World Bank Photo Collection: A construction site in Kuala Lumpur

I’ve only just realised the significance of my encounter last week with Rashed, the owner of Loveon Cafe and Deli in Adelaide. It was not the Bangla breakfast – poached eggs with lentil soup, not the iced coffee, nor the hand-made clay earrings from Bangladesh; it was the first time I have had a conversation with a Bangladeshi.

This is surprising because I return to Malaysia every year, temporary home to tens of thousands of Bangladeshis; they are everywhere but everywhere unseen. They might lay bricks in construction sites, make beds in hotel rooms, fill up cars at petrol stations but I’ve never had a conversation with any of them.

‘Full tank,’ is probably the most I have ever said. Aside from the obvious language barrier, there is something else that prevents me from asking even a simple, ‘How was your day?’ – the knowledge that that in all likelihood he hasn’t seen his family for months, is sending almost all of his pay home, and his employer-provided accommodation is not exactly the Hilton. This knowledge makes me feel that the question would be insensitive at best, patronising at worst.

Our forefathers used to be barred from the Selangor Club, where colonialist played tennis and drank at the bar, native workers bringing them them clean towels and drinks. It still irks me when I read of someone calling for ‘boy’ in period novels – a native servant could be fifty years old, but to his employers, he would still be ‘boy’.

We who have known how humiliating it was to be regarded as inferior, what it was to be regarded as less intellectual, less capable, less civilised, do we treat Bangladeshis, Indonesians, and Burmese, as a lesser class of people?

There is something fundamentally wrong in a world where some people have to leave their homes, to work in another country for years, in order to provide food for their families, or money for their children’s schooling.

My paternal grandmother left her family in Menglembu, Perak, to work as a maid in Penang up north. She only returned during Chinese festivals a few times a year and as a result my father never really had a close relationship with her, but at least she was still in Malaya.

In two generations we have moved from a society of servants to a society with servants.  May we remember where we came from and treat our foreign workers as we would have liked our grandmothers and grandfathers to have been treated.





Iced coffee instead of bush tea


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.


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


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

Hello and Goodbye

My paternal grandfather

My paternal grandfather

I sit in my study in Adelaide, thinking of the journey that my paternal grandfather took from China to Malaya somewhere between 1900 and 1930. It’s an imprecise estimate, my best guess.

In the only surviving photo of his younger days, he is in Western attire. He was a scholar, or, as the Cantonese saying goes, one who holds a brush. I imagine him looking for a better life, fleeing the political turmoil of China, setting sail for the South China Sea.

For the migrant, life is a series of goodbyes and hellos, and for me, the modern day migrant, December is a month of long summer days, bush fire dangers, and holidays back home. But home is becoming harder and harder to pin down.

Maybe home is where the food is best – where I hear a metal spatula fighting with a wok and know that a good plate of char-kway-teow is coming up. But my children have developed a taste for Spaghetti Bolognese, Aussie meat pies and Kourabiethes, and I must admit that I am partial to a good tiramisu myself.

Or is it where I can walk the streets my grandfather walked? Where I can gaze up at his calligraphy, imagine his brush forming words that were cast in concrete and affixed to the newest building in town? But my link to him is tenuous. I never met him; he passed away before I was born. Those streets may hold my history, but not my home.


My grandfather’s calligraphy on a building in Menglembu, near Ipoh.


My grandfather left China and never returned to see family left behind, establishing a new family in a new land. Modern migrants are luckier. We travel back and forth with our hellos and goodbyes and our bittersweet holidays, maintaining links with the past where all the talking and remembering is compressed into a few emotional weeks, and then we return home again to forge a path into the future, wherever that may be.

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.

The curious scribbler meets the rug-maker

‘Would you like some tea?’ asks Najaf, the rug-maker of Mazar-e-Sharif. I accept his offer gratefully as I step into his  shop – Afghan Traditional Rugs – on High Street in Prahran, Melbourne.

Moments earlier, from the opposite side of the street, I was so disappointed to see the sign ‘Closed’ on the shop door,  but thought I’ll cross the street anyway. Peering in through the glass door, I saw two people in the dim recesses of the shop beckoning me in. Najaf himself opens the door, flipping the sign to ‘Open’. I blurt out, ‘I’m from Adelaide. I read your book.’ and he offered me tea.

Najaf was apprenticed as a rug-maker in his village in northern Afghanistan, near Mazar-e-Sharif, before the Taliban captured him and tortured him, leaving him no option but to flee to Pakistan, aided by, of all people, a Pashtun, one of the traditional enemies of Najaf’s people, the Hazara.

Najaf told his story to award winning biographer, Robert Hillman, who captured Najaf’s voice so well in the book The Rug-maker of Mazar-e-Sharif that I felt quite sure, just by reading  the book, that Najaf was a good and friendly person, the sort of person who won’t mind if I visit him to talk about refugees and about his book, even if I don’t buy a rug, though I hasten to add that there is a 50% sale on right now because Najaf is clearing stock in preparation for an overseas purchasing trip.

Inside the shop, a young lady, wearing a beautifully embroidered hijab, removes a pile of bright cushions from an office chair and offers me the seat. She sits in the other chair in front of the computer and we chat about the Australian tax system before Najaf reappears with a thermos and a cup of steaming green tea on a saucer for me.

I notice a picture of two stylised birds beneath a mosque with the words Masawat Development Fund. I ask Najaf about it. As he leans on a column, carpets hanging on either side, he tells me that funds from his book sales have been used to buy an ambulance for the area around Mazar-e-Sharif to transport pregnant women to the nearest hospital – a three to four hour journey along hilly, rocky, windy road.

