It’s Refugee Week and We Still Don’t Accept Seeking Asylum Is A Human Right

chasing asylum cover

Time For Truth-Telling

There has been a host of issues covered by a variety of media in the last week, as the important Black Lives Matter Movement continues to dominate headlines around the world and it is also Pride Month in the USA.

An important message of BLM and Pride is about valuing human rights, a similar message the United Nations established when they devised the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, July 1951.

tony-fernandes-human-rights-means-that-each-individual-should-quote-on-storemypic-ec083

Australia was party to this Convention as David Marr explains in an interview recorded on the 2016 documentary Chasing Asylum. 

The UN Declaration of Human Rights and Refugee Convention was a humane understanding, according to David and ‘the world’s apology to what was done to the Jewish people fleeing the Holocaust.’

When the doors are closed, people need protection and have a right to seek it!  Australia signed up to this Convention and to letting refugees come in – and they come by the sea when other channels are closed!

When I revisited this documentary, I wept. 

Even with COVID-19, when we are all encouraged to care for each other, we are detaining and treating asylum seekers as if they are criminals and of lesser value than ourselves. Fortunately, there are courageous advocates still speaking up and trying to get the Australian Government to honour the Conventions they signed.

FB_IMG_an asylum seeker 2020
A young man STILL detained – from a friend’s Facebook

I agree with David Marr, who ”defies anyone not to be moved and not feel ashamed.’

The film shows horrific footage (taken without the knowledge of those in authority) of inside the camps on Nauru and Manus Islands that Australian taxpayers fund and set up by the Federal Government.  Repeated parliaments headed by BOTH main political parties have made excuses to maintain these offshore camps.

The cost of torturing innocent people who had a RIGHT to seek asylum – $500,000 per asylum seeker per year – that is $1.2 billion to maintain Nauru and Manus Islands.

A lot of money to torture people because mandatory and indefinite detention is definitely torturing!

There is testimony from employees with firsthand experience who observed the inhumanity and horrific conditions in the detention camps. No amount of posturing and excuses will hide the fact the premise of Australia’s policy is we have a right to put refugees through hell because they came by sea and others might die at sea following their example.

It is profoundly hypocritical to claim ‘stop the boats and turn back the boats’ policies are humanitarian because they stop deaths at sea – especially when we continually engage in wars and other practices creating refugees!

The most recent mass migration of people fleeing their Syrian homeland a case in point. Australian planes bombed Syria. Many of the refugees in this documentary are Iranian, Afghani and Iraqi – Australia was part of the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ who bombed these countries!

There are reasons for refugees fleeing their homeland – foremost is war – most people would prefer to stay in their own country. If more effort made to prevent the reasons, people put themselves at risk, we would not be facing a worldwide crisis of 60 million refugees.

The countries sheltering half a million to over a million refugees are:

  • Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia and Jordan.
  • Germany accepted one million Syrian refugees in 2016.

Meanwhile, in Australia, we’ve demonised refugees since 2001 and used them as a political football.

In 2016, Chasing Asylum challenged us as a nation to confront the flagrant abuse of human rights perpetrated in our name and as a nation we responded by repeatedly electing governments to continue this inhumanity.

 

Reduced to its basest element, Australian government policy is to begrudgingly treat those who legally sought its asylum – by one mode of transport, by boat – with axiomatic cruelty, in order to discourage others from paying people smugglers and hopping into leaky boats across south-east Asia. This policy saves lives, they say, because it deters others.

But it’s not this policy that’s stopping the boats from reaching Australian shores. Australia has spent billions of dollars putting an armada to sea in the waters to the country’s north and west.

Asylum boats continue to ply the waters of the region and attempt to reach Australia. They do so in much smaller numbers now because they are intercepted, boarded and their passengers and crew forcibly turned around. Protection assessments are conducted at sea – a policy considered illegal under international law by almost every expert opinion, including that of the United Nations.

https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/nov/30/australias-offshore-detention-regime-is-a-brutal-and-obscene-piece-of-self-delusion

The support workers, volunteers, social workers, doctors and security personnel who speak on camera in Chasing Asylum also demonised. Classed as malcontents and whistleblowers, there have been many attempts to discredit them by sections of the government and media.

Their evidence may be unpalatable but cannot be ignored.

Because of their courage, protests from many community groups, and the persistence from MPs with a conscience like Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, the voiceless may have been ‘out of sight’ but were not ‘out of mind’!

And we still have asylum seekers incarcerated!

There is also a policy of boat turn-backs and like the disgraceful scandal of the Tampa, we ignore a basic law of the sea of helping a vessel in distress.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2006:

No one knows how many boat people have died, but thousands have been rescued at sea. In the reality of dangerous journeys undertaken to gain access to reluctant coastal states, the time-honoured maritime traditions of rescue at sea collide with the growing determination of states to prevent illegal entry to their territory.

However, to seek asylum as a refugee is not illegal!

We must face the reality of the deceit of the cruel and barbaric ‘stop the boats’ mantra and there is no time like the present!

This week, our current Prime Minister Morrison (his name comes up frequently in the documentary as Immigration Minister) showed his ignorance of Australia’s history regarding slavery and his specially picked Indigenous Envoy, Tony Abbott compounded that ignorance by declaring racism and prejudice plays no part in the high rate of Aboriginal incarceration and deaths in custody.

The pair still peddle the myth that our refugee policy of mandatory offshore detention is humane!

Like many of the horrific scenes circulating on social media at the moment, this history of our offshore detention policy makes uncomfortable viewing!

chasing asylum plea and blurb

By choosing to describe asylum seekers as illegal immigrants, economic migrants, or boat people, and classifying them as less deserving of help, it is easy for politicians to justify denying them basic human rights.

I’m glad that there are still activists protesting on behalf of asylum seekers.  I will continue to donate to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, write letters and sign petitions – trying to keep the issue alive via conversations and the written word.

Operation Sovereign Borders
Mairi Neil © 2016
(a found poem from Refugee Week leaflet)

Refugees and asylum seekers
young and old
wanting safety
protection
a new life…
They cross stormy waters
with courage
seeking justice
and a welcome
from Australian society

Amazing personal stories
of darkness,
bribery,
corruption
challenges faced
uprisings survived…
Prisoners of conscience
student leaders
from Afghanistan and Burma
seeking resettlement
and freedom
seeking to celebrate and contribute.

Their hopes crushed
basic human rights violated
harsh lessons in cruelty
as the innocent
are locked up.

In limbo
on Nauru and Manus Islands
detention not freedom ––
Why?

We can do better
Stand up, Speak up
Refugees and Asylum Seekers
Welcome here!

Latte Lament
by Mairi Neil © 2016

We sit in the cafe
indulging a desire
for coffee and cake
and a need
for each other…

Sensitive souls
we struggle to accept
that sitting, sipping coffee:
skinny latte, cappuccino, mochaccino
long or short black

and devouring slices
of gluten-free, fructose-free, fat-free,
carrot cake and a chocolate muffin –
is not conscience free…

Modern media mobility
screams of drought, bushfires
floods at home and
tragedies abroad:

war, random shootings,
terrorist attacks, refugee crises…

France
Greece
Indonesia
Iraq
Israel
Kenya
Lebanon
Palestine
Sri Lanka
Syria,
Turkey
Ukraine
Manus Island and Nauru…

We skip the sugar and cream
search mobile screen for a funny meme.

Chasing Asylum

The opening scene of a crowded boat navigating a choppy sea has a male voice over explaining ‘I head for Australia because it is a safe, humane country… respects people… no war, calm, everything good…’

And then there is the reality as shaky footage from a concealed mobile phone camera reveals Australia has some of the harshest refugee and asylum seeker policies in the world.

We see conditions in Nauru Detention Centre – the footage filmed in secret because no journalists, filmmakers or camera crew allowed inside the Nauru camp.

Nauru a remote island, population 10,000, isolated and extremely hot, you can drive around it in 20 minutes. It is a ‘poor’ country with a failing economy.

Easy pickings for Australia to sweep responsibility to somewhere else and pass on our problem. And it is understandable why the Nauruan government accepted Australia’s offer of a cash splash and allowed a detention centre.

At the time the documentary was made there were 2,175 asylum seekers in detention on Nauru and Manus Islands, including children.

protest by grandmothers against detention
protest in 2014  demanding release of children in detention

A social worker speaks about the shock of arriving to work at the camp – meeting people already detained 400-500 days and so many security personnel giving the camp a militarised feel.

We hear faceless conversations. The views of camp, fences, tents and people from imperfect angles, but there is sufficient footage to capture the bleakness, sparse colourless surroundings, makeshift and temporary set-up. Cyclone fencing reminiscent of building sites.

Painted on the side of a tent in Nauru – Welcome To Coffin

Sad drawings and paintings by children decorate walls, featuring tear-stained faces surrounded by flames, barbed wire and guns.

The camps really set up to make the refugees feel unwelcome and to send them home or hope they’d opt to return.

The social worker said in 6 weeks the detainees degrade mentally.

We hear a man say, ‘I am 28 years old – wasting my youth here… I lost dreams.’

Indefinite detention

A shocking concept, no program, no future. Criminals in a prison can count the days until the end of their sentence, but that can’t happen in a refugee camp.

No crime committed, the UN Convention ignored, people left to rot.

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

  • Tortured at home
  • Tortured in the detention camps
  • Separated from their families with no prospect of being reunited.
  • No hope for the future.

A protest organised by the incarcerated men and WE WANT JUSTICE written on t-shirts.

We see men with lips sewed together, a lot of self-harm. The nurse saw a man who cut his stomach open with glass, men with stitched lips and eyelids, another beat and stabbed himself with a fluorescent light tube. A lot of cutting. And swallowing of razor blades, washing powder, bleach.

People hang themselves.

Support workers describe how they answered an advert of Facebook from the Salvation Army. When they enquired what the job entailed, the interviewer ‘made it sound like a nice place, enjoy a two-week holiday, invite your friends to apply…’

Arriving on Nauru, the fresh recruits discover an eclectic group of fellow workers: a manager of a MacDonald’s, retirees, factory workers and university students.

The only thing they had in common was no one had experience working with asylum seekers or refugees!

The briefing they got on arrival was indeed brief!

A woman said, ‘Go and help the men, befriend them. Go in pairs, mingle, I’ll be back in two hours.’

They found dispirited refugees, lying listlessly on the bed and lethargic asking, ‘Why are you here? Why are we here? How long will we be here?’

Many couldn’t sleep, were on medication because of the rapid deterioration of their mental health, which usually started after 6 weeks.

The support workers realised intakes were confused, some didn’t know they were not in Australia, others couldn’t understand why they were treated like criminals.

A support worker questioned what she was doing there and regretted signing up, especially when she read a sign that said, ‘Make sure staff are trained to use a Hoffman’s Knife.’

She discovered a Hoffman’s Knife is used to cut people down when they hang themselves! She was in a place she’d never choose to visit and she shouldn’t have taken the job.

A social worker recalled a Tamil from Sri Lanka’s story. He was the same age as herself 24/25. He was living in an area controlled by Tamil Tigers. His father shot in front of him. He and his brother left for Colombo and arrested by authorities, imprisoned and tortured for a year. He had cigarette burns on his back and genitals. Highly distressed on Nauru, he displayed symptoms of severe trauma.

He wanted to die and kept repeating ‘My life, where is my life?’

The social worker broke down, ‘I can’t help them, I have nothing of comfort to say.

People talk to themselves. Have psychotic episodes, walk around like zombies, most are medicated. Every day they have thoughts of suicide and self-harm. She can only tell them things will get better, but they know, and so does she, that it is a lie. 

A support worker saw a severe beating of a refugee by two guards – a New Zealander and an Australian – but after pressure, she changed her statement. On reflection, she is ashamed but did so because she was scared. She was the only one prepared to be honest.

The guards are ex ADF, bouncers and prison officers and are always on edge. Hyper-vigilant, many are racists. Their aggressive attitude shows no empathy for asylum seekers.

st paul's sign for refugees
ironically St paul’s in Melbourne sports a sign most Australians ignore.

Official Refugee Policy?

Although no politician offered an interview for the documentary there is enough recorded interviews and broadcasted soundbites included:

Prime Minister John Howard in 2001 – the Tampa Election – ‘we will decide who comes into this country and how…’

2009 Kevin Rudd – those coming by boat will be detained offshore

2012 Julia Gillard – ‘don’t risk a voyage at sea… don’t give money to people smugglers… you will be detained offshore

2013 Tony Abbott  – won the election with the promise to ‘stop the boats’

2013 – Scott Morrison, Immigration Minister – it is a national emergency and border security operation – ‘the boats must be stopped.’

July 19, 2013 – Australia’s policy: any asylum seeker arriving by boat will not be settled in Australia – mandatory offshore detention.

2015 – Turnbull – ‘only way to stop deaths at sea.’

2017

FB_IMGTurnbull quote
Doing the rounds of Facebook

In the documentary, Greg Lake, the public servant who ran the Detention Centre admits that he took on the job with a background of ‘upper-middle-class white guy from NSW, growing up in a place with few migrants and never meeting a refugee or asylum seeker.’

He saw the job as implementing government policy, but the policy issue changed from looking after people seeking asylum to, we will make your life worse than what you fled if you choose to stay here.

We don’t want you coming by boat and will make your life horrible so the message will get out and no one else gets on a boat. Greg Lake realised it was a deterrent strategy and people will be permanently damaged so he left – it was too hard a portfolio.

Go Back to Where You Came From Is Not An Option!

In 2011, SBS produced a reality show to tackle Australia’s refugee policy and reveal the human face behind the statistics by exposing six Australians with strong opinions about immigration to the journeys of some refugees.

Hopefully, it helped some members of the public to think more deeply and beyond three word slogans.

Ironically, one of every two Australians is an immigrant or the child of one. (I came to Australia as a child in 1962 with my parents and 5 siblings.)

Yet, despite our diverse population and culture, immigration continues to be a central political issue. Often the people who are the most vociferous and ill-informed are migrants or children of refugees who came here after WW2.

