in humanity – how we view one another and how we treat people in need.

It’s an ugly crack. It’s growing and if left unfixed, is going to be our undoing.

Creation and Destruction

16641056319_694411a5a7_z
Jordi Bernabeu Syrian girls on their way home from school

 

After my interview last week with a Syrian refugee, I went to my local library and borrowed all the books I could find on Syria. One of the books I borrowed was The morning they came for us by Janine Di Giovanni.

A seasoned war correspondent, Di Giovanni, first visited Syria in May 2012, as the country teetered on a precipice. Having described the hotel Dama Rose where she and many other  UN workers lived, she moves on, in Chapter Two, to the story of young Nada, who used Facebook and Twitter to broadcast messages from the opposition. One morning, the police came for her. Her parents watch on, horrified.

Nada’s prison experience, and more broadly, the sexual violation of women in the Syrian war, is heart-rending to read. I feel my body bracing itself for the next sentence, and the next. It is as if I am holding my breath. It is as if I cannot breathe normally. What are the men going to do next?

It is so nauseating that I stop reading after Chapter Two and try to forget what I have read. I try to focus instead on onions sizzling in the pot.  I look out of my kitchen window and admire the vegetable garden I have planted. I take pleasure in the way the tomatoes have been staked, the way the beans peep out from beneath heart-shaped leaves, and the bright orange marigolds in this riot of green.

It is human to create, and the work of creation takes skill, effort, concentration, time. What has been created takes only an instant to destroy. War destroys, decimates, dehumanises.

Di Giovanni writes, ‘The lowest depth that a human being can reach is to perform or to receive torture. The goal of the torturer is to inflict horrific pain and dehumanise another being…How does someone return to the human race after having been so brutalised?’

What is it like to try to return from that place of war, to try to rebuild a life? That is the question I am trying to answer. After three years interviewing refugees and writing their stories, I am not even sure it is ethical to ask about war experiences because the question so often causes pain. My focus is increasingly on how refugees rebuild their lives and on the people who help them. I hope it is a gentler and more productive approach.

Di Giovanni will be speaking at the Adelaide Writers’ Week on 8 March 2017.

 

 

Mothers and Sons

young_mothers_carring_their_children_on_head_india
By Peter van der Sluijs (Own work)  via Wikimedia Commons

Tomorrow morning, I shall bid my seventeen-year-old son farewell as he travels to another city to begin his undergraduate studies. These past weeks, as friends have learnt of his move, many have peered me and asked, ‘How are you doing?’

‘I’m fine,’ I bravely reply. ‘I feel that this is the best opportunity for his future.’

There are moments when nostalgia seizes me and tears threaten, but intellectually, rationally, I believe the time is right for him to leave home and experience the wider world.

It made me reflect on a vastly different farewell that I have been writing about. Remember the Sri Lankan asylum seeker I wrote about previously? Let’s call him Suthan. His father was killed in 1989 and his older brother disappeared in 1995.

In Suthan’s words, this is how it happened: My mother was very sad so she decided to send me away. She knew very well that I wouldn’t join the Tamil Tigers because I am not interested at all; I was a frightened boy. But my mother wanted to keep me safe, so she decided to send me to another country. I didn’t want to go; I really felt like shit. For one month I couldn’t cope.

What, you may ask, compelled Suthan’s mother to surrender her only remaining son, and an exorbitant sum of money, to people smugglers? The only answer, in my mind, is that the alternative was worse.

Indeed, in 1995, in Sri Lanka, it was very dangerous to be a young Tamil male – a potential recruit to the Tamil Tigers and a deadly threat to the predominantly Singhalese army. Therefore, Suthan’s mother sent him away even though he was only nineteen and there were no guarantees, no certainties. She was buying hope and the chance, however tenuous, that her son will survive.

I used to see migrants as different to refugees. I am writing a story about them, not about me. But more and more, I see it as a spectrum, with the forced migration of refugees on one end and my voluntary migration on the other.

But the commonality is that we move because we hope for better things. It is only human to act on hope.

The Little Man Counts

img_1654
Emerald Bay, Pangkor Laut, Malaysia

Earlier this year, I stopped to read a commemorative board by a sandy footpath leading to Chapman’s Bar at Emerald Bay on Pangkor Laut. I learnt that the bar was named after Freddy Spencer Chapman, a British soldier who remained in Malaya and led a resistance force against the Japanese during World War II. Chapman recounted his experience in the book, The Jungle is Neutral.

With a jolt of excitement, I remember the book. I particularly remember Chapman’s description of laying explosives on a train line, running back into cover (rubber plantation or jungle I cannot recall), and watching the bomb tear apart a trainload of Japanese soldiers.

Toward the end of 1941, Chapman had travelled against the flow of retreating British soldiers in order to train a small group of locals in guerrilla tactics. It is said that Chapman and his men were so effective that the Japanese thought they were facing a British resistance army of 200 men.

Three and a half years later, in May 1945, it was from this same island, Pangkor Laut, that a much weakened Chapman swam out and escaped into a waiting submarine. He made it safely to Ceylon. For the rest of his life, however, Chapman suffered from illnesses picked up from the jungle and was tormented by what he had witnessed during the war.

Endurance Challenge held every year in Chapman's honour
Chapman’s Challenge held on the island every year in his honour. In 2016, his descendants participated in the challenge and are listed in placing 4 and 5.

I have previously written that the British deserted Malaya when the Japanese invaded but now realise that not all the British left. Some chose to stay. Freddy Chapman stayed.

This realisation prompts me to reflect on the conscience that drives the individual. When people disagree with the actions of their elected government, they can choose to act differently. One of the stories in my book is about a family that opens their home to asylum seekers released from Baxter  Immigration Detention Facility in South Australia. Their actions bring healing, not only to a young Sri Lankan asylum seeker, but also to themselves.

Politicians and all manner of people in authority purport to speak and act on our behalf. But that doesn’t remove from us the ability to think as individuals, and to choose to act in what we believe is the right spirit.