Archive for asylum seekers

What's your water?

There’s an old Chinese proverb which says: a fish is the last one to know what water is. The idea is that all of us have unconscious understandings of the world based on our cultural and racial heritage which influence what we do, the decisions we make and the attitudes we hold.

I’m a child of the 60s and a teenager of the 70s. I grew up in conservative, white, middle-class, Protestant Bible-belt Australia.

Fast-forward to 2012.

I’m a single-again mid-life woman working with The Salvation Army when it is awarded a contract by the Australian Government to provide welfare services for asylum seekers in the newly-reopened off-shore detention and processing centres on the Republic of Nauru and Manus Island (part of Papua New Guinea.) I volunteered for a four-week rotation on Nauru, not because I had a burning desire to work with asylum seekers, not because I wanted to work in a developing nation, and definitely not because I wanted to work in the tropics.

I volunteered because I couldn’t think of any reason why not to.

After catching the red-eye from Brisbane, Australia, with 80 or so others, I stepped out into the tropical heat wondered what I’d got myself into. After a full day of orientation, and having been up for over 24 hours, the last item on the day’s agenda was to check out ‘the camp’ where the 400 or so men were being housed in green army tents. As my group walked between the rows of tents and I watched the men sitting on their stretchers or talking to each other. Some looked at us with vague interest, but mostly we were ignored. However, I became aware of feeling afraid.

As I reflected on that feeling of fear and realised that it had no physical basis I saw that this fear was solely based on ‘otherness’.

These men were ‘other’ to me: other nationalities, other faiths, other languages. What was shocking for me was to realise that in me was a latent racism based purely on the homogenous ‘water’ of my childhood and upbringing. I had always said I didn’t have a racist bone in my body – I now knew that this was untrue.

Some months later, I discovered some more about my personal ‘water’. I was a white university-educated Aussie, working in a facility run by Australians with a team of Nauruans providing support services, as teacher’s aides, running the canteen, being part of the welfare team. There was little collaboration by the Aussie leadership with the Nauruans and the longer I was there, the more I became aware of sense of superiority that characterised the interactions between Aussies and Nauruans – including my own.

I spoke of my burgeoning understanding of this superiority I felt to the woman leading the Nauruan team. Her comment was that the Nauruans felt it too but just knew this was the way we were. I was appalled.

On returning to Australia when the contract ended I took a good look at myself and my life. I started asking questions and talking to people about what I’d learnt about myself. I discovered that there was name for that combination of fear and superiority that people like me felt when confronted with difference – white privilege.

That was my ‘water’ and it impacted all my interactions with others and especially those who were different to me.

Guiding Stories

There comes a moment when the old stories start to lose their power.

This happens when an event, or series of them, disrupts the narrative that is our life by inserting an alternate story into that narrative.

That happened for me as I worked in off-shore processing in Nauru. With a front-row seat to changes in government policy, and the impact of those policies on people without power, I began to question the ‘white Australian story’ that I’d grown up with.

As I began to step away from that story, I began to really listen to the stories of indigenous Australians, which made me reassess my place in Australia and its history. As my perspective changed, those who were close to me did one of two things: they allowed this alternate story to change their own outlook or they held more tightly to the old story.

Those around me who held on to the narratives of white privilege felt threatened by the growth in influence of narratives other than their own. This sense of threat sprang from an unacknowledged fear that their comfortable way of looking at life and living in this society was in losing its power.

This ‘white Australian story’ that I’d grown up with, having been raised in a white, middle-class, conservative, Bible-belt area of Sydney, had been a comforting narrative for much of my then 50+ years. It was comforting for those who were ‘in’ because it upheld the status quo of white privilege.

However, this narrative is no longer my ‘guiding story’, nor is it the guiding story for life in 21st century Australia. I am thankful to my good friend Bruce Adams for this insight.

Although white privilege is alive and well in Australia, although indigenous Australians are still disadvantaged and suffer systemic discrimination, although racism remains an ugly issue, it is becoming clear that these ways of looking at life are much less tolerated.

There is a new guiding story being written for Australia and many authors can, and are, contributing.

Its chief authors must be indigenous Australians, whose story has for too long been shunned, ignored and silenced. Other authors are those who have made Australia home, having arrived as international students, migrants, asylum seekers and refugees.

White Australians are authors too – this is our home – but we must be more aware of how dominant and destructive our version of the story has been and be prepared to listen to and embrace other versions of the story.

