This weekend we vote. I still don’t know how I will check those boxes. The issue I feel most strongly about hasn’t featured strongly along the campaign trial. I am appalled at how this country treats people seeking refuge. If you want to read a couple of great, well researched blog posts on this topic, try this and this.
Rather than making my own impassioned plea to reason, I thought I’d share a story with you from my past…
I was terrified. Seventeen and embarking on my first over-seas trip. And it wasn’t any old trip. I was to make my way down to Sydney to meet with a group of like-minded Christian souls and then onto Greece together to work with missionaries and asylum seekers for a month.
Ah yes, the obligatory white girl saves the world trip. It was twenty years ago and my memories are hazy. Assisted by photographs. The kind taken on film. I remember my team mates. Phillipa with her long dark hair and blue, blue eyes. Nathan, with his fancy digital camera. I had never seen one before. It was huge and needed to be charged every few hours.
I remember we stayed in a seedy part of town in a seedy hostel. There were no doubt budget restrictions, but our parents would have been appalled. We had a large room with mattresses on the floor — no beds. There were comings and goings through out the night. In my teenage innocence, I had no idea what they meant. I can look back now and take an educated guess. It was run by a nice man with a clichèd moustache. He made us tea in the morning and would always put the milk in first. I still don’t know whether that was particular to him or the Grecians. I was held in thrall by all of it. The first sparks of a travel bug lit. A world, entirely different to my own, to be immersed in.
We spent our days teaching English to kids that couldn’t go back to their homes. Even back then, Greece was home to so many displaced people. We asked the American missionaries if it would be easier for the children to understand us if we adopted American accents. A heavy and incredulous drawl came back “You guys can speak without accents?” It became the running joke of the trip.
But what has stayed with me, with crystal clarity, is the way people seeking refuge were treated in Greece. We spent a couple of days within camps. There were no fences. No guards. No guns. People had made shipping containers and large crates into homes. You could tell the families that had been there a while. The ones that had furnishings and things on the wall. Children’s drawings and wind chimes. There were shared bathrooms. It was sub-standard living. It was in no way permanent. But there was community.
People weren’t guarded or made to feel they were criminals. No-one was making money from tragedy. And it didn’t seem to cost the Greek government exorbitant amounts per year to break spirits. This was temporary and poor, but it was not a prison. It was not without hope.
I talked with the families. Many spoke beautiful English, in addition to their native language and often one or two others. My heroine complex fractured. These people knew a lot more than I did. People that fled their homes and found themselves impoverished. But they did not start there. They were well educated. They had enjoyed good jobs. If home existed, they would return in a heart beat. But home no longer existed and they looked forward to rebuilding with admirable resilience.
There was a small school house in the camp with a playground fashioned out of things others had thrown away. The children laughed. It’s a sound that carries over continents. Children playing and laughing sound the same no matter where you are.
Twenty years on, I wonder if the children that have sought to make Australia their home laugh and play. Whether that universal sound can be heard in the Nauru detention centre?
What’s your big election issue?