Delving beyond the politicised asylum seeker debate

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More to the Story: Conversations with Refugees
Rosemary Sayer
Margaret River Press

As the major political parties in Australia shifted into election mode earlier this year, the topic of refugees was almost always one that elicited an emotional response, with questions like ‘who are these people?’, ‘why did they come here?’ and ‘why should we care about them?’ becoming the norm. The recent release of over 2,000 confidential files on the Nauru detention centre that exposes sexual assault, child abuse and inhuman detention practices has seen a surge of interest in the public wanting more information and transparency around asylum seekers held in detention.

More to the Story: Conversations with Refugees by Rosemary Sayer is an important collection of stories told by individuals who came to Australia seeking refuge, and provides personal insight into the questions so often raised within political forums, which arguablydrowns out the voices that matter most in the mainstream debates about refugees.

The 1951 Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, of which Australia is a signatory, states that a person is a refugee if they are outside of their country due to fear and likelihood of prosecution due to their religion, race, nationality, political opinion or member of a social group (often a minority group).

More to the Story: Conversations with Refugees is a vital contribution to understanding the complex tapestry of the human experience that refugees bring with them when they embark on their journeys and settle in their new countries.

As an expat living overseas, Sayer notes that she was regularly asked why Australians were racist towards refugees, with Chinese friends concerned with the rise of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party and the anti-immigrant sentiment playing out in the media. Sayer writes that the reason she became interested in presenting the unique stories of refugees was because she “felt compelled to embrace the opposite approach” of how refugees’ stories are commonly represented and politicised, in order to provide a voice to those who are regularly silenced by states, governments and the media.

More to the Story: Conversations with Refugees is a vital contribution to understanding the complex tapestry of the human experience that refugees bring with them when they embark on their journeys and settle in their new countries. The stories feature diverse characters from disparate countries, from Naw Pi, a Karen from Myanmar who fled from persecution by the Burmese military who raided her village to Abdul Farid Sufizada, one of the 428 people on board the Tampa, the ship that became a turning point in Australian politics around the management of refugees and asylum seekers.

Sayers reflects that “spending time among refugee families that had often been dislocated by war and were now living such challenging lives had constantly made [her] reflect on [her] family’s good fortune of being born in Australia”.

Interestingly, Sayer includes a chapter on those who have been left behind – illustrating that the journey to becoming a refugee is often not taken in isolation and that there are far-reaching consequences that are often unseen. Sayers explores how familial ties are often strengthened when a husband, brother, mother or sister flees in the hope of a better life.

The author also visits Mae La, the biggest refugee camp on the border of Thailand and Myanmar, and attempts to document the entire experience of the refugees there with sensitivity. At Mae La, Sayers notes that “the significant effort made by all the refugees to maintain their dignity and hope in the camp community” contributed to their ability to maintain a positive outlook, despite some of them being there for numerous years while their claims were being assessed.

In the process of writing More to the Story: Conversations with Refugees, Sayers often had her own cultural constructs and ideas about refugees and the circumstances leading to them seeking asylum challenged. In her introduction, Sayers notes that she rarely harboured a thought as to what it meant to live in a free society until she spoke intimately with the refugees who had themselves become displaced because of socio-political interference.

More to the Story: Conversations with Refugees expertly weaves together not only conversations with refugees but the historical and socio-political backdrops that have forced them to flee their countries for shelter in Australia. As Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers increasingly becomes a political and moral issue, it is well worth reading this book to hear authentic voices.

More to the Story: Conversations with Refugees is now available from Margaret River Press.

Article originally posted here: RightNow: Human Rights in Australia

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What it means to be a refugee in Australia

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Younis Yousefi, My House, 2004, unfired clay handpainted

Pictures in my Heart: Seeking Refuge – Afghanistan to Australia
Fiona Hamilton
Wakefield Press

Noted French novelist Marcel Proust once claimed that “only through art can we emerge from ourselves and know what another person sees”. In Fiona Hamilton’s book Pictures in my Heart, Seeking Refuge – Afghanistan to Australia, the reader is treated to artworks created by refugees from Afghanistan living in Murray Bridge, a small town outside of Adelaide, South Australia. The pieces explore what it means to be refugees in Australia. Linocuts – prints cut into a sheet of linoleum – are used as the medium through which the artists’ depict their separation from their families and their harrowing experiences as asylum seekers.

