Freedom from Fear: Refugee Week
Refugee Week is Australia’s peak annual activity to raise awareness about the issues affecting refugees and celebrate the positive contributions made by refugees to Australian society.
Words by Louise Mackay
Khadijeh had been living in Iran her whole life. She was born there. Her family was from Afghanistan; they had fled their war-torn country before she was born and they had made a life in Iran. However, in 2010 the Iranian government decided the Afghani and Iraqi people were no longer welcome in their country, and Khadijeh’s family were forced to move back to Afghanistan. “We couldn’t go back because of the war and we had nothing in Afghanistan. We didn’t have a house, or even a job, and I had never even been to Afghanistan. But they didn’t accept that,” Khadijeh said.
The Iranian government set up a refugee camp for the Afghani and Iraqi people. While they were living there, Khadijeh and her family made a case for refugee resettlement and sent it to different governments around the world, including Australia, Canada and America. After two years, the Australian Government approved their case.
In 2013, when Khadijeh was 23 years old, she flew to Australia with her husband and two-year-old daughter. Her mother, father and siblings had flown in 13 days earlier. When they first arrived in Australia, they were met by an interpreter in Sydney who helped them with transportation to travel directly to Newcastle.
Settling in to Australia was difficult for Khadijeh at first. “It was really different because I didn’t know how to talk to people. I didn’t really know what to do,” Khadijeh said. Even the food was something to become accustomed to.
Khadijeh and her family started studying English at TAFE. After she finished her initial 500 hours in the Adult Migrant Education Program, Khadijeh continued studying English in the Seeking Education and Employment Program, and she also studied Aged Care at Glendale TAFE. “I had a really difficult and hard time; I was studying five days a week, three days at aged care and two days at English.” She recalls going to the bus stop at 6.30am as there was only one bus going to Glendale from where she lived. “It was really hard for me. We didn’t have a car. Every day I was getting home at 6pm. Most of the time I was going to bed with my shoes on; I was so tired I couldn’t even take my shoes off,” Khadijeh said.
“Despite experiencing years of hardship in a refugee camp, Khadijeh has overcome adversity thanks to her hard work and commitment to succeed.”
At times Khadijeh was so busy with study that she even missed religious celebrations to go to TAFE. The Muslim community celebrate Eid, and even at that time Khadijeh didn’t stay at home. “While everyone else celebrated with lunch and dinner I came into TAFE to study. Last year when I was in class, there were some ladies from my country who called me and said, “We are knocking on your door and you are not home. Where are you?!'” When she told them she was at TAFE they were shocked. “What?! Today is Eid!” For Khadijeh, studying during Eid is like Australians missing Christmas, nobody is working, nothing is open. However, for Khadijeh her study was important. “Even if I learn one or two words today, that is important to me.”
Khadijeh is studying English for Further Study at TAFE now and hopes to go to University to become a nurse. In 2016, the Hunter TAFE recognised her achievements, awarding her the Cultural Diversity Award:
Khadijeh arrived in Australia from Iran as a refugee in 2013 with little or no English skills. Despite experiencing years of hardship in a refugee camp, Khadijeh has overcome adversity thanks to her hard work and commitment to succeed. After completing a preliminary English language course she is now well on her way to completing a Certificate III in Spoken and Written English. Khadijeh has successfully balanced her studies whilst managing the commitments of a young family in a new country. She hopes to follow her dreams and become a fully qualified nurse in the future.
Once Khadijeh completes her English studies, she will need to complete an English to Further Study course to help her study at University level. She is thankful for the support from her teachers at the TAFE. “They have been very supportive.” Currently she is making a résumé to get some weekend work as an assistant nurse and get some experience.
Although the journey to get here has been hard for Khadijeh, she is proud of her efforts so far. “I have achieved my goal,” Khadijeh exclaims. “I have achieved step one!” Her next goal is to get her full driver’s licence. “I am learning to drive; I got my learner licence last year.”
