A Crack in the Immigration System

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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.

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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.

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.

 

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.

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

Never refuse chocolate

It was mid-morning and Kom saw other students giving me food. It was comical; my little haul was surely too much to consume during a fifteen-minute tea break. Kom rummaged through his bag, pulled out a chocolate bar and offered it to me with a wide smile.

‘Oh, no thank you,’ I laughed. ‘I’ll grow fat.’

‘Don’t say that, teacher,’ he said, his eyes downcast, as if a great sorrow had descended upon him.

I had met Kom on my first day in my new job as a teacher. I was sitting in to observe a more experience teacher, who had asked everyone to write down three numbers each and get someone else to guess what those numbers referred to.

Kom looked at my piece of paper and said, ‘Husband?’

‘No,’ I said, ‘everybody has one husband.’ I realise this is not true, but for some reason, we both burst out laughing.

When Kom re-entered my class about three years later, the carefree laughter had gone. Things were not going well at home. His wife came in for my computing class one day with her tiny daughter in tow, a little girl with large, large eyes and two tight ponytails. Childcare arrangements were not yet in place.

‘Please, I have been home nine years looking after the children. I want to learn. Please let me stay,’ she said. I understood her anguish. I had known what it was to stay at home with beautiful children you love so much, and at the same time feel that the world is passing you by.

But we could not let her stay; management had made it amply clear that our insurance did not cover children on the premises. My boss came and told her kindly, but firmly, that she could not attend class with a child. The little girl started swiping her chubby fingers at my boss’ knees, trying to protect her mother. Kom’s wife was aghast, ‘No, don’t do that.’ And then they both went away.

And so Kom taught me that I should not refuse gifts and goodness. When so many troubles beset us in this world, we should celebrate kindness, accept generosity and be thankful. Sometimes you need to keep your eyes on the small good things, especially when the larger more difficult problems are too difficult to solve, just yet.

I took the chocolate bar. And thanked him.

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Carter

Capture them while you can

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My aunt, Lim Kum Ying, circa 1950.

My aunt once told me of her older brother, who had loved her dearly. During World War II, he was taken away by the Japanese and never returned. ‘That day,’ she said, ‘I had given him a piece of cake. It was so strange. He was usually the one giving me food.’ She was reluctant to say any more. ‘Surely you don’t need to write of these things?’

I had heard that the Japanese were cruel during the war and truth be told, I had never given much thought to Hiroshima. The atomic bomb did, after all, bring an end to the Japanese military occupation of Malaya.

But then, I read John Hersey’s Hiroshima, a work of non-fiction that follows the lives of six atomic bomb survivors. The day before the bomb was dropped, for example, Reverend Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Mehodist Church, had just moved the church piano to a home two miles away from the town centre, where he believed it would be safer; the piano didn’t survive. After the explosion, he ran back to the city to check on his church and the twenty families he was responsible for as the head of their Neighbourhood Association. He was held up, however, up by cries of the injured: ‘Mizu, mizu! Water, water!’ For the first time, I started to imagine what it had been like for ordinary Japanese.

When I visited my aunt in December last year, she did recognise me, but said that I was such a pretty girl (Bless her! When was the last time anyone said that?), and who was this? My husband? He is very rich, is he not? My dear aunt has forgotten us. Her memories are slipping away. Many stories are already gone.

Hiroshima ends by referring to Reverend Tanimoto and the proliferation of nuclear weapons: His memory, like the world’s, was getting spotty.

I guess that’s why we must talk about the past, and write down stories.