Creation and Destruction

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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

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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

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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.

 

Lord Jim in Borneo

When I began reading Lord Jim, I was pleasantly surprised that Jim was not the Lord of an English manor as I had supposed. Instead, he was a seaman, disgraced by his desertion of the passenger ship, Patna, which he believed was about to sink.

Tormented by his loss of honour, Jim banishes himself to the village of Patusan, a fictitious village, on the island of Borneo (a real island on which Kuching, capital of Sarawak, is located). There, it seems that he finds redemption – his strategic thinking and courage bring peace to the village. The villagers call him  Tuan Jim, Tuan being the Malay word for Lord.

When I finished this classic, I felt my emotions quivering so near the surface of my being that I could have wept. I wondered how the author, Joseph Conrad, of Polish descent, could portray Jim and the villagers in Patusan with such empathy.

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Sutherland Bronze bust of Joseph Conrad

Was because he had sailed to the Malayan archipelago while working aboard British trading ships? Was because he understood his own frailties? (In his youth, he had attempted suicide in the face of gambling debts.) Or was it his extensive research? To inform his writing, Conrad drew on many 19th century non-fiction works.

Given that this was the age of colonisation, I find it all the more extraordinary that Conrad had the intellect and heart to go beyond superficialities and prevalent stereotypes. He wrote to our shared humanity.

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Beckett Conrad’s gravestone inscription

 

A hundred and sixteen years after Lord Jim was published, Mark Nyambang asked the Bishop of Kuching about the true meaning of Christmas. The bishop spoke of hatred in the world, the refugee crisis and the challenges of diversity. He highlighted the uniqueness of Sarawak, where people of different races and religions live together in peace. His words ring true to me, because I have lived there. I have experienced their welcome. It is real.

 

 

‘So my Christmas message to everyone is that we should try to obey God, to embrace, to reach out to one another in love and be reconciled. Heaven and earth is reconciled on Christmas Day.’

The Right Reverend  Bolly Lapok

Bishop of Kuching

Eyes to See

childhood

Carmen as a child in Romania, 1960s

Carmen grew up in Romania during the Cold War. With her young schoolmates, she used to pay homage to Ceausescu, chanting at rallies: Long live the President who gives us a good life. But long queues for bread told her she was living a lie; the entire country was living a lie.

Carmen was fascinated by psychology. As a Christian, however, she could not study it at university – professions in teaching and psychology were only for Communist party members. Instead, following her father’s footsteps, she enrolled in Mechanical Engineering.

By 1987, during her third year of studies, Carmen became deeply dissatisfied. She saw no future for herself in Engineering or in Romania. She wondered if she could escape; she saw a better future for herself outside Eastern Europe.

After interviewing her about her amazing journey to Australia, we both stood at her kitchen bench. She was describing her plan to turn her house into a place where she could offer counselling and prayer.

‘It’s a bit woolly out there at the moment,’ she said, looking out the back window, her gaze directed at a carpet of weeds, ‘but my husband and I will landscape it. It’ll be a garden where people with troubles can come and sit. Can you see it?’ She peers at me through her spectacles.

Almost thirty years since she embarked on her own journey of hope, Carmen has launched Hope 4 You House, which aims to ‘assist families experiencing extreme hardship, by offering food parcels, emotional and Christian spiritual support.’

Carmen’s story is about having the eyes to see potential, a kind of vision that gives us hope and enables us to keep working until possibility becomes reality. We all need such eyes – how else could we raise children, build houses or write books?

‘Where there is no vision, the people perish…’

Proverbs 29:18a

The Bible, King James Version

Setbacks and breakthroughs

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Adelaide Chin Christian Church choir. Used with permission.

About a year ago, I began interviewing Za Dim, a lady from the minority Chin tribe of Myanmar. After describing her experience of torture in an Indian jail, she said that each time she recounted the experience, she would be dizzy and unwell for a few days. We sat silent for a while, the air heavy with horror and sorrow.

Finally, I said, ‘I’m sorry for all that you went through.’

‘Nothing you can do about that. It’s in the past now,’ interpreted her son. ‘The story after this is happy.’

A few days later, her son called to postpone a meeting because his mother was unwell. My subsequent phone calls went unanswered and I almost gave up hope of seeing them again, wondering if the interview had caused her so much pain that she had decided to discontinue the retelling, wondering if she was still happy for me to publish her story.