Sadly, social media has amplified bigotry and racism and spread misinformation like wildfire. Many in Australia applaud President Trump’s recent playbook by telling those in the public eye who are critical, especially women of colour like Greens MP, Mehreen Faruqi and Labor’s Anne Aly, to ‘go back where they came from’.

The “go back” insult is offensive because it is not about citizenship, said Susan Harris Rimmer, a law professor at Griffith University in Queensland. “It’s about your skin colour,” she said. “You are seen to be more loyal or disloyal depending on whether you look like the norm.”

quoted in New York Times, Letter to Australia

Does the Australian public realise the price paid to stop the boats and who pays??

Dr Peter Young reported measurable disorders observed in children.

  • Children watching parents getting sicker, young babies not feeding properly or gaining weight.
  • Children’s drawings reflect how disturbed they are watching self-harm and also many had been sexualised or seen things they shouldn’t have seen.

Mouldy damp tents with no privacy or space, erected upon white phosphate rock. Behavioural issues because there were no age-appropriate activities.

Children referred to each other with boat IDs instead of names. The practice rampant – they had forgotten their names and who they were.

There was a lot of fighting and self-harming.

A report was published in 2014 by the Human rights Commission. :

The Forgotten Children – the report of the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention 2014

Senator Sarah Hanson-Young collected toys and when they arrived the kids didn’t know what to do with them.

Heartbreaking for the support workers to witness!

A social worker will never forget a child’s reaction to receiving a soft toy after a year in the camp with no play activities. 

David Marr talked about the allegations of sexual and physical abuse of women and children which resulted in The Moss Review in 2015

There were details of sexualised behaviour amongst children, cigarettes traded for sex, children under 5 exposed to sexual behaviour and other activities at an inappropriate age….

It took the Australian Government 17 months to investigate reports.

No results and no repercussions instead the government legislated on July 1, 2015, that whistleblowers will face prison!!

Michael Bachelard, an Australian journalist living in Indonesia believes the threat of asylum seekers blown out of proportion and hardline policies of successive governments may have stopped the boats by successfully attacking the people smugglers’ business model, but the human cost appalling when you see the lives of the 10,000 stranded in Indonesia and those detained on Nauru and Manus.

The refugees in Indonesia can’t work, children can’t go to school, everything costs money and they can’t earn any.  (see my Staging Post Review)

Hazara refugees from Afghanistan share their stories – husbands, fathers, sons, mothers, widows… all fleeing persecution by the Taliban and seeking a better peaceful life.

Asylum seekers are now told there is no way you will make Australia home…

Manus Island

In 2013, Rudd declared a resettlement agreement with Papua New Guinea would stop the scourge of people smuggling. Some refugees who arrived on Christmas Island flown straight away to Manus Island. They were terrified, believing New Guinea still practised cannibalism. Escorted on the plane by two security guards holding their arms they were heavily guarded on the flight.

Arriving in Manus they noticed there were trees but few houses.  They saw a fruit turned teeth red, and despite assurances feared the cannibalism they’d read about in books that happened 50 years ago still occurred.

A security guard turned whistleblower, explained it was a camp for single men. He had been a prison officer for 9 years with Victorian Corrections Service, but like others employed on Manus, had only experience dealing with those from the criminal world. The camp was not what he thought a detention camp would be.  He assumed they would train expert staff.

A WW2 Nissan hut one of the buildings with a concrete floor housing 122 double bunks. In the tropical weather, the shed was stifling – odour disgusting as was the surrounds, an overcrowded gaol behind padlocked gates.

There were not enough clothes, shoes, toilets or drinking water. Faeces littered the ground.  There were cases of malaria and other sicknesses. The men resembled broken men without a future, slouched shoulders and despair on their faces.

The contrast with staff quarters, stark – carpeted floor, air conditioning, matching sheets…

The Prison Officer, a whistleblower, he voiced his concerns and was threatened by a note left on his bed, then another verbal threat.

He stopped complaining and left. ‘I had principles, we need to talk and face the reality of what is happening about refugee policy.’

There is film of a demonstration by the detainees that became violent. 100 were arrested but no criminal convictions. Apparently, the bill was $60 million damage. (I’d question the figure because the facilities on Manus and Nauru are appalling and that was the reason for the protest!)

There is a lot of resentment from locals on Manus and Nauru who are not happy with the deal their governments have made with Australia.

Seven months after one protest, asylum seekers attacked by PNG police and locals – a riot ensues. Evidence shown of the fence pushed in by locals and shots fired into the camp. 

Sixty refugees are injured, one throat slit, one lost an eye, one man killed.

Reza Berate, an Iranian, beaten and not helped when dying. We see the grief of his family in Iran and their bewilderment as to how it could have happened.

 

2015 – Condemnation from the UN

The UN investigates and confirms Australia breeched conventions and accuses those in the detention centres of torture.

Tony Abbott’s response – “We won’t be lectured to by the UN.

We are 67th in the world for refugee intake. Abbott and Morrison cut our annual intake from 20,000 to 13,000 +

Minister Peter Dutton negotiated the Cambodian Settlement claiming that country free from persecution and a safe option. Australia made a $40 million down payment declaring refugees would be voluntarily sent there. Another $15 million was paid, but only 5 refugees went there. The average wage $100 a month.

We don’t want the offshore refugees here and so we will let the government spend as much money as they want to treat them any way they like.

The options – go to Cambodia or live in the community in Nauru where there are no jobs, low pay, and the cost of living outrageously high.  $20 for 2 litre carton of milk.

The refugees have:

  • No travel documents
  • No hope of reunification with family
  • Live in demountable blocks and share rooms
  • Live behind high fences in a soulless compound
  • their accommodation will always need security because some locals threatened them
  • No guarantee of safety.

  • Refugee women have claimed 20 cases of rape and sexual assault, but no one charged!

Flashback to 1970s

70,000 Vietnamese came to Australia under Malcolm Fraser’s LNP Government. 

On the documentary, Fraser states,  ‘I believed we had an obligation because of our part in the Vietnam war… most of the refugees had been through processing in Malaysia and Australia co-operated – these refugees beneficial. Refugees add to our culture, our wealth, our diversity.’

A sign at his funeral attended by many Vietnamese – Farewell to our champion of humanity. You are forever in our hearts…

Chasing Asylum is in memory of Malcolm Fraser – 1930 – 2015

Tolerance
Mairi Neil © 2017

To those who fear the
Other
Look not only with your
Eyes, but with
Respect, reason, logic and most of all heart.
Are people less human, more evil, if different?
Nationality and ethnicity
Culture, religion, identity
Earth’s children all ache, bleed, cry, – desire belonging and love.

 

Writing A Recipe For A Good Mood

I love Cooking poem.jpgWriting Post for Day Five – Count Your Blessings To be Alive

Keeping a sense of perspective and humour amidst all the gloom and doom can be difficult but for mental health – and physical as shown by the fights in supermarkets  – it is necessary.

Many people are doing their bit online – sharing jokes, funny memes, clips of singing, dancing, live performances of every creative art and hints, like mine, to ease the anxiety and stress of being cooped up while in quarantine or working from home.

Working at home doesn’t necessarily mean you are alone – especially if children are home from school. Perhaps the only time alone will be in your head! Put those thoughts to good use, focus on ideas (the more positive the better), grab a notebook, and write.

This post is about writing recipes, not for food or cooking. There are plenty of free recipes for that on the Internet and I’m sure with the panic buying and shortages there will be a host of new food recipes doing the rounds.

Not to mention books: How I Survived  Covid19 When The Pantry Was Almost Bare…

(I could write that one because I refused to panic buy and with a compromised immune system I’m avoiding the queues in shops!)

Humour & Love Is Needed

I started with my Dr Seuss inspired poem written in a lesson about rhyming poetry to grab your attention. I mean who doesn’t know or love Dr Seuss?

But now, here are some ‘rules’ or suggestions:

Eight Steps For Writing A Recipe To Lift Your Mood

  • What would your ideal day consist of? Jot points down – often a list is a good format – or maybe even start with the same introductory phrase: Each day I’d love to 
  • Now make a mind map. In the middle of a blank piece of paper write ‘My recipe.’ Here is an example of a mindmap from the Internet from ResearchGate:
Illustrative-example-of-a-mind-map-of-Happiness.png
These initial thoughts on happiness are certainly relatable!
  •  Now describe your ingredients. Go through them one by one
  • All recipes specify quantities for every ingredient. Add these to your ingredients on the mind map.
  • Try adding similes or metaphors to make your recipe more interesting and imaginative.
    (A simile is a comparison of one thing to another using the connecting word ‘as’ or ‘like’, a metaphor just is and doesn’t need the introduction. For example:- When my first daughter was born a popular song at the time was ‘A Little Ray of Sunshine’. If I was using a simile, she’d be like a little ray of sunshine, but with metaphor, she is my little ray of sunshine. A subtle but important difference.)
  • Method of Preparation – it’s your recipe so explore, be daring, be innovative – give readers a window into your soul…
  • Serving Suggestions are necessary, of course:
    (Add a ‘garnish’ to your recipe, these are the finishing touches that present a dish to perfection.)
  • Add a title – What word or feeling would sum up your recipe? Try and keep it relevant and short. Or call it like it is:

A Recipe For A Good Mood
Mairi Neil (2016)

Ingredients:
a chorus of Mary Jane’s chuckles
an eyeful of Anne’s excitement
a cacophony of birdsong
a dash of possum
a snuggle and lick from Aurora
a strong trace of walking on the foreshore
a breath of rosemary and lavender
large helpings of writing time
a ladle of television murder-mystery
unlimited cupfuls of English Breakfast tea
a glass of cider (or two)
a shower of sunshine
a whisper of an autumn breeze
a turntable of favourite music
a reflection on the love of family and friends

Method:
Add liberal dollops of Mary Jane’s infectious laughter
Organise Anne’s surprises to drizzle at intervals
Enjoy Aurora’s daily cuddles and friendly licks
Encourage the possums to nestle in the trees
Welcome the magpies’ morning trill, the butcher birds’ songs,
the wattlebirds’ chok-chok and the doves evening coos.
Wait for the aromatic profusion of rosemary, lavender, geraniums
and roses and rainbow colours of seasonal displays
Embrace the sea air and lapping of waves

Mix and serve daily, in no particular order. Whether sunshine or rain this recipe has my personal guarantee.

home is where the paws are.jpg
One of my Mary Jane’s delightful paper cuts

Try writing another recipe with different ingredients or write a recipe for a friend, a family member, based on what that person likes:

my_recipe_my_mind_map_example_2.jpg

Or perhaps a recipe based on current affairs (especially if you have a solution to the current catastrophe – remember we’re focusing on a good mood but absurd is okay), the perfect holiday, a travel experience…

**And if you are not into poetic -style recipes whatever is stirred up and remembered can be written in prose – another life story, or piece of fiction!

There Are Benefits To using  A Mindmap To Brainstorm Ideas Before Writing

  • A mind map is a diagram that uses words or sketches to note ideas linked to a central keyword. (This is often called theme in creative writing. A piece of writing can have many themes but often there is an overarching one.)
  • A mind map gives you the opportunity to explore many different concepts and shows the process of developing them. There is no limit to size – if you want to be expansive grab a sheet of butcher’s paper!)
  • Mind maps are useful for generating, visualising and organising ideas. They are often used to make decisions and solve problems in the corporate world, but for creative writers, we generate ideas for stories or poems, and to recall memories.

What Does Your Ideal Day Consist of?

Prepare the mindmap –

  • Favourite season
  • Favourite sounds
  • Favourite time of day
  • Favourite place
  • Favourite colours
  • Favourite hobby & activity
  • Favourite weather
  • Favourite smells
  • Favourite animals
  • Favourite books
  • Favourite films/TV shows

Use whatever interests you, add extra categories.

Write examples next to all or chosen categories – there may be more than one answer. (Go with your initial one perhaps)

When describing your ingredients go through them one by one.

What words would you use? Think of associations with your central ingredient and write them around that. Think of descriptive words that you could use along with similes and metaphors.

Let your mind roam freely, don’t think too hard or edit yet. Try not to judge one word as being better than another at this stage.

Repeat for as many ingredients as you wish and if you use the senses in the description it will help to make your recipe poetic.

This is a Recipe For a Good Mood, rather than a recipe for food, but all recipes have measurements – some are exact like half a tablespoon of sugar…

In your recipe, measurements don’t have to be standard. You can use traditional measures but be creative and add more inventive indications of quantity.

A small amount could be –

  • a pinch,
  • an echo,
  • a thought,
  • a moment.

A large amount could be –

  • a pound,
  • a mountain,
  • a shout,
  • a deluge.

Think of other ways we measure things, such as time, space, height and distance.

Here is a list of words for measurement (some traditional, others not) – you can add more in the comments:

  • pint                                   
  • quarter                                   
  • pound
  • ounce                                   
  • teaspoon                                
  • glass
  • cup                                      
  • drizzle                                    
  • pinch of
  • slice                                     
  • jar                                         
  • lick
  • echo                                    
  • mountain                                
  • tickle
  • cacophony                         
  • scattering                               
  • smattering
  • eyeful                                  
  • thought                                  
  • twinkle
  • suggestion of
  • wrinkle
  • beat
  • scrap
  • squeak
  • trace
  • ladle
  • shower of
  • blink
  • breath
  • fan
  • gaggle
  • whisker
  • chorus
  • trunk
  • particle
  • rattle
  • cube
  • scribble
  • scratch
  • dollop

This recipe is about feelings, therefore, make it as richly descriptive as possible.

Similes add depth to a description. eg. A summer’s evening as soft as velvet
Spring blossom falling like snow

If your ingredient is A tranquil summer or A Quiet Summer Day/Evening

Think about comparisons: What things are quiet?  for example tranquil as…. a soft wind in the trees, a sleeping mouse (or any pet), an owl in flight, a swan gliding…

Rather than repeat the description of ‘quiet’ twice, choose different words to mean the same thing eg.. A sprinkle of quiet summer, tranquil as an owl in flight.

Tip:
Do this for one or two ingredients, not every line because you can defeat the impact of the mood you want to create.

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•There’s no right or wrong way to approach your method of preparation. 

  • Write out the list of your ingredients onto a piece of paper.
  • What will you mix your ingredients in?
  • In what order will you add them?
  • Is there a special way they need adding?

