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.

 

Harmony Day Celebrations

Ethiopian Bread Basket
Ethiopian Bread Basket

Last Sunday, at the Migration Museum in Adelaide, Anette and Zaid demonstrated how to make Injera, an Eritrean/Ethiopian flatbread. They have kindly agreed to share their Eritrean flat bread and beef stew recipe here. Anette became a mentor to Zaid as part of the Fuse Mentoring program, run by Baptist Care, where new arrivals are paired up with volunteers who help them find their feet in Australia.

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Outside the cooking demo hall, under a gazebo, an articulate young lady from Congo was delivering a speech to a small crowd. She described her experience of arriving in Australia as ‘landing on the moon.’ Bryan Hughes, the Fuse Mentoring coordinator later said that having a friend is a real lifeline for new arrivals, who might have little or no English skills.

The Australian Refugee Association (ARA) and Welcome to Australia  were partners in this event. All these organisations welcome volunteers. Various other groups in Adelaide also do their bit to help new arrivals, such as holding free English classes and coffee mornings. It seems timely to put up an  information page where various refugee resettlement resources in Adelaide can be listed in one place so that resources and needs can be more easily matched. I have therefore set up a page on this blog – Adelaide Asylum Seeker & Refugee Support – where groups providing services to refugees and asylum seekers can share their contact details and say a bit about what they offer.

If we work together, we can achieve more.

Unfinished business

“You’ll send me a copy, won’t you?” said Mr Malcolm Fraser to me as we stood at the door of his office, high above Collins Street in Melbourne. I cannot remember my exact words but I said that I would work on the book – did I say work, or did I say work quickly? – and promised to send him a copy.

The book in question was Place of Refuge. I interviewed him for one hour on the 24th of September, 2014, on the topic of asylum seekers for Chapter One of the book. Yesterday, on the morning of the 20th of March, 2015, as I was completing an Arts SA grant application for the book, I learnt of his passing.

Tears streamed down my face. I was so sorry that I had not sent Mr Fraser a copy of the book; I had not finished writing it. It was a topic that was very close to his heart. In that interview, he said to me, ‘You either believe people are equal or you do not.’

Mr Fraser did not merely mouth those words; he worked resolutely on behalf the disadvantaged. He vigorously opposed apartheid in South Africa and was the Founding Chair of CARE Australia, an international humanitarian aid organisation. Throughout his life, he spoke out on topics he felt strongly about. I believe that it was his concern for asylum seekers that caused him to respond to my request for his input into the book.

I am deeply saddened by the passing of a great statesman but I realise that the best thing I can do now is to work hard on this book, drawing on all resources available to me, making it the best piece of literature possible.

The phrase ‘place of refuge’ has an impermanent sense to it. People take refuge until the storm has passed, or the war has been fought, then they return home. Farewell, Mr Fraser. I wish you peace and rest.

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The American invasion and chess

photo Sumon
photo Sumon

“The circumstances in our country are very difficult; this difficulty comes from the Americans invading my country because everything was destroyed after the invasion. Contrary to what America said (that they came to give peace and freedom a better chance and to improve living conditions), the militia increased in our country. One of the militia is called Al-Qaeda. In agreement with men from the old government, the Ba’athist party, al-Qaeda threatened my father to kill him, after killing his friend Muayad Sami,” translates Iba.

“When did America invade Iraq?” I ask.

“America invaded Iraq in 2003,” answers Iba.

“Who was Muayad?” I ask.

“Muayad was the head of a newspaper called Parliament and my father was the second in the newspaper,” explains Iba.

I ask for the date of Muayad’s death. Iba and his parents find it hard to give me an exact date, but tell me that it was in 2005.

Lamia continues in Arabic where Sabah had left off.

“My mum says, my younger sister, Ranin, was threatened not to go to the chess club anymore and as my father said, my family in general was under threat of being killed,” said Iba.

The interview settles into a rhythm, with Iba translating for his father, Sabah, the playwright, and his mother, Lamia, the actress. Sabah describes the family’s journey from Iraq to Australia using world events as reference points, while Lamia puts me right in the scene, sometimes with a single word. When she recalls the terrible house in Jordan where they lived for a year, she raises her hands in despair, scrunches up her face in disgust, and laments in English: “Rats!” And I can almost see the rats scurrying by their feet.

When I leave 90 minutes later, I know that there is much more to discover, and make a date and time to return.

Delicious baby

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“Delicious baby,” said my student as her child lay suckling in her arms.

“Delicious milk?” I asked.

“No, delicious baby.”

“In English we use delicious for food,” I said.

“In my language, we say delicious baby. I am so happy,” she said.

“Ah,” I said. “You are very happy. Your baby is very precious, like your gold earrings, but much more precious.”

She nodded.

Delicious was not a bad word to describe the baby, I thought. After all, we use ‘delicious’ to describe our feelings, and it encapsulated the delight I saw on her face.

I left the English lesson at “Baby has ten toenails.” Mother, father and child had to go to the Immigration Department. What does the future hold for this child born to asylum seekers in Australia?

Photo peasap