human experience, politics, refugees

Ignorance is Not Bliss

I was fortunate to spend a lot of time overseas often as a child. A credit to my parents, I remember having a genuine sense of wonder around new languages, cities, clothes, music, food and architecture, and that sense of wonder has really carried through into my adulthood. I guess that’s why I married an Egyptian (lol).

Often I find that the challenge – or at times, hilarity – of a language barrier still gives me a thrill! I love to try new cuisines. I still marvel at art and architecture from all kinds of backgrounds. So while it may sound idealistic or perhaps even totally naïve: I’ve always struggled to understand the construct of racism. It just doesn’t add up in my brain. I still can’t relate to how one person could hate another person they don’t even know based on the colour of their skin, or their religion, or their country of origin. In my head it seems like straight up lunacy. I don’t mean to say that I’ve never had an uncomfortable interaction with anybody – because I have. What I do mean to say is that I marvel in that we are all unique, with our own background, heritages, and stories. I feel that we have so much to learn from each other. 

With that introduction, I’m sure I don’t need to outline my political views in regards to Australia’s harsh immigration policies (or lack thereof) and the global refugee crisis that is flooding the news right now. With the world watching: millions of men, women and children are fleeing Syria – more afraid of turning back than of the uncertainty that lies ahead. As the pressure on Australia to accept more refugees in the wake of this crisis increases, unfortunately instead of a compassionate response, we have seen an Islamophobic backlash sweep the nation. ‘Muslim-fear’, ‘Arab-fear’.

If I’m being honest, there have been many occasions where I have felt embarrassed to be Australian. At this point in history we are truly infamous for our brutal treatment of migrants, adopting policies that have been described as ‘inhumane, of dubious legality and strikingly at odds with the country’s tradition of welcoming people fleeing persecution and war.’ (NY Times, ‘Australia’s Brutal Treatment of Migrants’, Sept. 3 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/03/opinion/australias-brutal-treatment-of-migrants.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss&_r=2). The concepts of ‘a fair go’ and ‘mateship’ (whatever the heck that means) is blatantly at odds with our ruthless policies and general prejudice towards Middle-Eastern cultures in particular.

The thing that frustrates me the most is a general lack of understanding around what refugees actually are in the Australian public. I’ve seen countless comments in threads under news articles or Facebook posts where Aussies are actually insinuating that the Syrian people are just ‘looking for a better job’ but that ‘Australia isn’t the place to do it, sorry mate.’ Are they for real?

Just for my own sanity, I need to show you the official definitions of both ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’ so you can see the difference:

Migrant | noun: migrant; plural noun: migrants

  1. a person who moves from one place to another in order to find work or better living conditions.

Refugee | nounrefugee; plural noun: refugees

  1. a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.

That drastically changes things, wouldn’t you agree? Those two terms are not interchangeable. They indicate a completely different set of circumstances. But the lines have been blurred, and not by accident.

In Australia there seems to be a bucketload of misconceptions around refugees, one of the worst being that these people are doing something ‘illegal’. Nope. It is not illegal to seek asylum by boat (1958 Migration Act). Another one is that refugees are after Centrelink benefits – whaaa? Do you know what the Centrelink benefit is for an asylum seeker? It’s $0.00.

This is only scratching the surface.

My personal view is that these misconceptions throughout the Australian public are what prevents us from seeing permanent changes in policy. It’s intentional – these ‘misconceptions’ are no coincidence. These lies are spread in subtle and effective ways by our own government.

Regardless of anyone’s political views on immigration, I don’t believe that we are hard enough to be exposed to an image of a lifeless little boy washed up on the shore without feeling prompted to help. Education – and real news reporting – is key. Human beings, including children, are literally dying to escape war and suffering right now.

Germany has demonstrated an overwhelming response to the Syrian refugee crisis, scenes of Germans crowding train stations last weekend to meet the afflicted arrivals with food, water and gifts in hand. In fact, if you follow the news you may have heard that this week Germany has signalled its readiness to offer shelter to more than 800,000 refugees from Syria and other countries this year – the biggest intake of any European country.

Contrastingly, at the time of this post, the Australian government has so far confirmed that we will accept 5,000 from Syria as a part of our usual refugee intake. Sadly, and mistakenly, the opinion of some Australians is that this is more than our ‘fair share’.

Save the Children recently created a video to raise awareness around what war does to children. It seems to serve as an appropriate ‘wake up’ call to those who are covering their eyes and blocking their ears to the Syrian crisis – in fact, the campaign slogan is that “just because it’s not happening here, doesn’t mean it’s not happening”.

THIS is the reality of what these families are fleeing.

But ‘ignorance is bliss’ right? In many ways, we seem to be the embodiment of that very statement in Australia right now. Despite living in a globalized society where we have as much access to this information as we like, so many of us find it easier to turn a blind eye to the desperate plight of the Syrian people. It seems like every time I jump on Facebook, someone is ranting somewhere about how ‘we’re already full’, or ‘we need to look after our own first’. I know that these are complex issues and mindsets that run much deeper that I am letting on – but whichever way you look at it, it’s just so misguided and so wrong that it hurts.

During his acceptance speech in 1964, the great Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.”

Just yesterday, I read in the news that several West Australian country towns have risen up and signalled that they are willing to take in Syrian refugees, and provide jobs and support to families who are fleeing the conflict. (ABC, ‘Country WA towns want to help settle Syrian refugees’, Sept. 8 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/03/opinion/australias-brutal-treatment-of-migrants.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss&_r=2).

It doesn’t always come naturally to me, but I am holding to that same faith and optimism that MLK professed – that even when things are a mess, there is still hope. Hope that at the end of the day, ‘unarmed truth and unconditional love’ will have the final say.

It is my hope and my prayer that I would not be guilty of turning a blind eye to people where I could help instead. Even if all I can do is pray!

On that note, along with many others, I’ve been setting my alarm for 12pm each day. At midday, I stop and I pray for Syria. I pray that instead of turning a blind eye to this crisis and to these PEOPLE (which is what they are), that our hearts would be broken. I pray that wherever possible, we would help them.

To finish, if you are looking for practical ways to help with the refugee crisis, SumOfUs have created a list which serves as a good starting point. You can find this list here: http://action.sumofus.org/a/help-refugees/?akid=13276.250763.bdg44E&rd=1&t=19.

There are also a number of worthy organisations and events that could use support right now (Save the Children, UNICEF, UNHCR, Oxfam, Asylum Seeker Resource Centre).

I feel like it would be appropriate to finish on the poignant words of Elie Wiesel: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Ignorance is not, is never, bliss.

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