This is where you can grab one of those recipe books off the shelf that you have stopped using because it is easier to Google but you haven’t thrown them out because of an emotional attachment, they were a gift, or sometimes it is quicker to check a page than wait for Malcolm Turnbull’s oh, so slow, NBN to download.

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Check out the instructions on a favourite recipe and substitute your ingredients:

  • vigorously beat,
  • fold in gently,
  • stir slowly,
  • sprinkle liberally
  • beat with a fork

You might put a fractious toddler in a large garden and lightly whisk a sprinkle of quiet summer….

Look at the methods of preparation from the list below or choose your own:

  • whizz
  • mix
  • beat
  • stir
  • whisk
  • simmer
  • heat
  • cook
  • boil
  • sprinkle
  • Add
  • coat
  • cut
  • tip
  • pour
  • cut
  • divide
  • split
  • heat
  • warm
  • scatter
  • skim
  • knead

Garnishing & Serving Suggestions:

Add a ‘garnish’ to your recipe, these are the finishing touches that present a dish to perfection. You may like to think of it as the cherry on top of your Recipe For a Good Mood

For example:

  1. Serve with a sprig of stories and a warm feeling.
  2. Garnish with a cuddle from a sister and enjoy with a relish of friends
  3. Best enjoyed with a glass of Cider
  4. Serve with optimism and chocolate cake.

You can say how many people it serves – perhaps the ‘recipe poem’ is for a special celebration – birthday, anniversary, wedding, christening…

Add a title. What word or feeling would sum up your recipe? Try and keep it short.

Fun, Warmth, A Giggle, Feeling Blessed, Chilling Out…

Write Your Recipe For a Good Mood –

prose or poetry!

Preserving History

And here is a bit of history in a recipe book – a selection of pages of a book put together on my kitchen table for Mordialloc Primary School as a fundraiser in the 90s.

Most parents contributed a recipe, and some helped with surveys and collection and encouraged their children to illustrate. Some of the data is worthy of a time capsule!

There were no computers, no money for offset printing and the book was divided into sections, with bits of general knowledge and current research regarding food sprinkled throughout.

The aim was to encourage harmony, tolerance and an appreciation of each other’s culture and it worked – families had fun contributing and we learnt a lot about different countries and foods.

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We even got a review in the Herald Sun – not bad for a wee school and complete novices. You never know where your ‘kitchen’ creativity will lead!

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Happy Writing!

 

Rosa, Memories With Licence – a template for other writers?

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It’s lovely to have a book signed by an author and although I couldn’t get to the book launch because of another launch, a friend kindly picked up a copy of Ros Collins’ latest book, Rosa by Hybrid Publishers.

The blurb announces the memories of Rosa are presented ‘with a deliberate overlay of lies and licence.’ The boldness of this statement, a little confronting, especially since the book is labelled Memoir – defined in the dictionary as a narrative or biography written from personal experience.

However, as a teacher of Life Story writing, I’ve lost count of how many times class discussions have debated the concept of truth in relation to the reliability and perspective of our memories, coupled with the attendant fear of causing hurt to someone still alive or even tarnishing the memory of someone deceased.

A memoir is considered ‘Creative Non-fiction’ and who is to say the emphasis is not on the word creative, which can be interpreted as ‘having the quality of something imaginatively created’ or ‘containing misleading inventions designed to falsify or conceal the facts’! 

… memoirs depend on memory and, despite being the subject of philosophical investigation going back as far as Plato and of plentiful scientific research since the mid-nineteenth century, memory remains an elusive topic. How does it work? Can our fondest memories of childhood and loved ones really be reduced to molecular activity in the neurons of the brain? Will medical science one day be capable of eliminating the traumatizing memories that can paralyze us, and implanting happier memories in their place? Are memories the cause of the biographical continuity that bolsters our belief in personal identity? And how accurate are memories even among the healthiest of us? Does it make sense to base our present-day attitudes and emotions on recollections of our past experiences?

Robert Atwan, Creative Nonfiction, Issue #55, The Memoir Issue

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In her introduction, Ros uses softer words to explain how Rosa differs from a previous book about her life, it is ‘much more personal… freely written’ and she admits to ‘taking liberties with the truth’.

There is still a lot of family history included in Rosa – she revisits Solly’s Girl (2015), a book that was as ‘accurate as my memory would allow’ and written as a companion piece to her now-deceased husband’s Alva’s Boy (2008). An acclaimed writer, Alan Collins wrote short stories and books about his Bondi childhood.

Ros Collins writes to entertain as well as inform and her conversational style with well-researched detail has produced wonderful stories revealing scenes of Anglo-Australian-Jewish life probably unfamiliar to many readers, and which I found fascinating.

Memoir with a little fiction, or fiction with a little history? It’s hard to say, Memories with licence.

Although of a different generation, there were historical references, organisations and events I recognised. They triggered memories, especially involvement with the labour movement and the Australian Labor Party and various campaigns in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

The divisiveness of the Vietnam War, the election of the Whitlam Government and the opening up of educational opportunities for older women, which Rosa took advantage of. ‘The Palestinian Debate’ which still causes angst and the trade union campaigns to improve conditions for Victorian teachers that raised the ire of Premier Henry Bolte.

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Rosa ticked several boxes in the list of why I read books: for enjoyment, to be immersed in a different world, to learn something new, to encourage me to seek more information and to reflect on the human condition.

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Ros is a woman of many accomplishments with several great achievements as a qualified librarian, yet, there is no pretentiousness when she explains her journey to becoming a director of a Jewish community library at fifty-seven and her vision of a national Australian-Jewish library. 

With dedication, commitment, and tenacity she created the successful ‘Write Your Story’ program whereby the eclectic members of the Jewish community can access funds and help, and write their memoir.

‘Most memoirs -so far, more than 140 have been published, the largest such series in the world – are related to the Holocaust; eventually, as generations pass away, the stories will become more Australian, less European.’ (p122)

Her involvement with the community library for thirteen years followed by twelve years cataloguing the Yiddish library:

‘She brings the boxes of shabby books home to catalogue… A little pamphlet, held together with rusty staples; cheap yellowed paper, crumbling to pieces; no cover; a grey, grainy author’s picture.

… a first-hand account of how his village was destroyed during the Holocaust – most of the Jewish community died, locked up in the synagogue and then set on fire – he hid in a barn.’

Ros is reduced to tears translating the story for her husband – such is the power and importance of recording and sharing stories.

‘I couldn’t even find the village in the atlas, it’s been erased by some thoughtless publisher. It’s Yiddish, only a few people will ever find out what happened; there’s just my catalogue entry to provide a link.’ 

Her husband responds, ‘Libraries are important. This is your contribution.’ (p124)

Ros has catalogued and encouraged the recording and publication of so many stories of the Jewish diaspora and so it is fitting and fortunate, she decided to share her own life story and reflections – albeit with several references to her husband’s story and books. She has added a creative flair to her memories.

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The deep love and respect Ros has for her parents, husband Alan, her sons and several close friends mentioned in Rosa shines like a beacon. There is no malice in any of her memories but there is a theme of regret.

Ros repeats several times how she wished Alan had been more open and honest about his feelings – not for her but the damage done in his childhood and the guilt he carried because his mother died in childbirth. Ros also regrets not having a closer relationship with her own mother.

‘The missing mother. Rosa had always been aware, but when she first read his stories she’d never put it all together in her mind, never ‘joined the dots’, done the whole ‘lit-crit’ exercise. Perhaps it would have led them to deep and meaningful discussion and enriched their relationship if they’d talked about his emotions, but then, she reflects, he’d only have turned it into a quip, slid away from the subject with a bit of banter.  (p156)

We learn about their unconventional courtship in London and Rosa’s decision to migrate to Australia as a ‘ten pound Pom’, their determination to build a home – physically a house and financially a business but also emotionally with children – three sons, plus later, a teenager, ‘the Boy’, a fostered child described but not named.

‘The six-year-old and the five-year-old took the view that they had now acquired an older brother, but for the three-year-old, the Boy represented an heroic Superman figure; their relationship became very special and the rift, when it came, was all the more painful.’ (p89)

A family disagreement and period of estrangement always difficult to write about, the temptation to omit or embellish to justify an action. In Rosa, it is deftly handled although Ros did give herself a ‘memory with licence…’

The use of dialogue to good effect, the attention to detail and use of senses to describe food, flowers and situations – techniques writers keep in their toolbox – Ros uses all of them to produce a good read.

Italics for non-English words and terms but also for emphasis and reflections in her voice. There is a flitting backwards and forwards to weave all the family stories and people together along with their place in history without rupturing the fabric of the overall story, which is why I believe others writing their life story could use Rosa as a template.

Our memories don’t all come in a linear or chronological fashion and from my experience in writing class piecing together short stories is a natural way of collating memories and weaving the threads together.

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Ros is a proud secular Jew yet is determined her grandchildren will know the family history but does not want them to be weighed down by the Holocaust.

Throughout the book, the workings of family, worship, differences in synagogues, sects, customs and the politics of ‘those of Jewish persuasion‘ Alan’s wry remembrance of the phrase often used in the past, are explained and placed in historical as well as an Australian context. The knowledge and explanation of beliefs and practices, I found invaluable.

‘For many non-Jews, the Shoah, the Holocaust, is just another part of the war: Hitler had plans for something called the ‘The Third Reich’, and, by the way, he also intended to exterminate all of Europe’s Jews.

For Jews, the Holocaust is the war and Israel is our miracle: In every generation from Pharaoh to Hitler they have tried to destroy us; never again!’

Remembering is a solemn duty, as is recording and researching. Jewish literature wrestles with stories of survival, heroism and of course the complexities of the Middle East. Museums and memoirs multiply. Al, fifth-generation Australian and Rosa, second-generation English and ‘more British than the British’ do not exactly fit the norm for Melbourne Jewry, which is home to one of the largest communities of Holocaust survivors in the world. She thinks: We’re a perfect example of how deeply embedded the history is in our psyches even though neither of us was directly involved. (p117)

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Ros relates a speech husband, Alan made at a Shoah commemoration event at Melbourne’s Holocaust Museum where he painted a picture of 1930s Sydney and his father:

a devout xenophobe with a particular focus on Jewish refugees who told him; ‘not to mix with them’, ‘Jew-hating out-of-work Australian labourers’ and ‘well-meaning policemen who called me Ikey.’

The older audience members nodded sadly in remembrance. (p118)

The more we share our stories and make a habit of listening to others the more tolerant society we will become – I hope!

Ros explained Alan finished his talk, given over 30 years ago at the Holocaust Museum thus:

So I write about what I know which is what it is like growing up and living and dying in this country where thank God, patriotism and zealotry are negligible and when a letter arrives with OHMS on the envelope it doesn’t contain an imperative to pack your bags. (p73)

Ros reflects in 2018 that she ‘doesn’t quite share his belief in the fundamental goodness of Australia, and long ago she cast off her allegiance to England…(p73)

Considering incidents of antisemitism and some appalling statements and decisions from our political leaders, there is documented evidence racism is on the rise, and as a migrant myself, I worry about the direction Australia is headed.

Therefore, a book like Rosa that ‘flings open the windows and doors‘ and invites us to learn about a world of cultural habits and rituals often misrepresented, misunderstood, or unknown is one to grab for the bookshelf.

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In the final chapter, aptly titled Rose Garden, Ros discusses the Jewish section of a cemetery and thoughts sparked by physicist/musician/celebrity Brian Cox’s remarks on television …

…belief in some form of afterlife ‘feels right’ or more precisely, the alternative, that after death we are nothing but a bag of chemicals from which ‘nothing has left, yet what is left is not longer me’ somehow ‘feels wrong’…

The central question is, can you build a time machine? The answer is yes, you can go into the future… Going back in time, or returning to the present, would be slightly trickier, however…(p183)

Rosa harks back to childhood and a fascination with Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and repeats a conversation she had with a grandson.

‘Where will you go when you die, Grandma?’

‘Well I’m not absolutely sure because no one comes back after they die, but I think I shall go on a journey.’

‘A long one?’

‘Probably.’

‘What will you take with you?’

‘I think I can take my memory. Clever people now think it might be possible to travel through time – backwards and forwards.’

‘Oh, I’m sure you can Grandma, I once read a story like that.’

‘So did I, darling!              (p185)

Many of us can identify with this conversation, fear of or concern about dying common.

The conundrums, worries and questions of life wax and wane as we live and age, but writers continually reflect on the significance to the big picture, as well as the importance of those near and dear. Who do we love and how much do we matter to them and they to us?

It doesn’t matter what your background, race or religion as we near the end of our life most of us have failing health, increased vulnerability, and wonder how and in what manner we will die – and then what?

Rosa explores the distant and not so distant past, the present, and voices curiosity about the future. Ros has written a wonderful legacy and future descendants will understand their family’s Jewish history, current festivals and rituals, even if they choose to rationalise like she often did: The significance lies in the fact that we are together around the table, never mind the calendar.

Ros Collins was born in 1938 and after supporting her husband’s writing endeavours began to write short stories and now has two books to her credit – an inspiration indeed!

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Exploring the Richness of our Multicultural, Multi-Faith Community in Kingston a Bus Ride Away

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I’ve taken a long time framing this post because of recent events and the adversarial way many parts of the media cover topics such as religion, refugees, and immigration and the resultant ire, ignorance and irritation that inevitably results, particularly on social media.

Ignorance is a keyword here – if more people moved out of their comfort zone and made the effort to learn, mix, communicate and appreciate each other’s contributions to the tapestry of society a lot of angst and misinformation could be avoided.

We are lucky living in Melbourne because there are myriad opportunities to access and enjoy what a multicultural community offers. We can live together in peace and mutual respect aware of each other’s contributions.

I’ve attended two enriching events recently, provided by the Kingston Interfaith Network to appreciate the diversity of our community.

It’s heartening to know there are people actively working to breakdown barriers and challenge bigotry and I’d recommend the annual bus trip the Network organises to visit various places of worship.

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Religion & Politics Can be Discussed With Civility

I first learned about the great work of the Kingston Interfaith Network when I attended an art exhibition at St Nicholas Church, Mordialloc and became reacquainted with parishioners I knew.

