I did a good deed today. My 11 year old was proud of me. She was so pleased that I had stepped up to help. She said I would come back feeling really good. I thought I would, too. I was feeling a little smug. A little pleased to have got out of my own head, been lifted out of my own worries, and to be able to help some strangers. I thought I would come back all aglow with their gratitude, and a sense of self-worth.
But I have come home gutted. Devastated. Deeply ashamed.
Not because the strangers weren’t grateful – far from it. The children adopted me instantly. Hugged me, proudly told me the words they could spell, and wanted to know all about my own kids. The parents offered me tea, and told me many times how grateful they were, and how they had been told someone would come. When they heard how far I had driven they were overwhelmed. They were lovely. We live about an hour apart, but I think we could be friends. I’ll take my kids to visit them in the holidays.
But… my god. The horror of what they have been through. The horror of what we, as a nation, are still putting them through. I knew it was appalling, but until I met these people, until trauma was given faces, names, and lives, I did not look it full in the face.
These people, these beautiful new friends, who welcomed me with open arms, who want nothing more than lives, jobs, and freedom – those trivial details that we take for granted every day – they are refugees. Fleeing from a homeland that promised them death and destruction, they have been in detention overseas for DECADES.
You read that right. FOR DECADES.
There’s too many men, too many people
making too many problems
and there’s not enough love to go round.
Tell me why this is the land of confusion?
So they risked everything to cross the sea to come here. They risked EVERYTHING. They took their lives, and those of their families, in their hands. They piled 40 families on a fragile, largely unseaworthy boat, and they came here. Looking for life. Looking for compassion. Looking, above all, for safety. And we locked them up.
We. Locked. Them. Up.
This is the world we live in
and these are the hands we’re given
use them and let’s start trying
to make it a place worth living in
Land of Confusion – Genesis
Children. Families. People.
It costs money to lock people up. To prevent them from working. To ensure they put down no roots, create no support networks, and never feel a part of the community. These families want nothing more than to make their own way in the world in safety. They don’t want our charity. They want to build themselves valuable lives, and establish themselves in the community. After all they have been through, all they want is to live. But we would rather pay to lock them up.
Abbott professes himself devout. I am not much of a religious scholar, but I remember endless passages in the bible about compassion, and about helping those in need. I don’t remember anything about demonising the desperate.
Do you know what undid me today, more than anything else in the tales that unfolded? One of my new friends was desperately concerned that I would think him a liar, and a bad man. He showed me his UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) documents that proved he had, indeed, been in detention for decades. That he had lived, married, had a child, all in detention. That all he wanted was a life. And all he was given was jail, for himself, his wife, and his child. He wanted me to know that he was honest. That he was a good person. That he deserved to live.
I took them food today, as they have no way of contacting their case workers on the weekend. No nappies for their babies. No food for their children. No friends in the community – they were uprooted from their only support networks, and transferred to where they have no means of supporting themselves. They are not allowed to work. Who knows if their children will be able to go to school.
The Department of Immigration refers to these people, these families, as “Illegal Maritime Arrivals”. They are not. Australia has promised the UN not to discriminate on the basis of arrival, but oh! How differently we treat people who arrive by plane and overstay their visas. For a complete discussion of the legalities and technicalities I refer you to Julian Burnside.
I won’t be coming home tonight
my generation will put it right
we’re not just making promises
that we know we’ll never keep.
Ultimately, though, the legalities are irrelevant. The facts are these: Desperate people come here, seeking our help. We punish them. These people with faces, names, and families. These people who are filled with love, with gratitude, and with hope, after years of the world battering them with the worst it has to give. We punish them.
When I came home and told my family the story over dinner, my 7 year old cried: “I don’t want to be Australian anymore, Mummy!”
Is this who we want to be?
I. WILL. NOT. STAND. FOR. IT.