Refugees are people. Let’s treat them as such. Loz Lawrey shares a recent experience with some refugees and despairs at the treatment this country affords them, while all these people are trying to do is give something to this country.
My sister-in-law Dagmara knows about displacement. As a little girl she left Poland with her mother in the 1980’s, a time when hundreds of thousands of Poles emigrated looking for jobs and a better life abroad. She feels empathy for people who find themselves forced to travel halfway around the world to escape war, social dysfunction or simply to seek a better life.
Dagmara is an artist and often uses installations and viewer participation in her work. Her latest creation is “The Bureau of Worldly Advice” at the Melbourne Town Hall. Held over a week, this event has attracted great interest and participation and has been, for some, a life-changing experience.
From the Swanston St pavement I see an office window with official-looking signage which declares it to be the Bureau of Worldly Advice. The front doors are open. This bureau looks just as one would expect an office in the Melbourne Town Hall to look: sober and clerical.
But there’s a twist. A young woman in a suit, dancing on the spot, spruiks a bold and brassy invitation to passers-by to come in for some “worldly advice”. Her antics attract curious smiles. Now and then, the invitation is accepted.
Those who enter find themselves in a spacious office containing several large desks, at which consultants from around the globe dispense “advice” to those who seek it. Stories are told, experiences shared and questions answered. There is effervescent laughter and the occasional tear.
These “consultants” are asylum seekers living in the limbo of Australia’s assessment process, their status as residents undetermined, their ability to move forward with their lives on hold. Yet they are here today in a spirit of affirmation, determined to focus on the positive aspects of finding themselves in this strange country at the mercy of an indifferent bureaucracy.
I sit down with Basir and Afifah (names changed), a couple in their early forties who have escaped the conflict and humanitarian disaster in Syria. They have so much to tell me that I struggle to take it all in. Each statement provokes several questions I haven’t time to ask. I am stunned at the lengths to which this couple go to preserve their sanity in an insane situation.
Since their visa status prevents them from working and earning, they spend their days as volunteers, giving their time and energy to our society which (for now) keeps them at arm’s length.
Basir and Afifah have been meeting and talking with new people all week. I am stunned by their openness, yet can sense how close to the surface are their most raw emotions. I realise that being here talking to me is part of their survival strategy, something they’re doing to stay grounded and in the moment.
Half an hour flies by and my consultation is over. I feel strangely emotional. I found myself apologising to Basir and Afifah for the treatment they continue to receive from my country’s government. They would not hear of it, determined as they are not to wallow in self-despair. They have seen what despair can do, so they tread the fine line that feeds the soul and avoids the repetitive mantras of hopelessness. By giving, they receive.
I am confronted, intrigued and ashamed. I scribble in the comments book before leaving. I feel like a spoilt, complacent child who has everything yet appreciates nothing. The simple bringing together of people from diverse backgrounds in one room has proved to be a powerful artistic statement.
The beholder becomes a participant. A conversation is begun, then ended all too soon. I am reminded of my own travels, of experiences and encounters in far-off lands, of the learning and understanding that flows from opening up to others.
Conversations like these break down barriers and lift us above our differences, reminding us that we are one humanity.
Perhaps all that we need in this world are more conversations like these.
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