He is returning to Afghanistan in October, with his daughter, to give school supplies to the children in his village. ‘Put pens in the hands of children, not guns,’ said Najaf. ‘Don’t blame the refugees, blame the people who drop bombs and put guns in the hands of people, because this is why there are refugees.’

We talk for almost two hours. Najaf offers me advice on agents and publishers before I leave his shop at noon. Only then, as I say goodbye, when lady turns around from her work on the computer, do I realise that she has been waiting all morning for Najaf’s input to finish the accounts. Nothing in her body language or her demeanour had suggested any impatience with my nattering on and on, keeping her from finishing her morning’s work.

Such is the kindness of strangers.

View from the tram as I left Najaf's shop (the yellow one in the middle)

View from the tram as I left Najaf’s shop (the bright yellow one in the middle)

Life comes first

Palmer: Children of Sao Felix, Brazilian Amazon

Palmer Children of Sao Felix

I was cutting the vegetables by the kitchen sink and listening to Annie Dillard’s audiobook The Writing Life. ‘Why people want to be writers I will never know, unless their lives lack a material footing.’

“Does yours?” piped up a small voice.

“Mine what?” I asked, confused. I had forgotten that my young son was there on the floor, some ten feet away, constructing a cross bow out of paper, cellophane tape, and rubber bands, all held together with glue from a hot glue gun.

“Lack …” he trailed off, struggling to remember the exact words, before I realised he was referring to Dillard.

“Oh, no, with such wonderful children, my life could not possibly lack any materiality,” I assured him. Truth be told, when I heard that Dillard found all her pot plants dead and black after completing a manuscript, I misguidedly rued the fact that I could not possibly let my children die of hunger as she had let her plants die of thirst.

To put it all this into perspective was one of Australia’s best story tellers – Arnold Zable, who taught a class on Advocacy as an Artform at SA Writers Centre last Saturday.

‘Life comes first, writing second,’ he said. It is out of our ongoing engagement with life and the people around us,  that we learn things, and from that engagement flows writing that is true. I suppose we can insert any occupation into that second clause. Life comes first, all these things come second: plumbing, doctoring, teaching, gardening, milking the cow, mowing the lawn.

In the unlikely event that any of my children read this, know that you are loved and truly, because of you, my life does not lack a material footing.

Don’t just stand there, do something!


Daryl Teague’s souvenir made in a refugee camp prosthetics workshop

“These people have a chook tied under the bed so that it lays eggs,” said Dr Daryl Teague, explaining what the chicken was doing in a Red Cross hospital ward.

From January to April 1983, Daryl worked for the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) in eastern Thailand. When he arrived, there were around 50,000 refugees living in the Khao-I-Dang UNHCR refugee camp.

Writing a book on refugees is, at times, harrowing. Nothing like tales of rape and torture to induce despair. It was therefore a very pleasant change to be drinking tea, eating cake and viewing slides in Daryl and Wendy’s gracious home as part of my research for Place of Refuge.

“Here’s a guy I operated on two days before,” continued Daryl. “He’s very lucky to have kept his leg. So I told him: you’ve got to stay in the ward and have your leg up on two cardboard boxes. Anyway, I’m walking around and bloody hell, what are you doing out here? You’re supposed to have your leg up … and he turns round and he’s made a sling so that when he sits down his leg is still up. And I thought, you are so imaginative and …”, he searches for the right adjective and finally settles on “enterprising”, this last word spoken with admiration.

“Most of the time we’re operating on blown up limbs and bodies, but this little boy came in and he had a harelip and I did a harelip repair on him. He’s about 5 and we got the parents to come in and look at him. They were just totally thrilled.”

That afternoon with Daryl and Wendy recast the Cambodian Khmer Rouge tragedy for me. As Daryl reminisced about his patients, some by name, I saw that it had been more than a mercy mission; it had been an adventure. This was made possible by Wendy’s support, no small matter considering that volunteering was not without its risk – once a bomb landed so near to the doctors’ sleeping quarters that they thought a truck had backed into their building. The bomb had, in fact, struck a large kitchen in the refugee camp, killing several workers.

War and pain and injustice exist today as they did when Daryl went to Cambodia. Being aware of human suffering and believing that we can do nothing about it induces a kind of social blindness. We turn a blind eye because it is too painful to see such horror and do nothing.

But if we can look at evil in the face and ask ourselves: what we can do about this? what gifts and resources do we have? what lies within our circle of influence? then perhaps things will start to change, the change, whether big or small, a testament to goodness and mercy and hope. In Daryl’s words, emailed to me after proofreading this post: There is honour amongst refugees.

Emerging Artists Mentorship

Monarch Butterfly emerging

Mosdell Emerging

I am deeply grateful to be the recipient of an Arts SA Independent Makers and Presenters Grant, in the Emerging Artists Mentorship category. As a result of this grant, I will have the privilege of being mentored by poet, writer and teacher Dr Mark Tredinnick.

Writing is a solitary activity, and writing a book takes a long time, so long that there are days when I’m beset with doubts: Is this any good? Will it contribute anything true to humanity? Should I really gag the world with another book?

Although Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard said that these doubts are no more than mosquitoes to be ‘repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged’, dissenting voices in my head are not easily quelled. The support and belief of family, friends, and bodies such as Arts SA, strengthen my resolve, and give me the means, to keep going.

The category name – Emerging Artists Mentorship – is itself a hopeful one; it lends itself to the belief that an artists can emerge, from someone, somewhere, and that mentorships facilitate that process. This hope compels me to continue to sharpen the tools in my toolbox, to continue to string words into sentences, tame sentences into paragraphs, and sculpt paragraphs into stories.

The story I want to tell is the story of Adelaide, made up as it is of the stories of many people, some who have undertaken perilous journeys to get here, to make this place their home. The genre is creative non-fiction. The title is Place of Refuge.