Along with many baby boomers, I grew up with family traditions of attending Sunday School and church but it never translated as ‘blind faith’.

Both parents were immersed in church life in Scotland; they continued this involvement in Croydon when we migrated.  I drifted away from organised religion in my teens and only returned to be part of a community as a young mother, to eventually drift away again.

None of us chooses the country, culture or community we are born into and the idea that there is a ‘true’ religion or ‘master’ race seems ludicrous and irrational.

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I’m grateful for access to education and several fine teachers at high school and university, to have continued that education by travelling, accessing wonderful books, films, and essays and appreciating the contribution of others to a pool of general knowledge more easily available now through the worldwide web.

I know I’m not alone among my peers questioning human existence, our relationship to the natural world and seeking meaning to life – a journey that will end one day and that day is getting closer –

I recall the pithy words of a good friend, ‘We all die and one day we’ll discover whether there is a God or life after death!

In the meantime, I intend to enjoy the journey, learning something new every day, look for the joy because focusing on social injustice and world conflicts convinces me we are stuck in Groundhog Day! (“a situation in which events are or appear to be continually repeated” )

John Lennon’s Imagine is often played to a compilation of visuals – technology leaves nothing hidden! We see the horrific death toll of the two world wars, the partition of India and Pakistan, the euphemistic ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, the Vietnam War, the Biafran/Nigerian War, the Middle East, Idi Amin’s Uganda … oh, how Lennon’s lines resonate with generation after generation …

 Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try. No hell below us, Above us only sky… Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too…

There is never a shortage of up-to-the-minute footage of conflicts – the world seems to produce tragedies at an alarming rate.  For many people, their religious beliefs and being part of a community helps to make sense or at least alleviate some of the fear and pain.

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A meme doing the rounds of Facebook also strikes a chord –

omniest sign no religion

Many Beliefs One Community

The Kingston Interfaith Network ‘celebrates the commonality and diversity of our spiritual communities’.

Their vision:

  • encourage understanding and respect between people of all faiths and cultures
  • affirm spiritual and religious freedom
  • work towards peace, compassion and equality within our local community

In my writing classes, we have some wonderful discussions while sharing knowledge regarding human needs, the importance of belief systems and what form these may take whether philosophical or religious.

Discussion, reflection and sharing information and experiences important for writers to understand and create characters regardless of the genre but also for citizens when we have the current Australian Parliament discussing the introduction of religious freedom legislation.

  • Since 9/11, the constant stirring of fear and misinformation about Islam looms large.
  • The Royal Commission into Abuse of Children in religious and other institutions with many still quibbling about compensation to victims has shattered the trust and appeal of several churches, especially the Catholic Church.
  • Stories about cults or gurus ripping off or abusing vulnerable people are rarely out of the news.
  • The Israel Folau controversy started a debate about freedom of speech in the context of workplace contracts and religious beliefs.

Any Interfaith Network has its work cut out!

In Kingston, the Network engages with the community by being involved in:

  • Celebrations
  • Events
  • Gatherings
  • Learning and Education
  • Community consultations and representation

I worked for the Uniting Church, Hotham Parish until daughter, Anne was born in 1986 and was fortunate to work with Rev. John Rickard who was a strong believer in ecumenicalism and social justice. A pharmacist before ‘getting the call’, he was a great boss – understanding, compassionate and down-to-earth.

I saw the church from a different perspective. Working closely with Hanover Welfare, the church raised money and provided services to people in need in the community, they also owned houses in Curzon Street and ran a kindergarten.  ‘The church’ can be a landlord, employer, business entrepreneur,  owner of private hospitals and schools. Practicalities to be dealt with that many don’t associate with theologians.

Another learning curve occurred in 2004 when I was commissioned to write the history of St Aidan’s Church and subsequently published The Little Church On The Hill for their Centenary.

The Chelsea/Carrum Anglican community influential in developing and providing youth services, fellowship groups for women, raising money for much needed social services and encouraging the arts but there were internal conflicts, debates about policies and implementation, and adapting to a world where Sunday was no longer sacrosanct.

Talking about the Christian faith my comfort zone but I still treasure a necklace made from a leather strip with the tooth of a moose blessed by an elderly Iroquois Indian when I visited their village in Montreal, Canada 1976. She wanted me to be safe on my travels.

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Westall Library Poster promoting World Book Week promoting equality and respect

World Book Day 2019

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Kingston’s World Book Day was hosted in conjunction with Kingston Council’s Interfaith Committee, established by Council to provide a conduit between Kingston Council and the faith communities within local areas to encourage open communication, interfaith dialogue and partnerships and to address the needs of the local communities.

 World Book Day theme for 2019 was Interfaith in the Libraries.  Kingston’s Interfaith Committee chose to deliver a book donations event to Kingston Libraries to further support an interfaith dialogue within the community.

Invited to write religious affiliation, I wrote Humanitarian. Nobody baulked at the label, with some attendees commenting they wished they had written that rather than nominating a religion or leaving it blank.

A warm welcome epitomised the evening with many groups taking the opportunity to display the books attached to their Faith and donate them to the library. The buzz of conversations filled the room, people browsed the books and I met acquaintances from past involvement with community groups and Mordialloc Writers’.

There were printed sheets from a variety of religious groups within the Network summarising their core beliefs, sacred texts and laws, places of worship, branches, practices and festivals, origin story, morals and ethics… in no particular order here are the sheets I picked up:

  • The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) (aka the Hare Krishna Movement)
  • Catholic Church (Christian)
  • ECKANKAR (This means Co-worker with God -founded 1965, main temple Minnesota USA
  • Judaism
  • Baha’i Faith
  • Sufi works and practices: The Whirling Dervishes, the poetry of Rumi, the works of Ib Arabi…
  • Islam
  • Zee Cheng Khor Moral uplifting Society Inc (known as DEJIAO in Chinese)
  • Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons)

My knowledge of some of these groups minimal – and to know they worshipped in Kingston and felt welcome at the event is a testament to the religious freedom we already enjoy. (Note to Federal Government don’t fix what’s not broken!)

Fast forward to the annual bus tour I joined recently…

A Journey of Discovery

Kingston Interfaith Committee runs a bus tour once a year to places of worship to provide an opportunity for the public to learn about different faiths. Tour participants see different places of worship and ask questions in a respectful and supportive small group environment. There is no cost and a light lunch is offered by the Council.

I have been wanting to go on this tour for many years but work or other commitments meant I missed out. I was thrilled to join the 23 other participants (some followed the community bus in their own cars)  on August 7, leaving from the Council Offices at Mentone.

Guided by Elisabetta Robecchi, Community Development Officer, Social Development, we visited four places of worship.  There were people from Glen Eira and Casey communities. The only person with an outward sign of religious affiliation was a Sikh gentleman from Monash who told me most councils have these tours with some providing several a year. He had been on a few tours and generously shared his knowledge.

The places visited change each time so it wasn’t surprising to find some people had toured before, but most were first-timers like me – and what an eclectic group we were!

Elisabetta shared the two group photos taken at a mosque and Orthodox church.

We set off a bit late because of the difficulties of participants finding all-day parking – so for future reference:

  • use public transport like me, or plan ahead as to where you will park in Mentone and prepare for a walk to the meeting point!
  • Also, wear comfortable and easily divested footwear – most places you visit require removal of shoes.
  • Plus slip in a headscarf or make sure your jacket/coat has a hood for the places requiring women to cover their head.

Our itinerary:

  • Shri Shiva Vishnu Temple, Boundary Road, Carrum Downs
  • Masjid Westall, Indonesian Muslim Community Cultural Centre, Clayton South
  • Lunch at Westall Hub
  • St George Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church, Heatherton
  • Turkish Islamic and Cultural Centre, Keysborough

Shri Shiva Vishnu Temple

Hinduism is one of the oldest surviving religions in the world, with an unbroken succession of seers and teachers. It is practised by millions of people living in the vast subcontinent of India and in many other places where Indian migrants have settled, including Australia. 

And although it is an ancient religion it continues to evolve and form new branches. Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) represents modern India and is a religious personality who was loved throughout the world.  He preached truth and non-violence and his attempts to reform India’s religious-social tradition of caste legendary as is his fight for India’s independence from colonial rule.

You don’t need to travel to India to immerse yourself in Indian culture and learn about Hinduism.

First impressions of the Hindu temple and grounds is one of spaciousness, then lushness – the garden flowering and emerald green grass plentiful. Driving in from the road you see the Cultural Centre first, and around the corner, you release an audible gasp at the magnificence of the temple barely glimpsed from the road.

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Inside, after removing our shoes, the first thing you notice is incense thickened air. A sign requested no photos but apparently, our temple guide (a deacon) gave approval and Elisabetta shared this one she took.

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Priests were attending to devotees so I chose to switch my phone off and instead purchased a very informative book about the history of the temple and details about Hinduism, including festivals and beliefs. An incredible bargain at $5.00.

The huge area seems cavernous but there are different sections with mini enclosures holding statues of various deities. The air heavy with incense and burning charcoal and within moments I felt my eyes sting. It was obvious couples and families were worshipping with the three out of the six priests on duty.

A young couple prayed with a priest by a fertility deity (?). The priest ladled into our cupped hands, the concoction made from fruit and flowers and signalled us to drink. The nectar tasteless to me, stirring memory of drinking kava at a ceremony in Fiji. There was a small open fire like a mini BBQ but generating plenty of smoke. The fire alarm constantly beeped because of its copious smoke and from a couple of similar fires.

I had a fleeting thought of what could happen if there were sprinklers!

Our guide explained there are gods (deities) for Education, Fertility, and Birth etc. Planets match your birth sign and some gods look after you. He explained about puja or pooja, a prayer ritual performed by Hindus to one or more deities in devotional worship.

Prayers can also be offered to host and honour a guest or to spiritually celebrate an event. It may honour or celebrate the presence of a special guest, or their memories after they die. A table with baskets of fruit (oranges, apples and bananas) for $15 and a well-stocked kiosk is just inside the entrance. the deities require offerings.

A temple is a busy place with chanting in Sanskrit and the buzz of conversations plus people moving across the polished floorboards and around the perimeter where cabinets or shrines hold statues of the gods. The black, grey, or gold figures often draped with pure silk gowns and scarves.

We walked past a cabinet that appeared to have a Nazi sign scrolled on glass doors – and a member of the group asked the significance of this, which remains an important symbol in Hinduism.

The swastika represented something entirely different for thousands of years before its appropriation by the Nazi Party, and for many, it is a sacred symbol.

Versions of the design have been found in prehistoric mammoth ivory carvings, Neolithic Chinese pottery, Bronze Age stone decorations, Egyptian textiles from the Coptic Period and amid the ruins of the Ancient Greek city of Troy.

Its most enduring and spiritually significant use, however, can be seen in India, where the swastika remains an important symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

Despite the explanation, one of our group whispered, ‘Try going down Carlisle Street with that on your car!’ A reminder that in a multicultural society we have to be even more diligent learning about other religions and beliefs and be perceptive to differentiate when a symbol should provoke instant repulsion and condemnation and when it is used in context of worship.

The etymology of the word “swastika” can be traced to three Sanskrit roots: ‘su’ (good), ‘asti’ (exists, there is, to be) and ‘ka’ (make). That the collective meaning of these roots is effectively ‘making of goodness’ or ‘marker of goodness’ shows just how far the Nazis dragged the swastika away from its Hindu association with wellbeing, prosperity and dharmic auspiciousness.

The symbol, normally with its arms bent towards the left, is also known in Hinduism as the sathio or sauvastika. Hindus mark swastikas on thresholds, doors and the opening pages of account books – anywhere where its power to ward off misfortune might come in handy.

… it was Indian religion and culture that was the original source from which the National Socialists derived the swastika.

In Buddhism, the swastika is thought to represent the footprints of the Buddha. It takes on a liturgical function in Jainism, and in Hinduism, the clockwise symbol (the swastika as we know it, with the arms pointing right) and the counterclockwise symbol, the sauvistika, pair up to portray opposites such as light and darkness.

http://theconversation.com/how-nazis-twisted-the-swastika-into-a-symbol-of-hate-83020

The scent of flower petals mingled with fruit and incense and oils. I missed a lot of the explanations because naturally our guide spoke without amplification and my hearing is not as good as it used to be. Fortunately, the book I bought, published to celebrate a special Consecration Ceremony in April this year, is full of detail about Hinduism, the temple, the hard work and cohesion of the Indian community.

The Hindu Society of Victoria (HSV) was founded on Saraswathy pooja day in 1982 at the initiative of some Hindu migrants from Sri Lanka. Hindu migrants from India, Malaysia and other countries enthusiastically joined the Society. The topmost priority for this new gathering was to probe ways and means of realising a traditional Hindu temple. Prayer meetings were held on the last Saturday of each month at the Migrant Centre in Prahran. Poojas were performed to the pictures of deities by Sri Raman Iyer on these occasions. On 21 June 1984, this society was officially incorporated and referred to as the Hindu society of Victoria (Aust) Inc.

The HSV decided to buy a plot of land and build a temple… bought a block of land of 14.35 acres in Carrum Downs on 14 April 1985… made up of a bank loan, interest-free loans from devotees and donations. Bhoomi Poojah was performed at the site to invoke the blessings of the Almighty. Since then Thai Pongal Festival was celebrated at the site but prayer meetings continued at the Prahran Migrant Centre.

… there was a prolonged debate about the choice of deities to be installed in the temple. Eventually, the Management Committee decided to build a Shiva Vishnu temple facilitating devotees from all sects of Hinduism….

Building works started in October 1990 and Nagarajan Sthabathy and a team of 8 artisans arrived in November 1992… The Granite and Panchalokha Vigrahas and other artefacts required were crafted by well-known artisans in India. The Granite Vigrahas were sanctified by a special pooja at Kanchi Mutt.

