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.

 

 

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.

 

Seeing life through the lens of death

Since moving away in 2001, I have returned to Malaysia and Singapore each year to spend time with family. As the years passed, I have noticed loved ones growing old, often witnessing one year’s worth of ageing in a single visit. Chinese New Year celebrations this year were tinged with sadness. My uncle and cousins were still in black, mourning the recent passing of their beloved wife and mother.

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Rees Leo Tolstoy

While I was in Singapore, I read Tolstoy’s The death of Ivan Ilyich. Without sentimentality, Tolstoy describes the various stages of pain, panic and depression that beset Ivan as his unnamed disease progresses. It is painful to read, but the most wretched moment is when Ivan realises that he has spent his whole life on things of inconsequence: societal approval, salary increase, house decor. Why had he not instead sought out those rare moments of genuine human connection he had experienced early in life?

So, 2017 has arrived. I have been working on this book for more than three years. I’d like to think that it is very nearly complete. In fact, I printed out all 168 pages today. I am usually miserly with my printer toner; it’s a big step for me. Having given myself the last two and a half weeks off for travel, I will, starting tomorrow, read it through from beginning to end and mark the places where the prose and logic are found wanting. So I continue working toward the hope of publication.

But if I regard my interviews with refugees and migrants primarily as a means to writing a book, would I, like Ivan Ilyich, have focused on professional competence and missed the moments that truly mattered? So I recalibrate my mindset: the journey is about the people first; the book is a by-product. People before projects. Always.

Eyes to See

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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).

Jen
Jen

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.

Iced coffee instead of bush tea

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My friend Merrilyn remembers a wonderful Afghan family and has a visual picture of where she parked when she visited them twelve years ago. On hearing that I would like to interview Afghans for my book, the two of us set out in my little car to try to locate this family.

‘It’s a corner house like this, but this one looks too flash.’

‘It has a long backyard like this, but there are only men’s shirts hanging in the backyard.’

‘Look, there are council workers over there. Would you be embarrassed if I spoke to them?’

‘No, but I don’t think they are going to know the Afghan family.’ I was starting to have my doubts, but admired Merrilyn’s commitment to the mission.

When we crossed the street to speak to a lady wearing a fluorescent vest, I thought of Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi, the detective and her secretary from the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, as brought to life by Alexander McCall Smith. The only difference was location: Adelaide, not Gabarone.

‘I’m looking for an Afghan refugee family who live here. I visited them twelve years ago. You wouldn’t have stumbled upon them would you?’

‘No,’ she shook her head. ‘We’ve just started in this area.’

‘You’re probably not even asking ethnicity.’

‘No, dog registrations.’

‘Ah, that’s a good thing to do. Keep cool. Sorry to take up your time.’

‘Not at all.’

It was a cheerful exchange, though not a very productive one.

‘Let’s try this one,’ said Merrilyn, pointing to an old sandstone bungalow with a letterbox propped up against the chain link fence. My heart sank when we rung the doorbell and heard Broadway music from the last century. An Aussie bloke in a singlet shuffled to the door. Definitely not Afghan. We did however learn that he barracked for Carlton because his brother lived there, though he did occasionally barrack for Port.

Ah, well, it was not to be.

We had spied a bustling cafe and decided to quench our thirst after all that sleuthing. Once again, like Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi, only we had iced coffee instead of bush tea. Waiting to pay, I read a small newspaper article pasted to the till. Loveon Cafe had been started by a certain Rashed Kabir, who came from Bangladesh 10 years ago. While waiting for our coffees, we admired the handmade clay earrings we had bought to commemorate our day of detective work, the artistic decor and the little teapot on our table with the words ‘Coronation 2 June 1953 Queen Elizabeth.’

We met Rashed before we left and I said, ‘Wonderful cafe. Who is the artistic person who did your decor?’

‘All of you. The community. Everybody contributes.’

‘Where are you from?’ asked Merrilyn.

‘Bangladesh, crazy place,’ he says, smiling.

 

His son was just behind the counter, a mop of curly hair and bright black eyes. The young boy moved to a small table with crayons and toys, and I understood why it felt like a child friendly place, not just because of the brown paper wall covered with children’s drawings, the high chairs, the mothers with their babies, but because it was this child’s space too.

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Trying to finish the first draft for the book while juggling all the other commitments in life, the best thing motto I can think of for now is: Love On. After all, ‘Love is patient. Love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.’

1 Corinthians 13:4-7

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Loveon Cafe along Gladstone Road, Mile End. Well worth checking out if you’re in town.