Yesterday afternoon as part of the City of Kingston’s Refugee Week I attended a screening of Jolyon Hoff’s film The Staging Post – a remarkable film that leaves an indelible mark on your heart.
The moving story of the creation of a school and the building of a cohesive community shows a different aspect of the lives of refugees awaiting processing in Indonesia.
I don’t know whether it will change hardened opinions about our government’s refugee policy but it does confront and challenge and it definitely adds to our knowledge by telling a story not widely known!
This year, Refugee Week, held from Sunday 17 June to Saturday 23 June, aims to raise awareness about the issues affecting refugees and to celebrate the positive contributions they make to Australian society. (There are over 800,000 Australians who were once refugees!)
The film screening plus a scrumptious afternoon tea was held at Shirley Burke Theatre in Parkdale, a comfortable venue for the film and the Q and A session afterwards with the director Jolyon Hoff. A stark contrast to the lives of the thousands of refugees throughout the world who can’t help but feel nobody wants them when you see the news clips and read many of the comments on social media!
A Positive Ageing representative from Kingston’s Access and Equity Committee welcomed the audience and introduced Jolyon. Joanne mentioned it was World Refugee Day and this year the theme was “With Refugees.”
Words And How Stories Are Told Matter
When you hear the word refugee what images spring to mind?
- Rohingya in their hundreds and thousands trekking through jungle mud,
- boat people from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka or Iraq arriving in Australia and suiciding in mandatory detention,
- Africans floundering in the oceans off Italy,
- camps in Jordan with miles of tents,
- crying women and children at the Mexican and U.S.A. border,
- crowds of young men rioting in Germany,
- ramshackle cities in Calais and numerous other towns … ?
Do you think the terms asylum seeker, refugee, illegal immigrants, migrants are interchangeable?
Naming is a choice, the words we use – especially the words our political representatives and media choose – are important.
The choice reflects not just perspective on how and why people have begun a journey, but who the people are and their rights. It especially says a lot about the speaker or writer’s opinion towards the people they are describing, and their knowledge or lack thereof.
By choosing to describe asylum seekers as illegal immigrants, economic migrants, or boat people it is easy for politicians to justify denying refugees basic human rights and classify them as less deserving of help.
Define A Refugee
A refugee is a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country … ”
The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees
Protecting refugees is the core mandate of UNHCR.
The word refugee comes from French and was first used in the modern context following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, which sent the Protestant Huguenots to flee the religious persecution by the French King Louis XIV.
There have been many pograms, persecutions, wars, land clearances, and oppression since.
For most of us, it was the horrendous displacement of people caused by WW2 that has cemented ideas and images in our mind about who or who isn’t a refugee and whether there is empathy for them as opposed to the fear, distrust and contempt that many populist leaders exploit.
The Director’s Introduction
Jolyon came to the story 4-5 years ago when living in Jakarta with his family because of his wife’s work. In 2013, the news broadcast the Australian Government’s latest ‘detention overseas’ policy by announcing anyone arriving by boat would be detained offshore in Manus or Nauru islands; they re-instated mandatory offshore detention.
- He realised that in the 15 years of asylum seekers being in the news he had never met one.
- He wondered who are these people and why do they want to come to Australia?
- He decided to visit where refugees gathered, ostensibly to arrange to make deals with people smugglers and get to Christmas Island to seek asylum in Australia.
- He drove to the outskirts of the city, went over a shaky bridge and arrived at Cisarua, a bustling village, but also the place considered a staging post for boats to Christmas Island.
The driver pointed to a man and said, ‘Over there, that’s a refugee.’
The meeting with ‘the refugee’ changed both their lives. Hasan introduced him to a cousin, Rizwana who said he must meet her brother, Muzafar, who was a photographer.
Jolyon asked all the ‘stupid but obvious’ questions:
- Why did you leave your own country?
- Was it really that bad?
- How did you get here?
- How do you manage to live?
- Why do you want to live in Australia?
- What is your plan, if you have one?…
Muzafar was an amazing photographer with beautiful photographs of Central Afghanistan who had teamed up with seventeen years old, Khadim who had made short films on his mobile phone and after posting them on the Internet had won awards.
Jolyon considered himself a good filmmaker, he’d studied in Australia but was stunned when he saw Muzafar’s photos and Khadim’s films – films oozing authenticity, raw footage from when both men decided to raise their voices and present their lives, culture, countries to the world and to keep a record of their incredible journeys.
Muzafar and Khadim are Afghan Hazara refugees who were stuck in Indonesia when Australia “stopped the boats”. They faced many years in limbo – at one stage the UNHCR said 5 years, some people had been there 10 years, and the forecast now is 15 – 25 years!!
Not only did they collaborate and complete this film with Jolyon but the majority of the film is about the creation of the Cisarua Refugee Learning Centre an amazing community school that began with a $200 donation, two rooms, one trained teacher and two teenage assistants.
It now has 18 teachers and managers teaching nearly 200 students a day – 110 students in morning classes and 57 older women and mothers ( many illiterate in their own language) in the afternoon. They are trialling Skype classes by a teacher in Australia.