Additional six artisans were brought from India in Jan 1994 to accelerate the temple construction… completed, with the erection of the raja Gopurams and consecration on 25 may 1997. This temple has become an inseparable part in the spiritualemancipation of the Hindus of Victoria. It has also become a must-see icon to all Hindus and non-Hindus in Australia…

Arunachalam Mahendran

Traditional Hindu temples are not just places of worship. They function as a place of learning, foster the arts and encourage social interaction. The Cultural and Heritage Centre opened on 5 May 2012, includes a wedding hall, restaurant with industrial-scale kitchen, library, Hinduism classrooms, museum and conference hall that can accommodate 200 people.

The Hinduism classes for children also offer Bhajan, Yoga and meditation for all ages. The centre hosts ceremonies on auspicious days, Hindu weddings, and a cafe open to the public, which operates six days a week.

A children’s park with playground equipment and an enclosure with peafowls and chicks as well as surrounding gardens with attractive flowers, trees, and lush foliage ensures a relaxing family-friendly environment.

The sign in the garden reads: Nature is Gods vesture. The universe is the ‘university’ for man. Do not pluck flowers treat nature with reverence.

We put on our shoes and joined the ever-patient bus driver after thanking our hosts for their welcome and farewelled the first place of worship for the day.

Shri Shiva Vishnu temple is one of the iconic Hindu temples outside the Indian subcontinent providing a spiritual and cultural legacy for future generations.

Whether you practice Hinduism or not, a visit will add to your knowledge and understanding, and appreciation of the wealth of talent immigrants bring to Australia.

Masjid Westall, Indonesian Muslim Community Cultural Centre

We travelled to Westall for our next visit to learn about Islam, a religion that has suffered the most backlash and bigotry in recent years despite Afghan cameleers being present in Australia since the early nineteenth century.

The first camel drivers arrived in Melbourne, Victoria, June 1860, when eight Muslims and Hindus arrived with the camels for the Burke and Wills expedition.

sign masjid

The word islam means ‘surrender’ and specifically implies ‘surrender to God’. A ‘muslim’ is therefore simply ‘one who surrenders’.

In the Muslim sacred text, the Qur’an, the story of Islam shares a common tradition with Judaism and a common Biblical origin when God (Allah) created the world. Chosen prophets spread the essential message of surrender to the One (Allah).

Muslims recognise all prophets including Moses and  Jesus, Rama, Krishna and Buddha but the Prophet Muhammad is the vehicle whereby the Qur’an, the final protected Word of God was revealed.

Islam is the world’s second-largest religion with over 1.8 billion followers. They make up a majority of the population in 50 countries. We mainly hear about conflict in the Middle East but devotees extend all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to the borders of China although the birthplace of this compelling faith was Arabia when it was a semi-nomadic and semi-urban civilization.

Islam is the most adhered to religion in Indonesia and in a 2010 estimate, 87.2% of the Indonesian population (225 million) identified as Muslim making Indonesia the largest Muslim population in the world.

At the Masjid Westall, we were greeted by two deacons who were generous with their knowledge and time. From the outside, the building is not imposing and doesn’t look like a mosque but once we removed our shoes and went inside the calmness and decor confirmed it was not ostentatious but a place of worship.

According to the 2016 Australian Census, the combined number of people who self-identified as Muslim in Australia, from all forms of Islam, constituted 604,200 people, or 2.6% of the total Australian population, an increase over its previous population share of 2.2% reported in the previous census 5 years…

… there are now 604,000 people who identify as Muslim in Australia. In addition, the Census reports that 1,140 of the Muslims in Australia are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders.

After a welcome prayer and blessing, the deacons let us wander freely and ask questions rather than give a formal guided tour. There are 3 Indonesian mosques in Victoria, and they do keep in touch with each other and share Imams, some are students from Saudi Arabia. The mosque is Sunni, the major and orthodox branch of Islam.

Islam hasn’t escaped the fate common to other religions: sectarian divisions. There are sub-sects, but the two main branches of Islam are Sunni and the Shi’ite. They spilt over the question of the line of succession from the Prophet Muhammad.

Muslims pray 5 times a day and a digital clock has the prayer times. During the day up to 5 people will come and pray because most are working – perhaps a taxi or truck driver if nearby, maybe students and teachers from Westall Secondary next door, or others ‘just passing’.

Sundown prayers and Fridays attract the largest number with up to 50 regulars. After Christchurch, many non-Muslims visited to offer condolences and support and prayed in solidarity. The mosque provided hijabs for them but because we were only visiting and not participating we did not need to cover our head.

We all commented on how luxurious the carpet felt beneath our feet and the room was spacious even with a section for the women and children curtained off. There is a library, also a study corner and out the back a kitchen and communal area where crafts and toys are stored on shelves.

Our two gentlemen guides had set up a table with nibbles and tea and coffee – most hospitable and welcome. One deacon tried but failed to get his pictures up on his phone to show me the crowd of well-wishers who came to the mosque after the horrific events in Christchurch.

No question went unanswered and cameras worked overtime. Several people stood with the Imam’s arch in the background, others were fascinated by the displayed prayer times and mentioned seeing taxi drivers pull over to pray.

I remembered a tale of two young men…

In 2013, flying to Italy via Borneo and London, I sat between the pair. One was returning to Egypt for a holiday after being in Australia most of his life, the other, a student returning home after finishing studies at Queensland University.

The young Egyptian/Australian struggled out of his window seat to diligently adhere to the prayer times – there was a prayer mat aft, available for passengers – and throughout the flight, he read the Qur’an.

He confided in me that he had become more devout because of prejudice at work and all the things said about Muslims in the media. He felt he had to learn more about his faith (his parents and sister weren’t devout) and his origins – hence the trip “home”. He seemed unworried about the fall-out from the ‘Arab Spring’ and the ongoing sporadic violence.

The young student, returning home to his family and Muslim country didn’t bother praying and read a popular sci-fi novel in between discussing general topics ranging from history to politics and poetry. He confessed he’d love to return and work in Australia because he loved the freedom to choose his lifestyle and the climate.

I’ve often wondered what happened to these two young men – did their future turn out the way they wanted?

A little more enlightened about Masjid Westall and seeing Westall Secondary College and surrounds for the first time we set off for our lunch stop at Westall Hub – a place I’d never visited before the intergenerational project last year and one I’ve visited twice in the last four months!

I thought about the fuss in Bendigo about the building of the mosque and cultural centre and reflected on how many people would have driven or walked past Masjid Westall with no idea there is a welcome within if ever their curiosity needs satisfied.

Breaking Bread often Breaks The Ice!

Kingston Council hosted a lovely lunch at the Westall Hub providing a chance to sit and make conversation, get to know each other and share observations.

Ann, a retired accountant, introduced herself on the bus by saying, ‘I know you, I was on the Australia Day Committee that approved your Citizen of the Year Award.’

‘That was a while ago,’ I replied, ‘You have a good memory.’

We shared our interest and curiosity about the tour. Ann, a practising  Catholic was born in Lithuania; her mother could speak seven languages and because of this Ann understood Russian. Four of the people on the bus were chatting. ‘They’re speaking Russian and probably don’t realise I understand what they were saying,’ she said with a smile.

At lunch, a lady sat down beside me, ‘Do you remember me, Mairi?’

‘When I saw you, I thought you looked familiar, but I can’t place you.’

‘I’m Honey, you came to my library and ran a couple of wonderful writing workshops.’

‘Honey! Of course, that was a long time ago – how are you?’

A small world, indeed. The phrase ‘six degrees of separation’ springs to mind. Almost two decades have passed since I ran workshops at Springvale Library. I cherish the letter of appreciation from Honey and the opportunity she gave me to improve workshop skills.

I was not a ‘big name’ author yet she gave me a chance and a paid gig!

There was only one young person under 30 travelling on the bus but a Samoan family followed in their car a father with his son and daughter who could be teens or twentysomethings.

Chatting at lunch, he was pleased I’d been to Samoa. He new Aniva’s Place where I stayed. I told him about climbing Mt Vaea and paying homage to R L Stevenson’s tomb and we discussed the contribution RLS had made to Samoa, which explained why he was so revered.

He said, ‘His greatest achievement was uniting the chiefs and teaching them to negotiate and achieve independence.’ 

I mentioned how much new history I’d learned when in Samoa. I had forgotten they had been a German colony and about the peaceful surrender to the British during the war.

My great grandfather could speak German and he was an interpreter for the German/British negotiations,‘ he said and confided his Scots ancestry – family names being Crichton and Williams!

We talked a little more about Samoa and how surprised I was at the number and variety of churches in such a small place as Apia. Religion is important to Samoans and there are many rituals, including traditional Sunday feasting.

(A later discussion with his daughter and son ranged from the problem of feral dogs to their relief Folau was Tongan, not Samoan!)

Our conversation ended with a quiz – he asked, ‘What one word did Samoa give to the English language?’

The answer,  ‘Tattoo.’

My final lunchtime chat was with Dr Dinesh Sood who said, ‘I used to be a practising Hindu but now I’m a scientist,’ and a lady who used to be Russian Orthodox professed to ‘being an atheist and humanitarian‘…

I said we were an eclectic bunch.

quote about keeping faith in self

However, what I remember most about the lunch stop happened outside when I went for a walk after spying two galahs on the power lines cuddling up to each other. They looked like a heart and I thought, what a great photo opportunity.

I walked to the edge of the car park and as I aimed my camera, I heard a distressed chirrup. I looked down and a seagull sat on the nature strip with an obvious broken wing, begging for help.

What to do?

I returned to the Hub and asked at reception for help and a wonderful young woman responded immediately, ‘I’ll get a cardboard box and rescue it.’

True to her word, she sprang into action. I watched from the bus in trepidation when her initial effort to pick up the bird caused it to scurry lopsided across the busy road. Wielding her jacket, she persisted and as trucks and cars roared past, I fretted for her safety.

‘Please be careful,’ I  murmured …  miraculously, the bird and rescuer made it the other side, escaping further injury. She scooped the seagull into her jacket and returned to safety when the road was clear.

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St George Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church, Heatherton

removing shoes

The third visit for the day introduced a completely new church to me and again the obligatory removal of shoes.

 

We were met by the priest and a warm welcoming committee. There was a powerpoint presentation, also two short talks on the history and origins of what devotees regard as the first church where the name ‘Christian’ applied.

It began in Antioch, with St Peter, after the death of Christ and surviving persecution the faithful travelled to India.

The first family practising this branch of Christianity arrive in Melbourne in 2006. Since then the number of families has reached 200 and within a decade they have raised the money to build their church and also donate thousands to charity.

(They gave $20,000 to the Kerala flood victims among other causes. A generous effort for a small congregation!)

A group of dancers performed a traditional dance of celebration about a reluctant bride being convinced the wedding is a good idea!

The costumes, music and performers a delightful treat and afterwards many took advantage of the opportunity to ask questions and join in discussions. I was fascinated by the striking curtains and altars – the furthest away can only be entered by the priest and designated elders, the smaller one is open to all.

Having St George and Jacobite in the name intrigued me – as a Scot, Jacobite referred to supporters of King James II of England or of the Stuarts claim to the throne. I know many Christian churches use different versions of the King James Bible as their sacred text but never realised one incorporated Jacobite in their name.

The mythology of St George predates Christianity and any stories I learnt as a child about his Christianity – light conquering darkness – were set in the 10th or 11th century, hence him becoming the patron saint of England. The origin story of this church interesting and proves religion is full of surprises.

Later, delicious and sumptuous afternoon tea made some of us reluctant to get back on the bus. We were farewelled with an unexpected gift and will certainly remember our visit!

Turkish Islamic and Cultural Centre, Keysborough

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Our final visit for the day was another mosque and one I’d seen from the highway many times. The imposing building flying the Australian flag and one with the symbol of Islam – the star and crescent moon.

Outside, we were warmly welcomed by a teacher from an Islamic school and several students with an open invitation to ask questions and let the students be our guides.

After removing our shoes and covering heads, we sat and listened to a welcome speech by the Imam and a young female student. The Imam’s mobile phone rang, ‘Excuse me, could be Jesus calling,‘ he said.

I love his sense of humour! In fact, laughter and smiles a significant part of the day in all the places we visited.

After the phone call, he continued with his explanation of the Five Pillars of Islam: Shahadah (Creed), Salat (Prayer), Zakay (Almsgiving), Fasting and Pilgrimage (Hajj) and a brief history of the mosque and fielded questions before inviting us on a tour.

The art and woodwork stunning inside the mosque. Most of the artisanship done locally, some imports from Turkey. The ceiling magnificent, the chandelier adorned with a Qur’anic verse in Muhammed’s favourite colour, green.

Oh, I didn’t know he was Irish,’ I quipped and my young guide laughed. She pointed out the balcony upstairs where women worship and explained the delicacy of the stencilling on the ceiling and how time-consuming the job was for the artist.

The colours, designs, placement of artefacts, windows, doors, balcony – all hold symbolic meaning. There are three places where the imam can preach depending on the number of devotees. There is a beautiful raised staircase with detailed carving and inlays.

One of the young students sang a prayer and it reminded me of being in R L Stevenson’s house in Samoa and the young guide singing a verse of his favourite hymn. Another memorable experience was being alone in the church at Hermannsburg Mission, Central Australia and Jan Cornell, the leader of the group I was with sang to test the acoustics.

The unaccompanied human voice raised in a song of praise can be truly beautiful.

Our visit coincided with one of the regular prayer times and the Imam excused himself to attend to several men waiting to pray. We sat up the back in silent contemplation.

I don’t know what the others were thinking but as I watched the prayer ritual it struck me how vulnerable these men were and how trusting. They didn’t know any of us but believed they were in a safe space just like those worshippers in Christchurch and many other places where people have been attacked.

Their trust, vulnerability, and devotion humbling.

We trooped outside for the last few photographs and the bus journey home. If there are different places on the list, I look forward to joining another tour.

No one tried to convert me and I had no epiphany, just interesting conversations and experiences to mull over and deposit in my memory bank.

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A Week When Words And Actions Mattered and Yet I Couldn’t Write…

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What happened in Christchurch last Friday was so horrific, it is difficult to express in words. Sorrow, a lump of marble pressing on my heart.

I can sympathise and empathise but any personal response to such a violent, hateful act seems totally inadequate.

Paralysis almost instantaneous – horror seems to happen a lot, news of violence and terror of varying scales, reported on every media platform but this time because it was multiple deaths close to home, it seemed to hurt more.

