A forest outside a small village in Germany. On entering this particular forest there was a sign at the entrance of the path which my husband translated. It was the first principle of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 (http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/).
The picture here is principle 14 – ‘it is not illegal to seek asylum’
This forest had a designed walking path along which all the articles of this Declaration were signposted. Article number 14, in full, is: “(1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” We spent the afternoon stopping at each of these signs along the path.
Travelling in Germany was both confronting and healing for me. For instance, I couldn’t NOT look at places and wonder about hiding places. I write about seeing this sign knowing that comparisons are most inappropriate and bound to fail as each disaster in history has its own uniqueness, most certainly to the people who went through it. Nevertheless, I did take this photo in Germany. And it can help to look back at history, our own and others. So it is lessons, not comparisons, we can draw on. In Australia people are currently being ‘lost at sea’ and traumatised. Yesterday was a day of tragedy, with one refugee being killed on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and others seriously injured, physically and psychologically.
What is this hysteria about ‘stopping the boats’? Unfortunately boats full of people in need have been turned back in other times, for instance the MS St Louis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MS_St._Louis) in 1939 from the shores of Cuba. And fortunately, other boats have been received. Our own ex-prime minster Malcolm Fraser ensured a safe place for many Vietnamese refugees in the seventies. Those already converted to the cause know all this, and more.
I want to share this photo and figure out what small things I can do. This is serious, awful stuff right now. And we need to talk.
What I bring to this current debate is that much of my previous working life included teaching English to refugees. I learnt much from my students from many countries, some who were asylum seekers and lost in their own memories. When I first started teaching English the classrooms were full of refugees from the former Yugoslavia. These folk all sat, shared and studied in the same classroom, despite circumstances forcing many of them to be enemies in their home territories. As many English language teachers can tell you, these classrooms are usually full of respect for diversity. And the teacher gets a massive education. That’s why I kept doing it for years.
If I am to be really honest, at the start there were plenty of times when I felt intimidated to work with “those people”, whichever people I assumed them to be, and for whatever reasons. We all experience fear of the unknown. And, it is really confronting to sit with other people’s traumas. What if it were us?
During that recent trip to Germany I stayed with one of my husband’s dear German friends. Truth is, we were checking each other out for a bit, and then we finally talked history. When he dropped us at the train at the end of our stay, I watched him shed tears as he bravely waved us goodbye, and I fell in love with him, and his country.
I have fallen in love with many of my students over many years. I want to keep falling in love with the Australia that has been the refuge to many migrants. I want to talk with others about this.
Human rights lawyer Julian Burnside has said that he writes back to people who disagree with him and he actually changes the minds of 50% of those people, by giving them facts. See: http://theconversation.com/julian-burnside-alienation-to-alien-nation-18290.
I have no idea what to do with, for, about the boats. But the fact remains, Seeking asylum is not illegal. And locking people up indefinitely in dreadful conditions in places such as Manus Island is no solution.We need to talk, write, act.
Suzanne Frydman ©