As we build this new narrative, perhaps Australia could return to its indigenous roots and become what it once was, tens of thousands of years ago – a true home to many nations.

Hearing and telling…differently

In 2013, I was the religious liaison officer in the off-shore processing centres on Nauru.

My role was to provide for the religious needs of the asylum seekers – mostly Muslim, Christian, Buddhist and Hindu. That meant distributing prayer mats and beads, Qurans, Bibles, and rosary beads. That meant ensuring the Buddhists’ request for a timber shrine was fulfilled, or that the Hindus had copies of their deities – Ganesh, Brahma, Vishnu.

To quote Charles Dickens, ‘It was the best of times; it was the worst of times’. Best, because I felt alive, working in a front-line position, using all my skills. Worst, because I did not, and still don’t, agree that mandatory detention is an appropriate way to address the issue of refugees and asylum seekers.

During a community meeting with the asylum seekers, one man asked when their processing would be complete. The representative from the Australian immigration department stated that this was not the responsibility of the Australian government, but rather of the Nauruan.

After returning to Australia full-time, I blogged about this, noting the shame I felt, during this meeting, to be an Australian.

For admitting to feeling ashamed, I was castigated by a friend. How could I call myself an Australian and say such things?

For my friend, the backstory of being an Australian was one of being a flag-waving, digger-loving, Anzac-bickie-eating, BBQ-loving, green-and-gold-glorifying, dinky-di, true-blue Aussie mate.

For me, the backstory of being an Australian was one of mateship, barracking for the underdog, being all-in-this-together, and a fair-go for all. I just couldn’t see the Australia I knew being played out in these government immigration policies.

The Australia I thought I knew wouldn’t wash its hands of people, wouldn’t turn a blind eye, wouldn’t privilege policy over people – or would it? The longer I worked in off-shore detention the more I saw that, yes, actually, Australia would do all those things.

It was then that I started to look differently at the backstory of Australia that I’d accepted as true. It was then that I began to realise that there was another story to my country, another story that I’d been vaguely aware of, but really hadn’t given much notice to.

As I watched how Australia dealt with asylum seekers, I began to really see how Australia had dealt with its indigenous peoples.

I saw another story; I heard another story and I began to look at my own part in this story, a part I didn’t like much.

I began to see that the story of Australia I’d been told, this story that I’d heard could be told and heard in quite another way.

The stories we tell and the stories we hear

Much has been said about Fremantle Council’s recent decision to cancel the fireworks at Australia Day celebrations out of respect for indigenous Australians.

An editorial in a well-known paper, after outlining the writer’s stance on Australia Day as a day to both celebrate and think, then referred to ‘the isolated moments of darkness in our dealings with Aboriginal Australians’. The writer then described January 26, 1788 as a ‘nasty surprise’ for ‘our indigenous mates’.

This writer was telling the story of the landing of British troops and convicts in Australia and the ongoing implications and consequences.

However, the story I heard was one of white entitlement to a land that was already occupied.

What I heard was an attempt to reduce the impact of white settlement to a ‘nasty surprise’ – in much the same way as a spider in your shoe is a nasty surprise. What I heard was a white Australian conflating 200+ years of discrimination, forced removal of children, rape, murder and disenfranchising to ‘isolated moments’.

However, I’m also sure that other readers heard a corroboration of their stance that Australia Day should be left alone and that indigenous Australians need to just stop whingeing and let bye-gones be bye-gones – after all, we’ve said ‘sorry’.

Now I get this. I’m a white Australian who loves this country dearly.

For years, I couldn’t understand why indigenous Australians banged on so much about their connection to the land; I didn’t understand why Mabo was so important; I didn’t understand why we couldn’t all just be Aussies together.

But what I really didn’t understand was that indigenous Australians were only considered Australian citizens during my lifetime. I didn’t understand that indigenous Australians had been classified as flora and fauna.

I didn’t understand that what I’d been taught in school about European settlement of Australia had a very different perspective if you were indigenous. I didn’t understand that the stories we tell can be heard very differently depending on who you are and what your background is.

It took an experience working in off-shore processing with asylum seekers to open my eyes to a new perspective.

White settlement or white invasion is the backstory of my nation. The intentional attempt to decimate a whole people or the intentional attempt to build a new country is the backstory of my nation.

How this story is heard depends on where you stand.