I’ve known grief but can’t imagine the immense suffering of the dead and injured in the shootings at the Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, and the effect on the wider Islamic community.

The process of writing and friends in the writing community, along with close family, have always been a solace – being able to write a way of working through trauma towards healing.

However, in the last few days, an inner voice and feeling of fatigue told me writing is pointless in the face of so much hate, violence and ignorance because the people who hold such angry and irrational views won’t read or care what I write.

Perhaps expressing how I feel will not be helpful.

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However, in recent days, along with expressions of shared grief and love, there has been acknowledgement and reflection that hatred and extremism do not operate in a vacuum.

There have been thousands of words spoken and written by others expressing the belief that in private and public conversations we can, and indeed must, do better, unless we want to see a repeat and even an escalation of atrocities.

The more of us who publicly support those who need it and condemn the aggressors and hate-mongers, the better.

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We can watch our words – think before we speak because the childhood rhyme of  “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” although well-meaning is patently untrue for the many people who suffer abuse and vilification every day because of their colour, ethnicity, sexual orientation, race, religious faith, country of origin or socioeconomic status. 

Society seems too ready to marginalise groups of people and too slow at being inclusive and kind.

We can modify behaviour – our own definitely,  but also encourage others to be kinder and more welcoming – and many people do. Participating in Harmony Day celebrations is a good start but there are many organisations and events available throughout Australia.

We can all reach out and promote peace and goodwill.

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Christchurch 2019
Mairi Neil

Friday’s Breaking News
a barrage of bullets…

Broken bodies
Shattered lives
Crushed dreams
Broken hearts

The terrorist filmed his ranting rampage
to maximise hatred and fear
stunned we recoiled in horror
but amid the shock
recognition and reflection…

Who made the bullets he fired?
Who marginalised and vilified
the targets of this cowardly attack?
Who formed, repeated and spread
words of hate seeking to fracture
and divide humanity?

Thoughts and prayers are not enough

The Scales of Justice seesaw
Responsibility     Guilt                  Shame
Tolerance           Acceptance        Love

Belonging must be felt
and welcoming arms outstretched.

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World history and experience proves the power of words. That’s why manifestos are issued by demigods, tyrants, megalomaniacs and political parties of every persuasion.

Words of philosophy and faith with the aim of spreading tolerance and peace can be uplifting and healing but words can be dangerous if used to deceive by spreading misinformation, bigotry and reinforcing harmful stereotypes.

Writers must take responsibility and consider who will read our words even although we can’t control how a reader interprets what we write.

Some may argue that rules and responsibility are for those writing about and reporting facts –

  • researchers must cast their net wide and gather as much information as possible to appear balanced,
  • journalists must differentiate between report and opinion,
  • academic language and style should not be emotive, biased or inflammatory.

I believe creative writers have a responsibility too. I may not always get it right but I try to be balanced when writing characters and situations, try to avoid creating or perpetuating harmful stereotypes whether sexist, racist, or ageist.

I make efforts to continually educate myself about different cultures aware that we live in a multi-cultural country.

Ten Questions to Ask When Writing Characters

  1. Whose voices will you include?
  2. Whose voices will you ignore or leave out?
  3. What messages or ideas are dominant?
  4. Will you explore or consider alternative ideas to the mainstream?
  5. How do you portray people of different races?
  6. Are you reinforcing or undermining racial stereotypes?
  7. What roles are you assigning to male and female characters?
  8. Are you reinforcing or undermining gender stereotypes?
  9. Will you write about or relate to contemporary issues?
  10. If representing certain beliefs about people and the world are you doing it honestly?

I’ve posted before about the power of books to move me from my comfort zone. Novels have enlightened and influenced me. Stories can reveal inequity and injustice and counter hatred and ignorance. They can nurture empathy and transform tolerance into acceptance.

Reading books from other cultures and about other cultures should be encouraged from a young age.

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Poster from Scholastic Books for Book Week 1992

This post has been difficult to write and the images and detail of what happened in Christchurch will not be forgotten. They will be compartmentalised like other horrific examples of ‘Man’s inhumanity to man’.

Conversations have started at the highest levels of government to ACT and stop the demonisation of particular religious and ethnic groups and to recognise the harm done under the banner of ‘freedom of speech’.

I’m glad world leaders have promised to do something about limiting the reach or forcing corporations to take responsibility for the social media tools accessed and used to spread messages of hate, division and violence.

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And if there is anyone who does not think Islamophobia is not harmful I can relate three examples close to my home and family:

  • On Friday night, two women who work with one of my daughters caught the tram home. This was a few hours after the shootings in the Christchurch mosques. They were women of colour and a white male sitting across from them shaped his hand into a gun, pointed, and pretended to fire twice.

Shocking as this may seem, this is one of many incidents they have had to deal with over the years. Most of their life they have lived under the hysteria and abuse ‘justified’ by 9/11 and the War on Terror. Rarely do passersby intervene, help or support the victims.

My daughter’s friends stopped reporting incidents to the police because, despite the probability of camera footage and even witnesses, the police are not interested or put any follow up in the too hard basket.

  • My other daughter stays in touch with a university friend who happens to wear a hijab. The friend’s Facebook posts heart-rending when she notes, ‘It was a good day today, I was only spat on once.’

If this is happening in Melbourne, the world’s most liveable city, and Australia, the lucky country, believe it when public figures tell you they knew it was only a matter of time before there was a massacre like the Christchurch shootings.

  • On Saturday evening, my daughter was having dinner in a restaurant in Balaclava. When she looked out of the window, she saw a man abuse and grab a Jewish passerby, shove him against the wall and try and grab his Kippah from his head. She jumped up and ran outside but an employee stopped her at the door and said, ‘I’ll go.’ A woman from a nearby shop also went to the victim’s aid. No other diner moved to help and people in the street stared or scurried by.

The rise of anti-semitism is well documented and in the East St Kilda neighbourhood where my daughter lives Swastikas have been daubed on synagogues, schools, shops and fences.

We have said sorry to our First People but there is still not a widespread acknowledgement that this land was invaded and founded on genocide. The Uluru Statement from the Heart was rejected by Prime Minister Turnbull and the current Prime Minister has not changed policy.

Aboriginal Australians know all about abuse, vilification, stereotyping, and marginalisation and yet they have often been the first ones to welcome refugees and migrants into the community.

Whatever actions authorities and all of us take, I hope it is not too little too late.

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Is Love All We Need?

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#TravelEverywhereWithLove and Dogman

At the beginning of the week, I had to go into the city and because it has been a while, I took the opportunity to stroll through some of the streets and arcades I don’t normally visit and chanced upon a sculpture that looked vaguely familiar yet I hadn’t seen it before.

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Travel with Love is a global public art project that’s re-uniting the world. In the face of closing borders, it stands for keeping minds open and love flowing.

Gillie and Marc are creating interactive bronze sculptures featuring their iconic characters for leading cities across the world. When people see the familiar and beloved Rabbitwoman and Dogman in a city, they’ll know that they’re welcome there.

When I read the blurb, I remembered where I’d seen similar public art – in December 2017, walking along the St Kilda foreshore with visitors from England after showing them the little fairy penguins.

 As unlikely animal kingdom companions, the Rabbit and the Dog represent diversity and togetherness. Without a definitive race, religion, or culture, they symbolize all people as one.

A Case of Love At First Sight?

The artists, Gillie and Marc met on a film shoot in Hong Kong. Apparently, their differences should have been incompatibilities, but ‘their hearts said something else’. Seven days later they were married on the foothills of Mt Everest and are best friends and soulmates,  collaborating for over 25 years as artists.

They appear to be living proof that indeed ‘love is all you need’ and they are spreading that love by ensuring their art makes a powerful statement as a motivating force for compassion and conversation.

Sydney-based they have created these iconic hybrid characters, which are definitely eye-catching and I believe they do what all good public art should do – they start discussions.

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Dogman as paparazzi?

Two of the sculptures in St Kilda paid homage to well-known women:

  • Inspired by Angelina Jolie’s humanitarian efforts with conservation, education and women’s rights. Angelina RabbitgirlStronger than ever – stands tall and strong showing she’ll never give up.
  • Marilyn Monroe may be the world’s most recognisable sex symbol, but behind her twinkling eyes and dazzling smile was a fragile and fearful rabbit-like woman struggling to cope with her own fame. She was also one of the first celebrities to be honoured by the paparazzi. Happy Birthday Mr President highlights society’s obsession with celebrities in a fun and accessible way.

( Marilyn Rabbitgirl strikes that famous pose I wrote about when Bendigo Art Gallery hosted a giant Marilyn statue and exhibition a couple of years ago)

The third sculpture is of coffee mates a beloved motif in Gillie and Marc’s art. These coffee drinker friends warmly remind viewers of their first-morning coffee. Early Morning Coffee shows Dogman and Rabbitwoman peacefully enjoying a morning coffee.

It was loaned to three separate locations in Melbourne: Melbourne Emporium, 500 Bourke Street and St Kilda Pier.

St Kilda Pier bought the sculpture after their three-month loan period because the sculpture was so successful in bringing together the local community.

I don’t know whether Travel With Love will remain on St Collins but considering the current debate engulfing our parliament in recent days concerning refugee policy, I really hope so, because unlike our Federal Government’s attitude this sculpture encourages unity rather than enmity.

In response to the worldwide plight of refugees and immigrants, and changing border control policies, Travel with Love has been created as a stand for global unity. Connected by the public art project, each visitor (traveller and resident alike) will feel like next door neighbours.

…Rabbitwoman and Dogman tell the autobiographical tale of two opposites coming together to become best friends and soulmates. The Rabbit and the Dog, as unlikely animal-kingdom companions, represent diversity and acceptance through love.

Rabbitwoman and Dogman have a dream that all creatures, regardless of race, religion, or orientation can feel accepted and never be judged.

Dogman holds a magnificent red apple. In Chinese, the word for apple is ping. Ping also happens to be the word for peace –  a critical facet to the sculpture’s design.

2018, the Year of the Dog was going to be a year of good fortune, and the artwork aimed to engage existing community residents, while also attracting new visitors to this vibrant hub of multi-culturalism in Melbourne.

In Chinese tradition, when a dog enters a home it symbolizes the coming of good fortune. Dogs are loyal, clever and brave. Best friends to humans, they are known for having harmonious relationships with people from all walks of life and don’t discriminate against socio-economic status, race, religion, or orientation.

 “In the face of last year’s unstable global landscape, an apple signifying peace holds particular importance by spreading the message of diversity and acceptance for all beings… Gillie and I feel deeply connected to this representation, as all of our art is built upon the foundation of love and togetherness.

We combined the powerful image of Dogman with an apple in the hopes of inspiring the public to be brave in the pursuit of a better world. ”

Gillie and Marc

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Writers & Love

Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality.

Iris Murdoch 1919-99: ‘The Sublime and the Good‘ in  Chicago Review 13 (1959) 

Most people experience love, without noticing that there is anything remarkable about it.

Boris Pasternak 1890-1960: Doctor Zhivago (1958)

Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.

Ursula K. Le Guin 1929 – 2018: The Lathe of Heaven (1971)

You know very well that love is, above all, the gift of oneself!

Jean Anouilh 1910-1987: Ardèle (1949)

Romantic love is one of the great and popular themes for art, especially literature and screen and in our society, we even set aside a special day to remind us of the fact!

Love The Day
Mairi Neil

Valentine’s Day, a day for lovers
Mr or Mrs Hallmark tell me so.
A day for lovers under covers
Valentine’s Day? A day for lovers!
A day when you forsake all others
A day that costs a lot of dough
Valentine’s Day, a day for lovers
Mr or Mrs Hallmark tell me so!

Remembering Mum
Mairi Neil

I can see you sitting reading a book
Twisting your hair, deep in concentration
I know you’d rather read than cook
I can see you sitting reading a book
Into another world with such a contented look
Did Dad envy the Mills and Boon destination?
I can see you sitting reading a book
Twisting your hair, deep in concentration

But there is also love of country, place, objects, family, food, music, hobbies, sport, film, books, politics, pets … the list extensive… all can add profound meaning to life, be the inspiration for getting up in the morning, the reason for decision-making, and for daily satisfaction.

LOVE

  • a word, a feeling, a concept, a theme… love can be small, specific, detailed, contained within a personal circle or there can be the bigger picture – a love for humanity.

However, you experience love, I hope it involves tenderness and caring, perhaps duty and responsibility, resilience and loyalty, commitment, maybe even fun if it is something rather than someone.

No matter the interpretation or experience, I agree with Gillie and Marc that life is better with love, and kindness, especially when it comes to treating neighbours, immigrants, refugees and others marginalised.

We are lucky to have talented artists who can confront us with ideas, and councils, philanthropists, and communities prepared to invest in public art – whether it be sculpture, murals or other installations.

When I was in Irkutsk, Russia there was a whole park full of installations, many the embodiment of well-known rhymes and fairytales or figures from mythology.

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I loved this one based on the three wise monkeys: hear no evil, see, evil, speak no evil. A cultural icon originally from the east (Japan) and well-known in the west.

I remember a small brass ornament that always sat on the mantlepiece during my childhood and I know many people in my age group (aged pensioners unite!) will remember something similar.

I wrote a prose poem years ago in class when I gave the students an exercise based on ‘an object of significance’ from their childhood.

Three Wise Monkeys
Mairi Neil

Mizaru, Kikazaru and Iwazaru sit on the mantlepiece:
seeing no evil, hearing no evil, and speaking no evil.
A Japanese pictorial maxim transplanted to Scotland.
Brought home by a great uncle, a ship’s captain,
these wise monkeys an added admonishment
to a childhood steeped in Presbyterian rules.
Yet, the shadow of evil an unseen cloak –
we live in the tatters of World War Two.
Crowded cemeteries, buildings awaiting demolition,
food rationing… crippling austerity,
shattered families struggle to find meaning,
shudder if ambulance and police sirens wail.
Speak no evil an achievable rule perhaps
but hearing no evil more difficult
and what of seeing evil or evil seen?
The brass monkeys a cold and chilly weight
in my child’s hand… etching a mystic message
of rules, to chant in the playground.