To my great delight and relief, I recently reestablished contact Za Dim. Her family had moved from their inner city home to the northern suburbs. Warming ourselves before an antiquated wood burner, Za Dim and I exchanged pleasantries. I handed her a copy of her story, what I had written so far. She accepted it and invited me to her church.

As I drove her to church that Sunday, she told me that her youngest son had read her story and asked who had written it. ‘My friend, May-Kuan,’ she had replied.

It has been said that journalists have no satisfactory word for the people they cover – characters? subjects? – which may say something about the oddness of the relationship itself. So it meant a great deal to hear Za Dim call me friend.

Writing this book over the past three years, I’ve encountered various setbacks. The Cambodian lady I interviewed pulled out on reading the draft, desiring to ‘let the past be the past.’ It was a setback for the book, but, I’d like to think, a cathartic experience for her personally.  So many times when I’ve thought the book is nearly done, the finish line in sight, it turns out to be a mirage; there is more writing, more editing, more interviewing.

But breakthroughs like reestablishing contact with Za Dim, visiting her church, seeing so many Chin families thrive in Adelaide, makes me take heart. Press on. Move forward. Inch closer to the end.

 

 

Foreign workers, foreign languages

Each time I return to Malaysia, I eat dim sum, or as it’s known in Australia, yum cha. Pushing trolleys of bamboo steamers and plastic plates, waiters and waitresses call out har gaw (prawn dumplings), siu mai (pork dumplings), dan tat (egg tarts).

Without looking up at their faces, I cannot distinguish if the speakers are Chinese or Burmese, so perfect is their pronunciation. As I travel through Singapore and Malaysia, the language acquisition of foreign workers never ceases to amaze the English teacher in me. In class, my worksheets and role playing exercises cannot achieve the same results.

It was with lofty ideas of learning how to improve resettlement services that I embarked on this story collecting journey – forty years of refugee resettlement and six stories, the stories winding through thirteen countries. But as I near the the end of it, I realise my folly.

Heck, I’m not even an hourly paid instructor at TAFE anymore. What hope do I have of improving the delivery of English in Australia? To persuade employers to give migrants a chance? Use an apprentice system, perhaps coupled with tailored English lessons. Language has to be used to be acquired. Classroom teaching alone will never deliver.

In interviewing people and writing their stories of forced migration, I was, I think, at a deeper level, looking for an excuse to seek out such stories because my students had made my predictable life more interesting. They were unemployed, being paid to attend math and English lessons, but they made me laugh and put my daily inconveniences into perspective. I felt more alive, more human, more in touch with the world for having known them.

Is it a migration crisis?

‘It’s not a crisis of migration.

It’s a crisis of cooperation.’

This was the assessment of Dr Alan Gamlen, senior lecturer at the University of Wellington, as he delivered the Graeme Hugo Memorial Lecture in Adelaide last month. In his opening remarks, Dr Gamlen paraphrased something once said by Professor Graeme Hugo AO: Migration is an age-old pattern, not a crisis.

Since ancient times people have moved for all sorts of reasons: personal and political, voluntary and involuntary. The view that polical exiles move because they have to, while economic migrants move because they want to, is inaccurate in a world where people risk their lives because they nothing more to lose.

The worse thing we can do is to feel awful and think: ‘I can do nothing’. That is a lie; we can always do something. Asylum seekers, displaced people, foreign workers, and aliens are all around the world – Bangladeshis on Malaysian construction sites, Burmese carers in Singaporean hospices, Persian children in Australian schools. There is much we can do locally. We could, for example, cook a pot of chicken curry, donate a raffle prize, arrange tables and chairs, or sing a few songs.

These are some of the things that people in Adelaide did in response to asylum seeker dental needs in their community. It was part of a fundraising dinner at Hope’s Cafe. The day before the event, numbers swelled from an expected 180 to 250 diners. The old church hall, then smaller cafe hall and eventually the church grounds were used to seat everyone. A dentist is going to open his clinic one day a month for asylum seekers, giving discounts to so that the funds raised can go further.

International Night at Hope's Cafe

International Night at Hope’s Cafe

Whatever our station in life, whatever our skills, there is always something we can do. Cooperation among the willing means that the whole exceeds the sum of its parts. Working together stretches finite resources and makes possible what we cannot achieve alone.

Empathy without agency creates apathy; empathy with agency creates change.

Armed with a torch

Dried gourd bow with beaded cross motif

Dried gourd bowl with beaded cross motif.

