Previously in Refuge #46 Dr A the Syrian dentist: Dr A graduated in the late 1980s and worked as the Head of Oral Medicine and Dental Surgery at a large hospital in Saudi Arabia for eleven years. By the time the Syrian conflict began, he had returned to set up his own practice in Syria, and he treated the wounded who came to him. In response, the army destroyed his home and clinic.

Dr A’s Uncertain Future

Blacklisted by the government, Dr A didn’t have time to get his family. He left Syria immediately and bribed border police to let him through to Beirut, only nineteen kilometres away. He then travelled to Egypt, where he had friends, and applied to many embassies for a visa – the UK, Belgium, France, and Indonesia – but only the Indonesians issued him with a visa. He flew to Indonesia and stayed for one week in Jakarta. He contacted a people smuggler, boarded a boat and arrived in Christmas Island in December 2012.

Dr A tells me, ‘I stayed there about twenty days. After that I go to another camp until the government give me visa and I come to Adelaide. I stay about one month. I go to Perth nine months but I don’t like that state. I came back to Adelaide because I have some friends here, from the same village. They help me a lot. Someone helped me get a scholarship to study in IELI (Intensive English Language Institute) college.’

After three years of interviewing people and writing refugee stories, I am spent. I know that to flesh out Dr A’s story, I should get an interpreter and ask Dr A to describe how ISIS and the government destroyed his home. Then I could describe the scene properly. But I am uncertain if this would be in Dr A’s best interest. Moreover, I do not have the appetite for more descriptions of terror and violence.

In his novel, Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell refers to Californian Boat-people. To even imagine that citizens of first-world countries could be on the other side of the equation, at the mercy of other governments and other peoples in a war-weary world, is indeed frightful. (Rereading this sentence, I realise that the term ‘first-world’ suggests that we have several worlds to inhabit when there is only one world, one globe, one earth.)

International Night at Hope’s Cafe

In 2015, my local church worked with Hope’s Cafe at Clayton Wesley Uniting Church to raise funds for asylum seeker dental care. We knew many asylum seekers were having teeth extracted, because it was the cheapest option, and not because the teeth could not be saved. Of course, expensive procedures like root canals were out of the question. We thought that a more satisfactory solution might be reached by raising funds and appealing to the good nature of local dentists.

Against this need, I see the huge waste of human talent and resource that Dr A represents. He speaks the language of many of the asylum seekers, but he is unable to use his skills. Initially, when he arrived in December 2012, asylum seekers who arrived by boat had no working rights. Since then, rules have changed. Asylum seekers on Temporary Protection Visas or SHEV now have working rights.

But Dr A’s language is inadequate for local accreditation exams, which are expensive. Someone offers to put Dr A in touch with others who have undergone the accreditation process but I think there is too much uncertainty about his future for him to consider accreditation. I’ve seen the sacrifices that doctors and dentists make in order to pass professional exams. It is hard to make sacrifices for a future that may not exist.

An Australian Citizenship Ceremony

As a guest at an Australian citizenship ceremony, I take in my surroundings as I wait for proceedings to begin.

The range of footwear tapping Morse code on the polished wooden floor intrigues me. I observe black suede with shiny three-inch gold platform heels, orange fabric from toe to two-inch heel, men’s laced leather shoes with tan heel caps gradating to dark brown toe caps, sneakers with laces about to come undone, sensible black with Velcro straps, stilettoes, ballet pumps. It occurs to me that to move towards hope is as intrinsic to being human as feet are to walking.

When we finally begin, I hear apologies from state and federal members of parliament, a message from the Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, and a speech from the mayor. The advice being dispensed reminds me of a high school graduation ceremony: you have rights as well as responsibilities; we have people who have come from many different nations, surprisingly none from the UK today, a few decades ago, this would have been unthinkable; we are bound by common values of individual freedom, equality and the respect for the rule of law.

The mayor asks soon-to-be citizens to stand and take their oaths, as if we were at a mass wedding. The incredible thing about seeing people from so many different countries becoming Australians is that there is no obvious physical connecting trait. Here, you cannot tell a person’s citizenship status by looking at them.

The mayor apologises that he has made a mistake. Turns out, there are several new citizens from the UK here today. After the ceremony, I nibble on a very good lamington from Villi’s and try not to get desiccated coconut everywhere. Discretely, I eavesdrop on conversations in the hall. I realise that you cannot tell a person’s status by how they speak either.

Image of Australian Citizenship Ceremony by Redland City Council from Flickr

There must some other thread that connects all these people holding tiny paper Australian flags and posing with the mayor as they hold up their citizenship certificates. Important as the document is, I do not think that the piece of embossed paper in and of itself binds people to Australia, or engenders loyalty. Rather, I think it is the connections that develop over time, connections with family, friends, classmates, workmates, neighbours, shopkeepers.

You cannot legislate these things, put a monetary value on them, or measure them, but I think these are the ties that unite.

To be continued next week in Refuge #48 Behind the Picket Fence, an interview with Dr Baden Teague, Liberal Senator for South Australia from 1978 to 1996, who had a particular interest in immigration.

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