Khadijeh has also been overwhelmed by the support of the community. “Everyone in Australia has been very welcoming. My mother has gained support from Penola House; and I even have some friends now who are Australian. They are lovely people, very helpful,” Khadijeh said.
Khadijeh also mentioned the amazing support and sense of community she has felt from the local Anglican Community. Khadijeh and her family have attended picnics and the Christmas Party held by Belmont North/Redhead parish community. “Marilyn (Deas) asks us every year to join them for the Christmas Party. I had never experienced Christmas before and we loved it.” Khadijeh’s mother and sister also helped with the face painting for the children.
Khadijeh encourages people and churches to offer support and help to refugee communities through offering community, friendship and support, much like the Belmont/North Redhead and Belmont Parishes. The parish not only invites the refugees to join them for picnics and Christmas celebrations, but also creates baby bundles for young parents, and has sponsored an Afghani soccer team. “The most important thing is that you are a good person, and that you want to help somebody. I don’t care if you have no religion; it’s all your personality.”
Building a path towards the humane treatment of refugees
By The Ven Rod Bower
Ambassador for the Refugee Council of Australia
I was born in a country with an Indigenous presence of at least 60,000 years. A mere 228 years ago the British arrived. Ignoring the Indigenous inhabitants they declared the land “terra nullius”, meaning “nobody’s land”. A fledgling British colony was established on the premise of white European supremacy, officially endorsed in 1901 as the White Australia Policy.
Although this racist policy was formally abandoned in 1973, the idea still informs the Australian psyche. Politicians use xenophobic and racist rhetoric for political gain, and they are well aided by the Australian media. This has caused many Australians to live in paranoid fear of terrorism, asylum seekers and Muslims. A “Muslim, asylum seeker terrorist” has become Australia’s “boogie man” – a mythological creature used to frighten children of all ages into obedience.
This kind of cultural narrative can take many years to evolve, being built upon by successive generations according to their social and political needs. We can unwittingly end up in a place we could never have intended or dreamed of.
In contemporary Australia, the arrival, ironically, of “boat people”, an increase in Muslim migration, and the rise of terrorist attacks on Western targets have precipitated an identity crisis within the white, Western-dominated Australian community. Politicians and the media have powerfully colluded to convince many people that Muslims represent a threat to the “great Australian values that bind us together”, although those that espouse this ideology have difficulty in defining what these values actually are. Often we hear people speak of “a fair go” and “mateship”. We might ask ourselves why these values are not extended to those who seek asylum in our country.
The truth is that politicians, on both sides of the house, have now painted themselves into a corner from which they are unable to escape. It is time the Australian people let them off the hook and gave permission for the currently unsustainable Refugee policies to be abandoned for a more humane treatment of the world’s most vulnerable people.
“Often we hear people speak of a fair go and mateship. We might ask ourselves why these values are not extended to those who seek asylum in our country.”
The Refugee Council of Australia’s (www.refugeecouncil.org.au) core purpose is to promote the development of humane, lawful and constructive policies towards refugees and asylum seekers. The council is an important resource for the information needed to create a more evidence-based narrative concerning Asylum Seekers and Refugees.
Of course, for Christians, there is already a well-established alternative narrative to the one promoted by politicians and the tabloid press. The Hebrew Scriptures lay the foundation reminding us that we must “not oppress foreigners. You know what it’s like to be a foreigner, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). We must come to terms with our own history by truthfully acknowledging that, not so very long ago, it was the Anglo-Saxons who were the foreigners in this land. We must recognise that the dispossession that has been inflicted upon our Indigenous brothers and sisters has perversely treated them as though they are the foreigners of this country – cruelly denying their custodianship of the land for tens of thousands of years. As Australians, we must confront this past to inform our present and our future.
Anyone taking the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth seriously cannot help but question the current treatment of Asylum Seekers and the narrative being built to justify that treatment. Christians have all the resources needed to lead the way towards a more humane treatment of Refugees. The question is; why are our voices not being heard, not so much by the politicians but by our fellow Australians? Are we speaking clearly enough, or with enough commitment on this issue?