In Yekaterinburg, Siberia there was a delightful animal orchestra near the arts precinct. They brought a smile to my face and like the fairytale park in Irkutsk presented a different image of a country often represented in the media by military statues and huge murals of revolutionary figures.

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I also loved this one of folk musicians in a park renowned for festivals and open-air concerts. having lived through the 70s and adoring Dylan and Donovan as well as Baez and Mitchell, this couple melted any language barriers.

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But perhaps my favourite piece of public art when I travelled was Wincher’s Stance by John Clinch (an apt name). It was named by Susan Ritchie and commissioned by Strathclyde Passenger Transport Executive. Of course, it’s in Glasgow.

(In Scotland, winch is to kiss and cuddle. It also means to go out regularly with someone.)

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The emotion this couple radiates is recognisable to anyone who arrives or departs from those they love – it can be the joy of reunion, or ensuring a lasting impression.

It can be easy to walk past public art or grow accustomed to it or take it for granted so I’m glad I came across Dogman and reading the artist’s statement helped me reflect on its message.

Love may not be ‘all we need’ but caring for each other and recognising similarities rather than differences is a good start.  A big thank you to the many public art installations that encourage reflection and conversation!

 

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story

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I had a gift voucher to use for the Arts Centre which was close to expiry date (last year was not a good year healthwise for booking anything in advance) and when I saw Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story advertised with a session offering Q & A with the cast afterwards, I knew this was the perfect fit for my voucher  – and which of my friends I’d invite to share the experience.

My friend Lisa, grew up in Caulfield and developed long-standing friendships and a special affinity with Jewish culture. She also loves plays as a form of storytelling, as much as I do.

We both attended The Script Club at The Channel, a studio in the Victorian Arts Centre a couple of years ago, where we discussed classic Australian plays in a series of workshops facilitated by respected writer and drama critic, John McCallum.

What better play for us to see together than one advertised as 

A dark, funny and high-energy klezmer-folk tale inspired by the real-life story of two Romanian Jews seeking refuge in Canada in 1908.

It’s early 20th century Halifax and Chaim and Chaya, hounded from home, are waiting for immigration to decide their future, under threat of tuberculosis and typhus. Will they survive in this new land?

With neo-klezmer songs written by director Christian Barry and acclaimed genre-bending performer and musician Ben Caplan, this quirky one-act musical is written by award-winning playwright Hannah Moscovitch, who based it on the story of her own Jewish great-grandparents.

This bewitching music-theatre hybrid and cautionary tale for modern times – performed with instruments ranging from fiddle to clarinet, accordion, banjo and megaphone – was nominated for six Drama Desk Awards, won multiple Edinburgh Fringe awards and was a New York Times Critic’s Pick.

Old Stock is about humanity and finding your place in the world. Above all this story is about hope.

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The refugee crisis is a topic rarely out of the news, especially in Australia, where we have asylum seekers languishing on offshore islands under indefinite detention and any discussion we have in the media or parliament soon descends into blame, shame, distortion of facts and fear of the other.

Ironically, this week one of the most well-known asylum seekers incarcerated on Manus Island for six years has been awarded the richest literature prize in Australia, plus a smaller non-fiction prize  – a total of $125,000 – and sparking a bitter debate about the what and who is “ Australian”. 

Everyone should listen carefully to the acceptance speech, via video, of Behrouz Boochani, an Iranian Kurdish refugee because it is about being human, not labelling yourself as a particular nationality, religion, or ethnic group.

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story definitely topical!!

Whose interest is served by dividing the world into countries, building walls, increasing security and border checks, incarcerating those fleeing violence and natural disasters, stirring up resentment and hate, attaching ridiculous and misleading labels?

Most people, if given the choice would stay put, live in their own country and prefer peace – that is the reality.

It is catastrophic events like war, civil disturbances, attempted genocide, mass inequality and natural disasters that cause refugees, like the current caravan fleeing multiple crises in Central America.

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, like the novel No Friend But The Mountains challenge us to humanise these tragic circumstances and are great examples of what Ursula Le Guin believed,

Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.”

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The Power of Stagecraft

Louisa Adamson & Christian Barry were responsible for set and lighting design but stagecraft also includes technical aspects of theatrical production like sound, costume design and makeup.

All are important to set the scene for the audience but also enable the cast to perform smoothly. 

These technical and artistic elements require a vision and interpretation that suits the theme/story and also gives the audience an enjoyable and entertaining experience.

In the foyer of the theatre, there were displays of costumes and models of sets emphasising these very points. Lisa mentioned how much she had enjoyed The King and I and we observed various people posing for photographs on a mock-up of the set for Evita fancying themselves as Eva Perón!

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story went for 80 minutes without a break providing a challenge that a conventional drama with an interval might not and considering the subject matter and the set, I don’t think many will queue to have their photograph taken.

The lighting always important on stage but for this performance exceptionally so, to focus on a particular performer and distract the audience if props were being moved and others in the cast changed costumes or positions.

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Melbourne’s Art precinct – how lucky are we?

The Fairfax Theatre at the Arts Centre is comfortable and intimate and we had seats in the second row so had a great view of the performers and the set, which when we first sat down looked like a shipping container.

Ben Caplan in a bushy beard, top hat and a purplish jacket is spectacular and loud,  almost raunchy when he appears like a magician amid smoke and flashing lights from the top of the container.

The intro routine opens two large, swinging doors displaying various musical instruments, hats, shawl and other accoutrements on hooks and shelves but Ben sings with gusto and he’s telling the story through his songs, which requires our concentration.

While he captured our attention, the other cast members set up the remaining props and hung the Halifax sign. The compactness and portability of the design clever, and although colourful, never became a distraction from the words and music.

A simple packing case and upended suitcases interchangeable as the characters journey through life and tell their story – which involves settling in Montreal (another sign up) getting married and starting a family.

Ben acknowledged Louise in the Q & A afterwards for the set’s strong visual metaphor. Most refugees have to travel by ship at some stage in their journey (certainly the ones in this story) and it also references World War Two refugees herded into freight train carriages.

I wondered if the white-haired gentleman, who asked the question about the set had memories of his family escaping the Holocaust like Denise Weiss, one of my students who wrote a hauntingly beautiful but sad vignette about her Jewish parents escaping Hungary – a train journey her grandmother and others took that ended in the gas chamber.

Although it is based on the historical upheavals and forced journeys the Jewish people have experienced, the story and characters are an allegory, representing humanity, and all people forced from their home because of war, prejudice, fear, natural disaster, or a desire to improve the lives of their children.

What Influenced/Inspired The Play?

Ben explained, that in 2015 during the Canadian election, he was watching Canada’s Prime Minister give a speech where he referred to ‘Old Stock’ Canadians to distinguish them from recently arrived immigrants and refugees.

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper’s use this week of the term “old stock Canadians” in response to a question on support for reduced health coverage for refugees drew swift condemnation on social media, where many suggested the term has racist implications.

The newspaper article linked above has interviews with a variety of Canadians including George Elliott Clarke, Poet Laureate of Toronto. (I’m quoting him because I love poets, especially those with his ability, and who successfully show the personal is political and vice versa!)

Stock: A 7th-generation descendant of black refugees who settled in Nova Scotia in 1813, long before Confederation, Clarke also has native heritage and is a member of the Eastern Woodlands Metis Nation.

“The true ‘old-stock’ Canadians are the First Nations and Inuit and Metis, followed by the many divergent ethnicities who were also present in colonial Canada, from African slaves in muddy York to ‘German’ settlers on the South Shore of Nova Scotia, from the Chinese merchants present in Nouvelle-France to the Portuguese and Basque fishermen of Newfoundland.

“Personally, I think the current Prime Minister is unsure about his own identity and possibly nervous about the true, multicultural, multilingual, multiple-faiths and multiracial Canada that now beautifully, proudly, lives and flourishes.”

But perhaps it is a quote from Elise Harding-Davis, former curator of the North American Black Historical Museum that resonates more with what has happened to the debate in Australia – a debate that went downhill extremely fast with Prime Minister John Howard’s disgusting refusal to let the Tampa land asylum seekers and his declaration of ‘we’ll decide who comes into this country‘ plus his protegees Abbott and Morrison suggesting civilisation began with colonisation and revering Captain Cook!

Like all descendants of escaped slaves, her family was granted Canadian citizenship only in 1911.  “Canada didn’t start out lily white. In fact, the only non-immigrants are the First Nations, aboriginal people… The idea of ‘Canadian stock’ is innocent ignorance. It’s a mindset of traditional thinking that all the people who started anything of note through history were the conquerors.”

The next major influence for Ben was the war in Syria and the appalling images of fleeing refugees and that shocking image of three-year-old Syrian Alan Kurdi drowned as his family tried to escape. This tiny body, washed ashore at a popular wealthy resort in Turkey, highlighted the suffering and death of many refugees and the huge divide regarding wealth, safety, and lifestyles in the world.

On World Refugee Day 2018, a record 68.5 million people were forcibly displaced in 2017. Record high numbers of men, women and children were driven from their homes across the world due to war, violence and persecution, according to a June 2018 report by the United Nations’ refugee agency.

Playwright, Hannah Moscovitch joined Ben and Christian on the project. Although she is writing about the past and her great-grandparents, she also addresses mass migrations today and the people and countries who oppose and/or resent those migrants. She is also a playwright unafraid of making the personal political.

Singer-songwriter Ben Caplan is the story-teller/God, a performance almost Vaudevillian as he behaves like an emcee (that’s where the megaphone listed as a musical instrument comes in) and also sings, dances (one number for me recalled a scene from Fiddler On The Roof) and acts in-between introducing the various scenes where Chaim (Dani Oore) and Chaya (Mary Faye Coady) tell their story intermingled with musical interludes. (Dani plays the woodwind and Mary Faye, the violin).

This is a tragedy with comedic streaks, especially the brilliant inflexions of Chaya and Chaim’s voices delivering their lines, many with the irony and chutzpah identifiably Jewish. Mary Faye said she listened to many accents online and worked on her voice for over a year to get the accent right. (She is of Scots/Irish descent, like me.)

The rhyme and rhythm of Ben’s songs catchy (if somewhat repetitive) but one, in particular, had the audience in an uproar when he recited euphemisms for sex (some I’d heard, others bizarre) and then suggested perhaps celibacy needed ‘careful consideration’.

When he dons the shawl of a rabbi and sings as a cantor, his voice and words are haunting – I found it deeply moving, even although it wasn’t in English – the meaning and emotional impact understood.

From the reaction of the audience and the questions after the show, it is obvious many were Jewish and the choice of music and songs triggered personal memories.

One lady of Russian descent, remembered a traditional lullaby her grandmother used to sing and suggested it be included in the show to make the scene where a lullaby is sung more authentic – Ben Caplan thanked her for her input but the power of art – song, poetry, drama, music, dance – crosses all boundaries and the writer and cast want to reach the largest possible audience.

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story touched me, a person without a Jewish heritage. I found it captivating, emotionally engaging, entertaining and memorable with, I suggest, enough authenticity to satisfy most of the Jewish people present but not isolate Gentiles.

The story is about Jewish refugees Chaim and Chaya meeting in the line at the Immigration Centre in 1908 Halifax, Canada. They are both new arrivals from Romania, both traumatised from harrowing journeys but ordered into a line for the sick. He might have typhus because he has a rash. She might have caught her sister’s tuberculosis, she has a cough. He is ‘just a kid’ at eighteen years old but after seeing his family murdered in a pogrom has grown up fast. She is twenty-four, too young to be a widow but her husband and child didn’t survive the arduous journey they made across Russia to escape what Chaim lived. 

Will they be allowed into Canada?  Will they live long enough to establish a new life? Will they fall in love and have a future together?

The Jewish experience is dominant and when you read (warning this is very disturbing)  about the rise of anti-semitic behaviour in Melbourne, this is a play with subject matter that needs as wide an audience as possible, with more Q and A’s afterwards discussing the points it raises.

What do you choose to do if someone is pounding on your door needing help – do you let them in or ignore their plight?

When are people accepted as citizens or allowed to belong and their contribution acknowledged?

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From Santa Barbara History department

The story seeks the sympathy and understanding of the audience and challenges us to confront the reality of refugees, the various reasons and circumstances forcing people to seek asylum, and the dehumanising language used by politicians, the media and bigots, the myths and misinformation, the stirring of fear when it should be compassion…

If someone is seeking help does it matter what religion, what colour, what language group, what religion they are – isn’t the fact they are desperate for help enough?

People are not numbers, not statistics, not clones – humanity is diverse.

To tell this story with shades of light and dark, fast-paced mood changes and engaging craftmanship of acting, voice, dance and music, the cast deserves hearty congratulations and lots more success as they take their show around the world.

Simone de Beauvoir once said:

It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our lives that we must draw our strength to live and our reasons for acting.

I’m so glad I heard a little of the lives of Hannah Moscovitch’s Chaim and Chaya and will continue to advocate for our government to treat better those who come to Australia.

 

 

 

 

We Need Another Gandhi – Another Great Soul to Remind Us to Honour all Humanity!

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One of my favourite places to visit in Melbourne is the Immigration Museum and last month I caught the final day of a magnificent exhibition on the life of Mahatma Gandhi – one of the greatest men ever to live and whose teachings and life informed, enriched and inspired me.

A great activist who changed the shape of our world by advocating for tremendous social change and justice years before Lenin formed his Bolshevik faction and before Mao Zedong embraced revolutionary ideals.

The 20th century had just begun when Gandhi developed his theories and put into practice a campaign of non-violent resistance to injustice.

 

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Today is World Humanitarian Day (WHD). It is held every year on 19 August to bring attention to the millions of people around the world who are affected by crisis and conflict and pay tribute to aid workers who risk their lives in humanitarian service and to rally support for people affected by crises around the world.

A fitting day to honour the life of Gandhi and to thank my parents for their influence and guidance in believing social change can and must happen if we want a more just and equitable world.

 

In my Life Stories & Legacies Class, I often ask the students to write about their beliefs and values and reflect on who and what influenced and perhaps still influences them.

To reflect on how much their parents, teachers, the books they read, personal experiences and current events shape their core beliefs and actions.