Between 1999 and 2001, many Hazara male refugees came to Australia by boat and were placed on Temporary Protection Visas (TPV) while the Australian government assessed their asylum claims. Living on a TPV meant that this particular group of men was able to live in the Murray Bridge community, rather than in detention as is the case now for those seeking asylum on Australian shores. However, the TPV also meant that the Australian government would reconsider their petition for asylum after 30 months. If circumstances changed, there could be every chance that their review would be unfavourable and that they would be sent back to Afghanistan – a potential death sentence for those fleeing the Taliban.

Familial themes pervade the artwork, while the stories further reinforce how dangerous Afghanistan has been for those caught in the Taliban’s warfare.

Alongside longtime friend and artist Miranda Harris, Hamilton saw the opportunity to run a series of art workshops as a way of mitigating the intense periods of loneliness and separation that accompany the refugee experience. The book is a collection of stories, linocuts, photos and clay art made by the men who attended the workshops. Their contributions featured in a 2003 exhibition at the local town hall.

Whilst significant as artworks in their own right, the series of works highlights the collective plight of many refugees; caught between wanting to honour their own socio-cultural backgrounds while trying to become valued members of Australian society. Familial themes pervade the artwork, while the stories further reinforce how dangerous Afghanistan has been for those caught in the Taliban’s warfare.

Broken up into chapters such as “Home”, “War”, “Journey” and “Boat”, Pictures in my Heart, Seeking Refuge – Afghanistan to Australia is a collection of memories and hopes representative of the initial shared refugee experience – from the decision to embark on a dangerous journey to freedom to the challenges faced as a result of governmental intervention.

Unfortunately, the ability of refugees to access artistic programs such as the Murray Bridge program is not a shared experience, and we are poorer because of it.

Originally published at Rightnow: http://rightnow.org.au/review-3/importance-art-understanding/

Osamah Sami Tackles the Refugee Experience with Homour and Gusto – Book Review

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Good Muslim Boy | Osamah Sami | Hardie Grant

Good Muslim Boy by Osamah Sami is a well-written and entertaining memoir of one man’s journey from a persecuted young Iraqi living in Iran to a refugee immigrating to Australia in the mid-1990s with his cleric father and family. The memoir follows Sami’s trials and tribulations as he and his family settle down in Australia.

Sami’s keen insight into Australian and Muslim life, in particular, and the cultural expectations and differences that can create conflict are captured in an open and honest way – his comedic eye finding the humour in most things, even if this is often directed at himself.

Sami’s anecdotes of being detained by Homeland Security in the USA and fleeing Iran during the Iran-Iraq war are a testament to his engaging writing style and his keen observational skills.

Though he was born in Iran, Sami was looked down upon as an Arab and outsider in his local community, struggling to fit in with the Iranian children, whose cruel taunts and actions reminded him of his status as an outsider in the close-knit Iranian community. As a child, he also struggled to fit in with the cultural expectations of his own family; this discrepancy increased dramatically as Sami grew into a young man caught between his Iraqi identity and his new home in Australia.

Difference is a recurring theme in the book and Sami tackles it with gusto. From condemnation of the Australian Iraqi community about his appearance in a gay movie on the internet to their outrage at him playing a Lebanese man engaged to a lesbian as well as Saddam Hussein in Saddam: The Musical, the conflict between secular Australia and Sami’s cultural and religious background is readily explored.

The result is a book that not only provides honest insight into the cultural appropriation of Muslims in Australian society, but an elucidating journey into Sami’s own family’s issues as they too struggle with the idea of maintaining strong links to socio-cultural and religious practices.

Good Muslim Boy is an entertaining book that provides a light-hearted read on what is essentially a serious and confronting account of what comes with seeking a better life in Australia. The ability to straddle multiple identities in a bid for acceptance in, not only your country of birth, but your adopted country is difficult, but Sami expertly navigates such terrain with wit and candour.

Good Muslim Boy is now available from Hardie Grant.

Originally published at Right now Osamah Sami Tackles the Refugee Experience with Humour and Gusto