Jesus spent much of his ministry proclaiming the Kingdom of God. We can ask ourselves: how would things be different if God were running the show? Surely we can see that the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees would look very different. We have then a choice of which narrative we will follow. We can be seduced by the stories that are peddled by our political parties and media which are based on fear and division. Or we can choose the narrative of God’s compassion and mercy. We can ask ourselves and each other hard-hitting questions like: “Do our policies and attitudes towards Refugees and Asylum Seekers conflict with what Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God?” If so, are we prepared to change?
Which path will we choose? A policy of exclusion and inhumanity, or the way of Jesus?
The gift of hospitality inviting the stranger to come in
By Sue Williams
for the Social Justice Task Force
The tide of public opinion is slowly changing on the issue of Asylum Seeker and Refugee policy in Australia as we witness a transformation in the way we respond to asylum seekers and refugees. Churches, communities, social justice groups, and passionate individuals together as a movement are shifting the conversation and getting people to choose compassion over fear. Australians from all walks of life are expressing their dismay and bewilderment at our government’s policies on asylum seekers. Doctors and nurses are refusing to send children back to detention. Cathedrals and churches across the country are offering “Sanctuary”, priests and nuns are peacefully protesting in MPs’ offices, mums and grandmothers, church leaders. All have said, “Enough is enough,” all are saying, “Not in our name”.
“Cathedrals and churches across the country are offering “Sanctuary”, priests and nuns are peacefully protesting in MPs’ offices, mums and grandmothers, church leaders – all have said enough is enough.”
Changing public opinion is always the most effective way to change policy and it seems there has now been a shift in people’s understanding of this issue. A recent poll in some marginal seats in NSW, Victoria and SA found that just 26% support the policy of sending all boat arrivals to offshore detention. The new poll has found that the majority of voters in key marginal electorates want the federal government to take a more compassionate approach to asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat. In further polling commissioned by the Australia Institute – the majority of respondents said they would like people assessed as refugees to be resettled in Australia. Yes, the tide is changing, but there is still a very long way to go.
What are you doing to change hearts and minds? Will you join the movement? #LoveMakesWay is just one movement of Christians seeking an end to Australia’s inhumane asylum seeker policies. It has grown from the hashtag of a single simple action to the largest faith-based civil disobedience movement in Australian history. Through #LoveMakesWay and the many other movements supporting a change to policy we are witnessing that together we can advocate, network and negotiate for asylum seekers and refugees, the least and the lost, demonstrating the Biblical principles of reaching out to our neighbour.
Jean Varnier, founder of the l’Arche communities, write, “Welcome is one of the signs a community is alive. To invite others to live with us is a sign that we aren’t afraid, that we have a treasure of truth and of peace to share.” He also offers an important warning: “A community which refuses to welcome – whether through fear, weariness, insecurity, a desire to cling to comfort, or just because it is fed up with visitors – is dying spiritually.” Welcome doesn’t require many resources. It does require a willingness to share what we have, whether food, time, space or money.
Are you willing to offer the gift of hospitality? Are you willing to invite the stranger in, to put into practice Jesus’ words from Matthew 25: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me. . . .? Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Movements YOU can support or join:
- Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce: www.acrt.com.au
- #Sanctuary: Facebook “Sanctuary for Refugees”
- #Give us a Sign: Facebook “Give Us A Sign” www.giveusasign.org
- #LoveMakesAWay: Facebook “Love Makes A Way” www.lovemakesaway.org.au
- #Let Them Stay: Facebook “Let Them Stay”
- #FreeTheRefugees: Facebook “Free The Refugees”
- #RefugeesWelcome: Facebook “Refugees Welcome”
- #ChangingTheTide: Facebook “Changing the tide”
- #RoomAtMyPlace: www.roomatmyplace.org
- #RefugeeWeek: Facebook “Refugee Week” www.refugeeweek.org.au
- Facebook “Walk for Justice for Refugees – Palm Sunday”
- #Bring them here