Resilience and Refugees

Extract from a speech given at Box Hill Town Hall, 5thSept. 2010 to mark the Festival of Refugees, Victoria

I know many of you in the audience were once forced to make a very difficult decision that I hope I never have to make. You made your decision to leave your homeland because you dared to dream of a future without fear…you dreamt of a new life and Australia was the answer.

You turned your back on violence and prejudice and dreamt of a new home and a chance to survive. You wanted a place where your children and their children could live in peace. But as you soon discovered, dreams don’t come true simply because you want them to. Making dreams come true means believing in yourself — it’s hard work. Building a new life takes courage and determination.

Today we watch disasters, like wars and floods, on television while we sit back in our comfortable chairs and drink a cup of coffee or eat a pizza. Australians are very generous at donating money to disasters around the world — no doubt about it. But sometimes when the people they see suffering on TV move next door as neighbours some of that sympathy disappears and they only see what they think of as ‘differences’. And then comes the talk about Australian values. Love of family, respect for elders, honest work, and fairness are the same values around the world.

Sadly some Australian people don’t see the human face of the refugee or asylum seeker. Why are they hostile?

The man from Sudan or the Congo worries about paying the rent — just like them; young men from Sri Lanka worry about losing their jobs — just like everyone; a young girl from Iraq goes on a diet — like most teenagers do, Afghan boys swap jokes — who doesn’t? And the mother from Burma tells her children bedtime stories — just like mothers everywhere.

As a writer I love language, I love words. One of my favourite words is ‘resilience’; it’s a hard word to explain like many English words.

But Resilience and Refugees are two words that belong together. Resilience means facing terrible things that no one should have to face, it means surviving when others give up; it means laughing when you want to cry; or being silent when you want to shout at the sky asking ‘Why me?’

Resilience also gives you power — the power to dream. You start dreaming of a better life. Part of surviving means trying to make dreams come true. This takes energy when you want to lie down and go to sleep and forget everything … or when you feel sad and lonely.

But you — the courageous people here today — did not lie down and go to sleep, you didn’t say ‘She’ll be right mate, don’t worry.’

I use the word ‘heroes’ to describe you all. It’s the same word I used to describe the asylum seekers I met years ago at the Port Hedland Detention Centre, a place that should never have been built.

And here may I congratulate the friends of refugees in the audience today. You all look beyond the differences of culture and build friendships. To many of us, history is something we read about in books or see on our TV, but you, as friends and supporters, know that refugees and asylum seekers experience the down side of history; they suffer the consequences when their countries of origin are torn apart by civil wars, invasions and dictatorships — yes, you understand.

Through your friendships you show solidarity. You help people as they learn a new language and new customs. You speak out against racism when it shows its ugly head. It’s so important to speak out and not be silent.

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