Archive for Nauru

Leaving the Water

Just like the fish in the ancient Chinese proverb, ‘A fish is the last one to know what water is’, everyone has ‘water’ that they swim in – an unconscious understanding of life and the world which shapes and colours all that we do, think and say.

This ‘water’ is a combination of the culture we grew up in, the sub-section of that culture that our family was part of and the distinctive understandings of life that are important to our particular family. For me, my culture was white Australian, the sub-section was conservative middle-class Christian and my family was a strong, self-contained but somewhat isolated unit (I have no cousins and only met some second cousins in mid-life).

Just like the fish in its own bowl of water, I swam in my ‘water’ quite oblivious to its reality and its impacts on my understanding of the world. This ‘water’ had been the norm for me since birth and I rarely questioned its validity or the subtle effect it had on my outlook – not until I went to Nauru.

Being immersed in a culture other than my own, mixing with people from many nations (The Salvation Army team consisted of people from Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Burma, US, New Zealand, Australia, UK, Vietnam and Nauru), hearing so many different languages swirl around me, and working with staff of different faiths (Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, atheist) opened my mind and heart to ways of looking at life that were different, and yet still similar, to my own.

When I returned to my ‘water’ at the end of the contract and took time to reflect on all I’d experienced, I began to reassess. I could now see the ‘water’ I’d been swimming in all my life and recognise its impact (fear and a sense of superiority).

I now had a decision to make.

My ‘water’ was real, its impact on my life was real, but I was no longer completely happy swimming in that ‘water’. There were aspects to my life that I saw needed to change.

And I had a choice.

I could be like the fish and continue to swim in this ‘water’ of my culture, faith and upbringing, without questioning how healthy it was. Or I could be like a tadpole, which also begins life in water but which, as it matures, grows into a frog and leaves the water behind.

I chose to be a frog.

I was thankful for much that my ‘water’ had given me, but I knew that it was no longer a healthy place for me to live. I knew there were other ways of looking at life and other cultural understandings which were as valid as my own. There were other stories that I needed to listen to and explore.

So I chose to be a frog and leave the ‘water’ behind.

Ribbit!

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.

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.