We’ve had a tumultuous week in the Australian Parliament revealing the best and worst of our representatives.

A week where Gandhi’s ability to dissolve prejudice in others and inspire courage to act and practise what we preach was sorely needed.

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World Humanitarian Day 2018

“Around the world, conflict is forcing record numbers of people from their homes, with over 65 million people now displaced. Children are recruited by armed groups and used to fight. Women are abused and humiliated. As humanitarian workers deliver aid and medical workers provide for those in need, they are all too often targeted or treated as threats.”

UN Secretary-General, António Guter

Only 1% of the 25 million people who have fled as refugees are ever resettled.

Gandhi believed we are all citizens of the world, unbound by exclusive loyalties of race or creed or class. He became renowned for shedding attachment to material things and at the end of his life, his only worldly possessions were his sandals, watch, glasses, a couple of spoons and bowls and a book of songs!

If only more people believed in such a universal society rather than nationalistic divisions, many more refugees and displaced people would be resettled.

The exhibition at the Immigration Museum approached telling Gandhi’s story by first introducing Gandhi as an immigrant. Indeed the forming of his philosophy to campaign for change in a non-violent way began when he lived and worked in South Africa and suffered discrimination because of his skin colour and ethnicity.

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The exhibition combined digital and non-digital storytelling and made good use of extracts from the 1982 Richard Attenborough film, Gandhi and archival footage from documentaries and newsreels. At least Ben Kingsley,  the actor chosen to play Gandhi,  is of Indian heritage, his father being Gujarati and Ben’s birth name, Krishna Bhanji.

The books I bought and read about Gandhi acquired in the 1970s and it was great to refresh my memory and immerse myself in exceptionally well-laid out exhibits.

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Gandhi’s Early Life

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Incident At Pietermaritzburg, South Africa

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Many people can point to a pivotal moment or event that either changed their attitude or thinking or forced them to change the direction they were heading in life.

Gandhi’s moment was outrage at the unjust humiliation of being ejected from the train despite having a ticket, and being ejected and roughly treated because he was ‘coloured’.

He had a long, cold night to sit in the waiting room and reflect on his undignified treatment and the general status of non-whites in South Africa. His legal training and political beliefs must have worked overtime as he imagined and planned an effective response – and considered the bigger picture, especially in relation to India under British rule.

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The year my father was born (1922), Gandhi was actively promoting his doctrine of passive resistance and making headlines in newspapers. My Scottish grandfather (Papa) was well-read for a working-class man and actively involved in the trade union movement. No doubt he followed the stories of Gandhi when he visited England in 1931 and promoted peaceful negotiation of conflict.

Fighting and Marching For Equal Rights in South Africa

In 1913 the Cape Supreme Court ruled that only marriages performed under the Christian rites could be recognised. With the stroke of a pen, all Hindu, Muslim, Zoroastrian, and other religious marriages were nullified.

This judgement added to long-standing grievances of the Indian community including the three-pound tax on ex-indentured labourers and the law prohibiting Indians from crossing state borders.

Several Indian women, including Gandhi’s wife Kasturba, declared their intention to seek arrest until the judgement was overturned.

Gandhi advised two separate parties of women, the Phoenix Party and Transvaal Sisters, to cross the Natal border and break the law. They were then to urge the people of Natal to join Satyagraha and not reveal their names and addresses upon arrest.

The Phoenix Party was arrested at the border and sent to a hard labour prison for three months in Pietermaritzburg Jail. The Transvaal sisters, however, positioned themselves in Newcastle, Natal without arrest. Their influence spread quickly among the indentured labourers, helping incite massive strikes.

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In 1915, Gandhi returned to India and continued to transform himself and the movement towards independence.

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Gandhi’s India

The exhibition had several display cabinets with a selection of traditional Indian clay figures, dating from the 1860s and 1880s, to provide a beautiful if at times idealised, representation of the human diversity of Gandhi’s India.

They included fine examples from the famous 19th century Indian workshops of Krishnanagar, Lucknow and Pune. These artefacts have rarely been seen in Australia since many were displayed in the Indian Court at the 1880 Melbourne International exhibition at the Royal Exhibition Building.

I have several friends and have had students who migrated here from India and my daughters have school chums who were born here from immigrant parents but like most people, I probably underestimate the sheer size and diversity of India geographically as well as population-wise.

The clay figures displayed from the Krishnangar, Lucknow and Pune regions, 1860s-1880s. (Museum Victoria Collection) Also figures from Mumbai.

Various people and occupations represented:

  • everyday men, poor villager, ‘Palanquin’ carrying army officer, washerman (dhobi), female labourer, office messenger (peon), woman of high rank, drummer, Parsi (Zoroastrian) house servant, Hindu writer, priestess begging for Hindu goddess Kali, musician, cloth dealer’s servant, woman spinning yarn, Muslim man, priest for Hindu goddess Kali, horse keeper (ghorawalla), Hindu clerk, dancer (nautch girl), goldsmith (sonawalla), man carrying bundles, merchant (banian), woman from mercantile class, Parsi (Zoroastrian) gentleman, Hindu tailor, Brahmin woman, policeman, domestic ‘half-caste’ worker (ayah), Muslim gentleman, agricultural female worker (ryot), priest, Muslin cloth seller, potter at wheel, fruit seller, water carrier, horse groom, Bengali man, teacher (pundit), woman wearing lace shawl, seated priest sewing, poor villager.

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Clay figure modelling in India

Clay figure modelling has been widely practised in India for hundreds of years. Models of humans, animals and scenes from everyday life have been used for worship, as toys, ornamentation and for ethnographic purposes. A gradual shift towards naturalism in clay figure modelling in certain regions increased during the 18th century with the arrival of Western traders, European settlers and planters who took souvenirs home from India.

While the manufacture of traditional clay toys and religious idols continued, the manufacture of naturalistic clay models was centred in the regions of Krishnanagar, Lucknow and Pune. The establishment of government art schools in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay (now Mumbai) during the late 19th century further increased European influence on the various styles of clay modelling.

The advent of international exhibitions, the first held in London in 1851, saw an increasing interest in the peoples, customs and traditions of the non-Western world. The established tradition of clay figure modelling in India was an obvious way to represent an often idealised Indian people, life and culture.

What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”

Nelson Mandela

Salt March was Right Against Might…

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Satyagraha

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On 6 April 1930, Gandhi and his followers produced salt on the shores of Dandi, breaking the Salt Law. Time magazine declared Gandhi the “Man of the Year’ in 1930 and more than 1300 newspapers around the world reported the Salt March.

In June 2011, Time magazine declared the Salt March as the second most influential protest in the world.

My parents were married the year Gandhi was assassinated (1948) and after living through the tragedy and horror of WW2, my father threw himself into the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and like many others, he was certainly inspired by Gandhi.

When I was a child I can remember the conversations of adults who visited our home and the discussions between my parents about the merits of various methods to effect change.

One name was often mentioned – Mahatma Gandhi, an activist who changed the shape of the world by encouraging people to fight for change by non-violent civil disobedience.

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The Untouchables

In the 1930s, Gandhi’s main concern was for the untouchables, whom he called the Harijans or Children of God. He strongly campaigned against systems of privilege and deliberately did the cleaning duties, particularly the cleaning of toilets, considered the duties of the untouchables.

The removal of the worst features of the caste system occupied him during this decade.

He transformed his own ashram at Sabarmati into a centre for training untouchables and edited a paper called Harijan,  contributing most of his later writings.

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The Brotherhood of All Religions

Gandhi was a deeply spiritual person who believed religion was a private matter and that each person made their own approach to God.  Any attempt to create a religious state unacceptable as was any other way of differentiation between people.

His life-threatening fasts to achieve a goal legendary, and none more so than towards the end of his life when inter-communal massacres at the time of India’s liberation derailed a smooth transition to independence.

His attempt to solve the religious divisions, notably the divide between Hindu and Muslim led to a pilgrimage through the most troubled regions. Sadly, he died at the hands of a religious fanatic and his dream of a society without social or religious discrimination died too.

Gandhi Championed a Simple Life

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Gandhi worked hard on a practical level to rehabilitate and promote the Indian village, reviving agriculture, industry, education and other features of the rural culture of India. He believed his vision of communal reconciliation and a thorough reformation of Indian society at this basic level would benefit everyone. he had a desire to turn the tribes of India into self-supporting farmers.

The combination of good farming and craftsmanship would ensure a sufficient but not luxurious life.

A spinning wheel similar to the one he used and an example of spun cotton was on display. Gandhi never asked anyone to do anything he did not and he spent 15 minutes spinning every day – his meditation time – a therapeutic exercise he recommended.

Gandhi’s ideas came with strong moralistic and anarchistic leanings.

The State represents violence in a concentrated and organized form… self-government means continuous effort to be free of government control, whether it is foreign, or whether it is national… The ideally non-violent state will be an ordered anarchy.’

Women he regarded as the most exploited class of India, next to untouchables. He believed men and women were complementary – equal in status, but different in function. He campaigned for the abolition of purdah, child marriage and all customs that discriminated against women.

He believed that once women were liberated from male exploitation they would develop a high degree of sexual restraint and solve India’s population problem without other birth control methods, which he saw as an encouragement to indulgences.

Gandhi’s ideas and action challenged and changed our way of thinking.

A complex, courageous man who continually transformed himself to remain engaged with the times and true to his ideals.

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Most of the protest movements that followed his death and liberation struggles in other countries whether it was the civil rights movement in the USA, anti-nuclear and anti-Vietnam marches, the campaign against racial discrimination and Apartheid or a free Tibet – all owe a great deal to Gandhi’s legacy.

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The Staging Post – A Film To Reaffirm Belief in Humanity

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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.’

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Muzafar, Khadim, Jolyon

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.

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Cisarua Learning Centre

When we started we had no idea. What should we teach? How should they teach? Little by little we found our way.

Muzafar Ali

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.

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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 info@cisarualearning.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.

Glynis Johns

 

A Discordant Note On Harmony Day

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Harmony Day is celebrated throughout Australia on 21 March. It has become a significant day of the year when Australians are encouraged to celebrate the cultural diversity of our country.

21 March is also the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

We even have a government agency dealing with cultural, racial and religious intolerance, by promoting respect, fairness and a sense of belonging for everyone.

Orange is the colour chosen to represent Harmony Day. Australians are encouraged to wear orange clothing and/or the distinctive orange ribbon to show their support for cultural diversity and an inclusive Australia. 

I imagine our politicians have a drawerful of colourful ribbons and need advisors to remind them which one to wear!

However,  considering our two major parties have shown a shocking disregard for the plight of refugees still stuck in offshore detention perhaps they should refrain from being hypocritical today and leave the orange ribbon in the drawer.

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“I struggle with Australia’s record towards refugees. Australia is a nation of migrants and its culture accepts and tolerates difference. But Australia’s refugee record is quite poor internationally. This is a very bad position for a state because people judge states on their acceptance and tolerance of people who need help.

There is no excuse for any kind of policy which does not consider or protect very basic human rights.” 

Ai Weiwei: Chinese dissident artist 

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Operation Sovereign Borders
Mairi Neil

(a found poem from Refugee Week leaflet)

Refugees and asylum seekers
wanting safety
protection
a new life
cross stormy waters
with courage
seeking justice
and a welcome
from Australian society ––
young and old.

Amazing personal stories
of darkness,
bribery,
corruption
challenges faced
uprisings survived…
Prisoners of conscience
student leaders
from Afghanistan and Burma
seeking resettlement
and freedom
seeking to celebrate and contribute.

Their hopes crushed
basic human rights violated
harsh lessons in cruelty
as the innocent
are locked up.

In limbo
on Nauru and Manus Islands
detention not freedom ––
Why?

We can do better
Stand up, Speak up
Refugees and Asylum Seekers
Welcome here

 

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Ai Weiwei’s thought-provoking sculpture about the refugee crisis

 

 

International Odyssey
Mairi Neil

The trees cling to fragile foliage
like mothers reluctant to let
their children go.
The winter sun radiates
white light promising a day
of autumn glory…
It is Melbourne after all.

A blue sky pockmarked by fluffy clouds
reflecting a sea of shimmering blue
But beyond the benign bay
tragedy intrudes
fear and desperation meets
fear and distrust.

No need of Siren’s song
to lure the mariners to their death.
The monster from the deep is
dressed in political spin and
ideological hubris.
Christian charity in short supply.
To seek asylum deemed illegal

It is Australia after all.

 

 

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Reading poetry at a Harmony Day event in Mordialloc 2016

 

A World of Bubbles
Mairi Neil

Sometimes the weight of sadness
crushes and destroys,
a cement mixer churning wails and tears
of the downtrodden –
the enslaved, imprisoned, tortured,
refugees and homeless…
a tsunami of pain
a relentless darkness
a night without dawn.

‘I want to help, but what can I do?’

A plea from compassionate people
whose words may become actions –
the cliched ‘drop in the ocean’.
Causes close to home a priority –
employees need to work,
families nurtured,
households serviced,
sick friends visited.
Joy sought in rituals
for normality’s sake.

Cocooned in bubbles we float
to survive turmoil we can’t control,
to escape the weight of crushing sadness.

Our bubbles must stay intact,
a prism of sunlight
not a prison of insensitivity.
Perhaps kiss other bubbles…
to share light and love,
to ease global sadness
resilient like a mother’s womb.

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Earth is as diverse as the planets in the universe. For most of us, each day is not a new adventure but the ‘same old same old’ unless we make an effort to move out of our comfort zone.

Communication leads to community, that is, to understanding, intimacy and mutual valuing. 

Roll May

That comfort zone may involve embracing different cultures, envisaging a different Australia to the one we are used to, learning to accept, not just tolerate – welcome others to country as the Aborigines continually welcome people to country.

Haiku – Mairi Neil

Ningla a-Na! This our land
Indigenous and immigrant
Now sharing history

Acrostic – Mairi Neil

Healing words soothe
A heartfelt hug or sincere smile
Receptive, not racist
Multicultural vibrancy Australia’s style
Outsiders no more
Not only tolerance but acceptance
You are welcome – We are enriched

Seeking asylum is not a crime.