Previously in Refuge #49 Mistrust of The Other: In 1988, Baden Teague tried to reassure his Chinese friends that they were welcomed in Australia. I arrived in Australia in 1989. I am grateful for the welcome I received, a welcome made possible by people willing to stand up for the other.
Maryam from Iran
Winter light streams through Gothic church windows. Hand-written welcome messages fill a notice board by the entrance. Desks with computers line one wall and boxes of bedding are stacked on the stage. Resting on a cabinet is a framed picture of Reza Bahrati, who was beaten to death in a riot at the Manus Island Detention Centre in February 2014.
Maryam sits at a table with a young man and woman from Iran. Maryam is teaching them English, something she used to do Iran. She volunteers here several times a week, helping new arrivals find their feet.
Za Dim from Myanmar
The rousing drumbeat and the familiar tune tease me. It’s an old hymn, I’m sure but I sing without understanding, phonetically reading Chin words on the screen. The chorus comes around again, ah, yes, to God be the glory, great things He hath done. Comprehending very little, I sit through announcements and presentations.
The pastor says something about SA Refugee Week. A young man holding a big plastic jar distributes tea light candles. I take one. A gas lighter is passed around and we light our candles. I watch my small flame glow. The wax is pink and as the wick burns, a circular liquid pool begins to form in the centre. The stage lights are switched off. There is a minute’s silence. The pastor lifts his voice in prayer, some words drawn out long and high, as if the words are soaring upwards in supplication. I catch the words UN, Malaysia, Australia.
After the service, I ask Za Dim about the prayer. ‘Many of our Chin people are in India, Thailand and Malaysia,’ she says. ‘We pray for them and we pray for the Australian government.’ On our way back to her house she tells me of her cousin who was in Malaysia. Men, women, and children were separated in jail.
‘Surely children would be with their mothers?’ I say. From the age of 7 or 8, they would be separated, she tells me. Her cousin said that they were crying every day in jail. But her cousin is here now. At her request, we stop at the Best India Super Market.
At home, she busies herself in the kitchen. I hear oil sizzle. Za Dim’s husband, Chan Hmung, beckons to me, indicating that I should sit by the radiator heater and that Ah Len should sit beside me.
‘Do you like your new house?’ I ask Za Dim’s daughter, Ah Len.
‘Yes,’ she says. ‘It’s easier to clean and it’s bigger.’
‘Do you miss India?’ I ask. She came to Australia from New Delhi when she was fourteen.
‘No,’ she says. ‘I couldn’t go to school much. Because of financial difficulty, I stopped school for four years.’ She is now studying at a local university.
Otholi from Ethiopia
In the cold room, an animal carcass swings towards Otholi. He catches it, pulls it along the chain overhead, and steadies it beside another carcass, ensuring that there is a gap in between. If they touch, there will be white spots on the meat. Ariet works in the same meat-processing complex.
‘Ariet is doing everything. They are training her in Certificate II in Manual Handling. They don’t train me because they say I’m over qualified. They are surprised that I am still there,’ says Otholi.
Otholi completed his Diploma in Building and Construction at TAFE last year. Ariet has a Certificate in Aged Care and in Housekeeping.
‘This is not my dream but Ariet and I thought we have to get into the workforce and God will open doors.’
Sabah and Lamia from Iraq
Sabah emails me in May 2017: ‘The new news is I am going to meet with Chris and Paulo to discuss my play, which is called Questions of the Executioner and the Victim because Paulo has decided to direct it in Adelaide. Before that, I published my new book, The Complete Plays of Sabah Alanbari.’
He informs me that Lamia is not attending language classes. Iba is still waiting for his fiancé from Iraq and Ranin is still very busy as a personal fitness trainer. A few weeks later, he writes again to tell me that his play will not be staged after all. No reason was given, but he suspects it was because of poor translation.
Suthan from Sri Lanka
Over dinner, Suthan tells my husband and how he bought two long-eared goats from Cuddly Creek and raised them on his friend’s farm, not too far from his home in Whyalla. Drinking goat milk, that had first been boiled, kept him and son free of illness all that year. Suthan didn’t want to give his son milk from the supermarket that might contained preservatives and chemicals.
I listen to this and remember Barbara had told me, ‘His boys were the making of him in a way. It’s almost that chance – my home was all broken, I want to give them the best. At times he’s been overwhelmed. They are very, very lively, absolutely into everything. That’s where the next-door people come in. They’ve been really supportive and helpful.’
A few months later, I text Barbara to ask if Suthan’s wife Rathi liked the dishwasher Suthan had installed during the four months she was away with their two young sons in Sri Lanka. Barbara replies: ‘All is well in Whyalla. Rathi plays netball every Saturday and Suthan has a permanent job.’
Josie from China
Josie’s class has been discussing the Chinese translation of a German work by Bernhard Schlink, The Reader. Class discussions are lively: Was it only Hitler who was bad? Were the people who implemented his ideas bad too? How are you going to judge right and wrong? How should a person recover from the past and embrace the future?
On this day in the term break, she has students coming in to discuss their essays. She is flying out to a conference in Sydney tomorrow, where she hopes to meet old friends whom she has not seen for twenty years.
Her young child pushes open her office door. She exclaims in surprise, ‘Is it your break time already?’
