Walk a mile

There’s an old saying – don’t criticize a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes. By then you’re a mile away, you’ve got his shoes, and you can say whatever you want. It’s hard to avoid judging people sometimes – it’s built in to the human psyche. But it’s much harder to judge people harshly when you have some understanding of what they’re going through.

Have you ever been to an unfamiliar supermarket? Not a different branch of your usual supermarket – they are almost disturbingly homogeneous now – but a completely different type of supermarket. It can be an incredibly frustrating experience if you are looking for something slightly unusual, as you wander the aisles trying to find something that you know the exact whereabouts of at your usual shop. They group things differently. The soap may be next to the tissues where you usually shop, but here it’s in the health food aisle. Why would they do that???

Worse than that by far is shopping in a different country – even one where they speak the same language as you. In the US some years ago we spent a very frustrating time trying to find muesli bars. None of the packets look familiar – and it’s amazing how much you navigate a supermarket by familiar packets. We had to actually read the labels on boxes to work out what type of product was in each aisle – it was astonishing how hard it was to find what we wanted. (It turned out they did have museli bars, but not as we know them. They were sugar with occasional grains tucked away in the middle. Ugh!) All those familiar cues that we rely on without even being aware of them were missing, and we felt remarkably disoriented.

Magnify that by several thousand, and you might begin to understand the frustration of shopping in a supermarket where you don’t speak the language, or don’t speak it fluently. Now label reading doesn’t even help, and you are reduced to trying to guess the meaning of the pictures on the labels – have a look around at your familiar groceries, and you’ll find that many of them have completely mystifying pictures on them. Nothing to do with the product inside. Lemons on dishwashing liquid. Puppies on tissue boxes.

You may not even be able to find the things you are used to. You might not be able to cook the meals you usually rely on, might not even be able to find the right sort of soap. Without a guide, you may spend a year or more in that foreign country, as a friend of mine once did, completely unaware that what you are looking for is right there on the shelves. My French friend spent a year in Melbourne, pining for real cream. He thought we only had thickened cream. He never realised (until we talked about it, long after he had returned to France) that there was pure cream, and double cream, and even clotted cream if you knew where to look.

And that’s just shopping. Picture that applying to your whole life. Unable to ask for directions, unable to understand signs or announcements over loud speakers. Unable to cook familiar food because you can’t find the ingredients. Completely cut off from the world around you, until you can get a grip on the language, the culture, and the basic mechanics of being in a new country.

How brave people are, to seek a new life for themselves and their families, in a country they don’t yet understand. And how incredibly strong and courageous to risk crossing hostile oceans in barely seaworthy craft, to escape unimaginable dangers and trauma in their home countries.

Regardless of what our politicians would have you believe, refugees are not cashed up queue jumpers, lounging on sun lounges on the lido deck, on their way to plunder our riches. No, those cashed up queue jumpers are arriving by plane, and on the whole being welcomed with open arms. Boat people, in contrast, are frightened, desperate people, and there is no queue. These people don’t have the option of waiting patiently in a queue outside the Australian embassy, certain of being heard. They are not walking past a sign saying “please wait here and we will look after you.” They are running for their lives, and for their families’ lives.

Not many people know that Australia signed a UN convention stating that we would not discriminate against refugees based on how they arrive. But we do. Oh, how we do. We demonise, vilify and torment them. We lock them behind razor wire in the desert, keep them there for years, and then send them back to the hells they came from.

Walk a mile in those shoes.

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