Inside of the gourd bowl. Stitches because it was broken in transit.

Inside of the gourd bowl.

During our second interview for the book, Otholi showed me the bowl, cup and jug,  decorated with beadwork by his wife Ariet, that his family had brought from Ethiopia. He explained that most of the motifs are crosses because they are Christians. I asked him about the other pattern, some sort of arrow. He laughed and said with admiration, ‘Women are very creative. If they think of some pattern, they can make it.’

Plastic water jug with cross motif.

Anuak beadword around a plastic cup.

Ariet had packed these items when their family fled the slaying of the Anuak people in Gambella.They stayed away from  paths and roads, hiding as they went, and thought they were alone, but found three to four thousand other Anuak in the bush.

‘Mainly women and children … because men don’t want to be called cowards, they don’t want to run, they just want to go back.’ Some found guns and went back to avenge the deaths of their uncles and brothers but Otholi said to Ariet, ‘There is no point I leave you by yourself to go with the kids. We can go together.’

Their journey seeking safe haven took them through Sudan, Uganda and Kenya. Women and children were very vulnerable in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, just miles from the Somali border, where people smuggled guns into the camp, where Christian women who did not adhere to the dress code of the predominantly Muslim Somali refugees, were looked upon as loose women and treated accordingly.

Otholi was trained by the UNHCR and the Kenyan government as a community peace keeper and given a powerful torch, to shine light in dark places, and a walkie talkie to the Kenyan police for situations beyond what he could deal with himself. By night, he patrolled their quarters. By day he walked with the women to collect firewood and to buy food. He accompanied the children on their 30 minute walk to school and back. ‘We men always had to be with our women to protect them,’ he said of those days.

Otholi with the eating and drinking utensils decorated by his wife, Ariet.

Otholi with the eating and drinking utensils decorated by his wife, Ariet.

Australian women don’t live in refugee camps but the statistics say that on average, one woman a week is murdered by her partner or ex-partner and one in three women experience domestic violence. How we need men with good, strong hearts, men who know that manhood is not in aggression, or revenge, or shouting the loudest, or hitting the hardest, but in protecting the weak and working on behalf of the vulnerable, and even, perhaps, to speak with admiration of the women in their lives, and to cherish them.

The land was really good

Otholi (far right) and family

Otholi (far right), with his wife Ariet beside him, and his 3 children and one grandchild.

‘The land was really good,’ says Otholi.

He smiles as he says this, enunciating the words slowly, drawing them out, lingering on his memory of the land, the fertile Gambella basin between Ethiopia and South Sudan. On this land Otholi and his people – the indigenous Anuak – cultivated bananas, mangoes, paw paw, maize, and sorghum. If they felt like eating wild meat, they went out to the bush to hunt. The land abounded with antelope, gazelle, buffalo, and giraffe.

When light-skinned highlanders from central Ethiopia saw that this land in the south-west was good, they settled there, and said, ‘Ah, this is Ethiopia land, but the people do not belong to Ethiopia.’ Nonetheless, the Anuak welcomed the highlanders as brothers and lived peacefully with them for many years.

The story of Otholi’s displacement from Gambella starts with the discovery of oil in 2001. Gambella’s regional leaders opposed the national government’s decision to refine the oil in another state. With the benefit of hindsight, Otholi’s people have coined a saying: Finding oil in your land is like finding a cancerous tumour – there will be a lot of problems.

On the 13th of December 2003, a few road workers were found dead. Due to their opposition to aspects of the oil development plan, the Anuak were blamed for the crime even though there were no eye witnesses. In retaliation, Anuak men were hunted down and shot. 425 people were killed that day. Around 4,000 Anuak men, women and children, fled into the bush, where they walked for five days before settling in South Sudan. That was the beginning of Otholi’s journey and search for safety.

At the end of our conversation, I told Otholi that I would like him to describe these places to me so that I can imagine them and he said, ‘I have the memory of my land. I just call it my homeland. I still have the memory of what happened to us and that’s why every year, we sit down on December the 13th to let other people know that it is a very sad and unforgettable day for us. We forgive but we don’t forget. We forgive those that have done it, but we don’t forget.’

His speech slows down and for the first time during our conversation, his eyes redden. Silence. Then in a barely audible voice, he says, ‘It was horrible. We lost very, very important people to our community. So…yeap…thank you.’

And I wonder if it is a thank you for listening, or for asking, or for remembering with him and his people, the Anuak.