Carmen from Romania
Carmen has completely rearranged her lounge room when I visit her in May 2017. Adrian has been back and he mounted the TV on the wall. The lounge suite has been replaced with several smaller single-seaters.
We enjoy the croissants I have brought, our little ritual. She brings me to the shed. It has been divided in half, one half is an op shop, a room to meet physical needs. The other half is a room to meet emotional and spiritual needs, where meetings and classes can be held. On the back wall, they have mounted giant red letters with white borders: HOPE.
Truc from Vietnam
Truc works in the high-pressured environment of a public hospital emergency department. As an Emergency Consultant, he is responsible for overseeing nurses and junior doctors and managing patient flows, always with numerous efficiency and patient safety goals to work towards. I ask Truc if his early life has had any effect on him.
‘It helps me not judge people. I see people from all walks of life and I have probably a better idea of what difficulties they may have experienced to get to where they are now, especially when I see migrant patients. I try to advocate for them a bit more, knowing that their English is not good, they’re in a strange place, they may not understand the system.’
As I leave, a heron flies off from the creek between Truc’s house and the sandstone walls that form the boundary of his property. A family of ducks swim between the reeds towards the stone steps, steps that lead from the gravel path down to the creek bed. We wander along the creek where ash trees reach the height of his double-storey house. Truc spots a few yabbies in the rocks.
Truc explains that he has much work to do because the ash tree leaves have clogged up the water feature pump so that the little pond is dry and gaping drainage holes are visible.
‘Yeah, a lot of work,’ says Truc, ‘but I fell in love with this place and thought that I could live here.’
Farewell Mr Fraser
On 20 March 2015, an email pops up in my inbox with breaking news: ‘Malcolm Fraser passed away at 85’. Immediately, I recall his parting words to me: ‘You’ll send me a copy won’t you?’
I have not sent Mr Fraser a copy of the book. I have not finished writing it. I weep. I scold myself – you only met him for one hour, this is ridiculous, you can’t even say that you knew him. It is not that I knew him. It is the awful finality of death. I will not be able to keep my promise.
When I interviewed him, Mr Fraser said that the Australian government should encourage other countries to open their doors to refugees so that no single country gets pushed too far, which is only going to arouse anti-refugee sentiment.
How far is too far? This is not an easy question to answer because capacity is not set in concrete. It grows or shrinks depending on whether the host community regards newcomers as a threat or a blessing.
How many people does Australia have space for? Big Australia. Small Australia. Australia that has space for refugees. Australia that has space for me. I am not a refugee, but questions about refugees are just a step away from questions about migrants.
Hardening the stance on asylum seeker policy seems to correlate with toughening immigration criteria: how many points you need to stand a chance of being accepted by Australia as a migrant; Better English, more points; have a skill that Australia needs, more points; young and in good health, more points. Have a child with a disability, minus many points. Let’s face it: there are more people who want to come to Australia than Australia has space for.
A garden needs a gardener, someone to feed the soil, shape the hedges, control the weeds. If you get to the weeds before they set seed, you can pull them out by hand. If weeds get out of control, you might need to use more drastic measures: poison. But apart from killing the weeds, poison might inadvertently kill the plants. Also, poison the weeds, and the gardener may poison microorganisms, bugs and birds that healthy gardens need to thrive.
Metaphors are problematic. Am I suggesting that people are like weeds and plants and the government is the gardener that must carefully maintain the balance of different types of plants in the garden, and suppress the weeds before they get out of control? Unless those weeds are useful, then you might let them grow under the vines? How can you even suggest that people, in all their complexities, their loves and their losses, their dreams and their pain, can be represented by blades of grass and flower petals?
You can yank out a weed and hope to get its bulbous root out with scant effect on the plants around it, but can you yank people from a community and expect the Australians who have been caring for that person – in community, in schools, even the guards in detention centres – and not expect there to be a callousing of heart, an evolution of what it means to be Australian. You need something to numb the pain of seeing another human suffer and not care. You need a scab, a hardening of cells to protect the living life beneath, from bleeding, from expressing the essence of what it means to be human, to care for another human, to wince at suffering.
People have a great capacity for kindness and cruelty. Australia has at times shown great kindness, but also great cruelty. We are all the time becoming our future selves. This is a story not only of refugee resettlement in Australia in the past; it is a story about the kind of people we are becoming, the kind of place we are shaping.
I watch Mr Fraser’s memorial service from my lounge room. On the streets outside Scot’s Church in Melbourne, crowds line the streets. Several striking yellow banners stand out. Five to ten people hold up each banner. In bold black letters, they announce: ‘You are forever in our hearts’, ‘Farewell to our true champion of humanity: Malcolm Fraser’, ‘Rest in peace our “father” and “saviour” Mr Fraser’. Below the messages in black are smaller letters in red, ‘The Vietnamese community in Australia.’
In her eulogy, Mr Fraser’s daughter, Phoebe Wynn-Pope, quotes Theodore Roosevelt, ‘The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause …’
A refuge has a sense of impermanence to it. People take refuge until the storm has passed, or the war has been fought, and then they return to their true home.
Farewell, Mr Fraser. I wish you peace and rest.
Thus concludes this serial online release of Refuge, a collection of true short stories of refugee resettlement in Australia since the Vietnam War. Refuge shall remain online until September 2020.