November 20, 2013

Hope and Resilience: The True Stories of Refugees

For those who read my work and know me, you would know that the topic of hope both fascinates and inspires me. Hope was not a word or idea I had ever thought much about until 2003 when I began visiting refugees in Villawood Immigration Detention Centre.

I was just out of high school, 18 at the time. My desire to visit the detention centre was sparked by what was known as the ‘children overboard’ situation and the riots at Woomera Immigration Detention Centre. Coming home from school I would watch the nightly news and hear that people were sewing their mouths shut in protest of the treatment they were receiving in Australia, namely the uncertainty of their lives and safety.

The media and politicians at the time were framing this issue as just something ‘these people’ did. Even at 18 I felt that this was absurd. I became determined to understand the real story behind the refugees being detained in Australia.

This determination led to a three year journey as I visited a group of Iranian refugees in Villawood Immigration Detention Centre each week. It was during the conversations I had there that I began to understand the complexities of why people are forced to flee their homelands. I also came to see first-hand the distress people experience when their futures are uncertain and they are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.

This week Four Corners aired their story Trading Misery which documented the great suffering of families living in Lebanon, and those who lost their families when the boat they were travelling to Australia in sank.

To witness the situation they are fleeing from, and to see the raw grief those left behind are living with, it reminded me of how great the adversity and anguish is for so many people living around the world. It reminded me again of how very lucky I am to have been born in a safe country.

In honour of those who live in intolerable circumstances and situations, who with great courage and sacrifice, seek hope, safety and freedom, today I wanted to share a part of my personal journey with refugees. I would like to re-print a section of my honours thesis, a thesis which explored the role hope plays in the lives of refugees. This was the prologue of my thesis;
When you sit side by side with someone who is unsure of their fate, you are changed. When there is a very real possibility that their fate could include death, imprisonment or torture, you are left with a deep imprint which fills with despair, sadness and shock.  
Your view of the world changes as your eyes are opened to the way that others live. You come to see that the role of governments in people’s lives, both abroad and within this place you call ‘home,’ can determine life from death. You can’t help but ask questions of God, you can’t help but ask questions of yourself.
In 2003 I began visiting a group of Iranian refugees in Villawood Immigration Detention Centre and did so for three years until they had all been deemed genuine refugees and released. This period of my life I remember vividly with mixed emotions.
This time in my life was punctuated by deep sorrow and pain, as I witnessed the effects of a policy that was designed to ‘send a message’ not support some of the most vulnerable people in the world. It was also a time when I was confronted and challenged by the power of hope and the resilience of the human spirit.
Once I had met refugees in person and heard their stories of courage and survival I could not bear to hear them being described as ‘queue jumpers’, ‘illegal immigrants’ or ‘possible terrorists.’ To me they were hope seekers.     
The refugees I visited had an infectious hope, a strong belief that tomorrow would bring some good news. They held onto the idea that their pain and suffering would not be forever. For some this pain and suffering lasted much longer than it should have. A few refugees were detained for up to six and a half years, but amazingly their hope remained.
While in detention I saw refugees work extremely hard to learn English and Australian colloquialisms, understand the Australian legal system and make Australian friends. These were people who were as actively involved in their lives as they possibly could be.
Their passion for life and their motivation did not cease once released. Once they were granted refugee status, they didn’t delay finding employment and getting off initial Centrelink support, starting businesses, getting their driver’s license, buying cars, securing accommodation, getting married and starting families.
Before circumstances forced these people to flee their homelands, and take on the label of ‘refugee’ or ‘asylum seeker,’ they were people with histories, stories and achievements of their own. The reality is that anyone can become a refugee if circumstances in their country change. This reality should shape our response to refugees, allowing humility and compassion to dictate rather than fear and racism.  
Very little has been written which celebrates the courageous and hopeful spirits of refugees and all they have achieved and survived. My objective for this thesis, therefore, is to create something beautiful that not only acknowledges the hope that refugees hold onto as their life line, but to celebrate and encourage this in all of us.
 Photo sourced from Four Corners

Jessica Stead xxx

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