In The Australian last weekend, journalist Paige Taylor described the gradual hardening of her heart.
She wrote of baby Abul flushed from a baby-carrier strapped to his mother before rescuers could reach them in rough seas. She wrote of gangs sexually preying on weaker individuals in detention centres. In between the two extremes, she wrote of inane requests such as cosmetic dental treatment by people claiming asylum. Her headline:
Asylum-seekers risk all for new life, often for most perverse reasons
While I appreciate Taylor’s honesty – ‘I felt I lost my soul a bit during the next decade’ (2007 – 2017), I challenge the accuracy of the headline. In particular, I question the word ‘often’. With 65 million refugees worldwide, almost three times the population of Australia, surely, surely the anomalies are the ones who ask for cosmetic dental surgery.
The hardening of heart described by Taylor, though, is understandable. It is not just a hardening of heart; it is the breaking of people. I know of people overwhelmed to breaking point by the number of asylum-seekers in need. It would be easy to say: Don’t try to help so many. But whom to drop? In each case, the stakes are terribly high, sometimes higher even than life and death.
Is there a fate worse than death? Being prostituted by your family perhaps. Or the regret of living when your wife and children drowned. Or the impotency of being in detention or in the limbo of temporary protection when your family has sold everything to send you on to safety.
I was very naive to think that writing a book could make a difference. However, the exercise helped me realise that everyone has a complex story, stories that stubbornly refuse to be summarised in headlines. If anything, it made me more determine.
Small messy lives should not be dismissed with big bold headlines
The last person I interviewed for the book was Dr A, a refugee from Syria. A highly qualified dentist and university lecturer, he had been a man of wealth. When the uprising against Assad took its toll, Dr A bought bread for the poor and cared for the injured in his home/clinic pictured below.
‘You do surgery also?’ I asked.
‘Yeah. It’s easy. In my surgery I have this to help, and then I order my friends to come and help because no hospital. No anything,’ he said.
‘Your friend is a doctor?’
‘Yeah. Yeah. A lot of friends come to help. Doctors. This is what doctors have to do. Help people.’
For this, he was targeted, both by the government and by rebel groups, including ISIS. His home and clinic were destroyed.
He fled, eventually arriving in Australia at the end of 2012. Although his claims have been assessed – he is a genuine refugee and in no way a security threat – he has, at present, scant hope for a permanent resettlement because he arrived by boat.
Perhaps this interview, among all the other interviews, resonated with me because I know many doctors. And it does not take much imagination, only the willingness to imagine, what we would do if we were in Dr A’s situation.
When I stopped teaching at TAFE, where many of my students had come to Australia as refugees, I was amazed at how quickly I could forget this whole problem. I could chose never to speak to an asylum-seeker again.
But the reason I still blog about asylum seekers and refugees is that my students were a wonderful group of people. Despite traumatic pasts and present hardships, they made me laugh and put my troubles into perspective. They were extremely appreciative of the little I did for them.
As a migrant, my inclination is to put my head down and mind my own business. I’ve just arrived, so why upset the powers-that-be? Their agenda is clear: stop ‘illegal’ arrivals and people smugglers at all cost.
But, the welcome of the migrant and the welcome of the refugee come from the same well-spring. I suspect that’s why migration laws seem to become more stringent as attitudes to refugees and asylum seekers harden.
When we meet someone on the street, we don’t know visa status, mode of transport to Australia, or back story. We just see a person. And we chose how friendly (or not) we will be. This question of welcome affects all of us who are trying to make this place home.
When I’ve eaten my bowls of rice for the day, and go to sleep on a soft bed in a cool house, I need meaning beyond myself to know that I’m not just taking up space and chewing up resources. Often meaning lies in relationships. Without connection to other people and caring about them, my humanity atrophies.
Red Cross’ tagline is: the power of humanity. They suggest five ways to make a difference. If we can prevent the hardening of our hearts by headlines that over-simplify, if we are warm-hearted enough see the individual people, then the opportunities to make a difference will always be within reach.