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A Lesson in Displacement at the Bureau of Worldly Advice

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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  1. SirJohn Ward

    1. What is Australia’s commitment to protecting children’s rights?

    1.1 The Convention on the Rights of the Child sets out children’s rights

    In November 1989, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). It is the most widely ratified human rights treaty in the world. There are only 2 countries which have not signed the CRC; the United States of America and Somalia.

    Australia ratified the CRC in December 1990. This means that Australia has a duty to ensure that all children in Australia enjoy the rights set out in the treaty.

    The CRC contains the full range of human rights – civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights.

    Some of the core principles of the CRC are:

    the right of all children to survival and development;
    respect for the best interests of the child as a primary consideration in all decisions relating to children;
    the right of all children to express their views freely on all matters affecting them; and
    the right of all children to enjoy all the rights of the CRC without discrimination of any kind.

  2. Sir ScotchMistery

    And yet Nauru has an 11 year old on it, alone, under the “care” of that unspeakable christian #pyne, morrison.

    (Please note: #pyne is the twitterverse’s polite “c” bomb.

  3. Pingback: A Lesson in Displacement at the Bureau of Worldly Advice | OzHouse

  4. Kaye Lee

    Scott Morrison is speeding up processing. This should be a good thing but in fact, he is just trying to make them all go home. Asylum seekers have been offered $10,000 to return to their homeland. As anyone with half a brain can see, this will just cause people to take the money then flee again to neighbouring countries who are already trying to cope with an unbearable burden. He does not care about the danger this bribe may place people in. I would recommend that you read the stories of some asylum seekers that we have sent home. Click on the names on the following page to find the story of 6 individuals and understand that we have sent people back to their death.

    Mohammed is an Hazara and a former Mujahideen fighter in the civil war against the pro-Soviet Afghan Government. After the Taliban took control of the country he fled Afghanistan but ended up in detention on Nauru. Australia sent him back to Afghanistan in 2002 and told him the country was now safe.

    “‘We turned our faces towards the defenders of humanity. And now we are grateful for the Taliban and loathe this man.? I’m a half poet, and back in Nauru, I said this about John Howard. We can’t complain about the Taliban because they were illiterate and crazy. But this man was a Prime Minister.” – Mohammed
    *Postscript: Since completing A Well-Founded Fear Phil Glendenning has confirmed that Mohammed Hussain was tortured and brutally killed in Gazni province in September 2008.

  5. DanDark

    Great article on the plight of our new Aussies 🙂

  6. John921Fraser


    Its not so much about refugees.

    Its all about racism.

    If the people trying to get refuge in Australia were WASPS it would be an open border.

    With the ADF actively supporting them.

  7. DanDark

    Racism and refugees go hand in hand in this country
    Anything that can show that these folk are human before anything else
    Their race, culture, sexuality etc is irrelevant, they are humans and deserve to be treated and respected
    Like we all do..

  8. DanDark

    Oops bit of a typo but the gist is there John

  9. Florence nee Fedup

    The government should at the very least keep in contact t with these people for a lengthy period of time, to ensure they are OK. One needs the data, as to where they end up. We heard stories from the Howard days, that many fled once again as soon a as they returned.

    Should not be hard for the government to do, if it is as safe, as they say.

    Morrison is giving the impression, that it is the decision of those who return, and he is responsible for nothing.

    When one is left with no choice but to linger in hell for many years, where is the choice.

    I wonder how much hate these people carry, as they leave our shores.

    Abbott cannot even bring himself to write a new speech when he reintroduced those bills. I believe they are a little tardy with the budget legalisation. Wonder why? Many things need to be passed, to begin on July the first.

  10. Rafe Falkiner

    If only the people who think of refugees as evil, bomb carrying, job stealers could talk face to face with these people? Would it make a difference or are they as blind as the people they vote into power

  11. corvus boreus

    The default attitude of animosity towards unauthorised seekers of asylum, and indifference to the suffering in their incarceration show the lack of ability to see or imagine circumstances outside their own comfortable lives.
    The straw-man Telecrap ‘reader’ who squawks at the tyranny of speed safety cameras could scarce comprehend the plight of a secular father living in Afghanistan, wanting an educated daughter, amongst the fundamentalists and warlords, for example.
    I could understand and sympathise with someone using unauthorised measures to remove their family from conflict and social repression that we cannot accurately imagine.
    Sensibility and practicality with flexibility for compassion.
    The “M’anus solution” of arse end sandspit island of semi-failed client state offshore processing is a costly legal travesty that subjects people, some blameless minors, to conditions of incarceration worse than our maximum security prisons.
    It’s implementation was reactive and ill advised, and it has cost our nation dearly in so many ways.

  12. mars08


    Its not so much about refugees.

    Its all about racism….

    But is NOT ONLY about racism. It’s also about authoritarianism. And the banality of evil.

    And… let’s not forget… it’s mainly about how keen we are, as a nation, to vilify, criticise and demonise the weak and vulnerable. It’s about our nonchalance towards cruelty directed at isolated groups. It’s about our willingness to believe in stereotypes. It’s about a lack of respect, a lack of empathy.

    Behaviour condoned by the electorate towards asylum seekers will eventually flow (in some form) to other powerless, disenfranchised groups. The harsh policies we overlook will be a green light to similar treatment of the unemployed, the sick, gays, welfare recipient, gays, unionists, activists or any group the govt sees fit to ostracise.

    As far as our minister is concerned, I strongly suspect that racism is NOT their main motivation. It’s simply about playing to the ignorant masses and staying in power. With that in mind, these people would be only too eager to use the same cruelty against any minority group if they thought it would bring political advantage.

  13. DanDark

    And the rest is history as they say Mars
    with the help of Gina, Tony Shepherd and murdochs minions
    And yes, they did exactly that, they made it okay to be complicit with demonising, vilifying and killing asylum seekers, Aussies were always going to be next on the agenda specially ones who can’t fight back
    After us, like Putin, they then go for other countries, it’s how they run, follow Putin, and that’s Tones and co in the making,

  14. mars08


    After us, like Putin, they then go for other countries…

    I’m not sure that is a proper analogy. There’s more to those events than is being covered by the lazy MSM. You might consider reading a few of these articles to get a background to what happened… <<< Article from 7 years ago <<< Written by ex Army officer who also worked as a CIA analyst for 27 years. Author wrote for the President’s Daily brief under Presidents Nixon and Ford. <<< written by former CIA analyst (1966 to 1990), and a professor of international security at the National War College from 1986 to 2004

    Ukraine, Through the US Looking Glass

  15. DanDark

    I watched a doco on Putin not long ago, and yes Tones and Putin have same mentality, lack of intelligence same people just different names, so you have your proof that it’s not same,
    That’s fine, but we will see, well I won’t I am getting out of the joint/ country.

  16. mars08

    …you have your proof that it’s not same…

    It’s not my proof. It’s the views of those far more well informed than I could ever be…

  17. DanDark

    Yep cool, whatever, I don’t care anymore, I am over the whole male mentality pushing this country to the brink of civil unrest

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