When we started we had no idea. What should we teach? How should they teach? Little by little we found our way.
The film does not skirt over the fact that the major issues in the refugees’ lives remain. They are not allowed to work in Indonesia and rely on friends, family, supporters to donate – they receive support from locals as well as concerned people in Australia.
- Indonesia allows refugees to stay but gives no help or pathway to citizenship
- Refugees are not allowed to work and not allowed to attend school (since the success of Cisarua, this rule has been ignored!)
There are family members still in their home countries but also others who have been resettled in Europe, USA, Canada and Australia. Unfortunately, some have family members here but because they arrived ‘by boat’ the new, tougher laws in Australia will not allow family members to be reunited!
“Courageous People Never Give Up”
The real value lies in the process behind the outcomes – refugees building trust in one another, confidence, participation in problem solving and decision-making, and a general sense of starting each day with a purpose. After more than two decades working with refugees, this is certainly the most effective pre-departure preparation program I have encountered.
Lucy Fiske, Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research fellow, UTS, Sydney.
I hope many people see this inspirational film – an example of people who have been brutalised and forced to flee their own country in fear yet proved their resilience, courage and resourcefulness, by creating an amazing community that flourishes on hope.
The film is a must see – riveting and balanced – you laugh and you cry. This is about stateless people creating an energy, a force for the future. No longer perpetual victims or voiceless – they are telling their stories.
Adults with a variety of skills – plumbers, electricians, carpenters, artists, designers – renovating and fitting out a decrepit building into a functioning learning centre…
Two little girls learning to recite the alphabet, others reciting times tables whispering the answers to each other when one stumbles…
Afghani children dancing and singing, preparing for a concert to meet local and overseas children at an International School for the first time – the wonderment and uninhibited joy as the children mix with each other and share their knowledge… asylum seekers and refugees have something to give, a connection is made and a relationship grows in strength…
Khadim finally accepted to be resettled in the USA and as he packs his few belongings, he talks of his love for his mother and sisters, his fears for them, his determination to change a system that has women exchanged as young as 13 to marry men they do not love. He holds a traditional hat his mother made him, snuggles his face close, ‘It is so precious, it carries her smell…’ tears glisten –
I join him… and cry again when Muzafar and family arrive safely in Australia.
After the film, there was a Q and A session and we discovered that one little girl in the film who had dreams of becoming a doctor is now at college in Texas, top of her class and writing a novel! She will achieve her dream one day!
Khadim arrived in Los Angeles, was given a $500 cheque although he didn’t have a bank account and was turfed out of the ‘resettlement’ hotel after one night and told he was on his own and to get a job.
Using the networks he established online, he is now travelling across America and Canada visiting former refugees. Part of a bigger story than Cisarua. The friendship and project that started all those years ago when Jolyon sought answers. Understanding continues to grow and spread.
How to Help And Stand With Refugees
To support the filming and an outreach programme you can make a tax-deductible donation at the Documentary Australia Foundation – documentaryaustralia.com.au
Muzafar fared better because Jolyon and his wife met him and his family at Adelaide airport when they were finally accepted here for resettlement. He is at Adelaide University and also travels promoting the film and the Cisarua Learning Centre, which is now a Public Benevolent Institution with DGR (deductible gift recipient) status.
Their idea is that refugees can be part of the solution. They “uncover the sleeping leaders within the refugee communities and encourage them to start their own refugee-led initiatives, and then accompany them for as long as they need.”
Cisarua Refugee Learning Centre has inspired at least 20 other refugee-led education centres and changed the lives of thousands of refugee families.
There are now over 1,500 refugees receiving education in Indonesia from approximately 100 refugee teachers.
To donate and to find out more to help and stand WITH refugees
- email email@example.com or
- write to Cisarua Learning, Supporting Refugee Education, Unit 4, 484-486 Bronte Road, Bronte NSW 2024.
- Buy the DVD,
- read the stories,
- stay engaged and be in there for the long haul.
Everywhere asylum seekers are being demonised. We are told stopping the boats was to prevent deaths at sea, yet where is the outrage at the prison-like conditions and deaths on Nauru and Manus – another suicide as recently as two weeks ago!
Many wealthy countries are closing their borders – the USA has halved their refugee intake, Canada has reduced their numbers too and Australia has radically reduced their intake but Minister Dutton and his BorderForce remain tight-lipped and make it increasingly difficult to discover numbers. Most media are denied access to Manus and Nauru.
We need films like The Staging Post to show us a world most of us will never experience and reveal the stories of courage, resilience, love and hope of refugee communities and maybe – just maybe Australians will rediscover the ability to warmly welcome ‘those who come across the seas‘!
The ground-breaking documentary, The Staging Post, is vital in shifting the understanding and debate in Australia to better understand the impact of our current policies.
Tim O’Connor, Director, refugee Council of Australia.
The staging Post is an incredible film and needs to be seen by as many people as possible. it shows how the refugees in Indonesia would make extraordinary citizens, in any country.