More to the Story, Conversations with refugees is, like similar books I’ve reviewed on this blog, a good-hearted book. It is written with good intentions: it’s a more than a gesture, it’s emblematic of a grassroots movement to change things because it’s written in hope that it can change the minds of people who are hostile to refugees. Its ambitious aim is to generate attitudinal change so that our political parties move away from their present punitive policies. That means shifting the attitudes of electors in the heartlands of current policy, in Western Sydney. It is a matter of ethics….
At a time like this when every day seems to reveal a despicable new violation of the most basic of human rights, it is heartening that there are writers like Rosemary Sayer and Chris Nguyen, and publishers such as Margaret River Press and Rag & Bone Man Press, who undertake projects like these not only because the stories are compelling and should be told, but because they care about the ethical health of our country and the plight of people who have simply found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, as any of us could.
The title is purposeful: the book offers ‘more to the story’ than we see in the media. The refugee issue has become so vexed in Australia that labels and stereotypes have become the norm, so much so that even the language used has become debased. Sayer tackles this right at the start with three pages under the heading Names Matter: Definitions and Terms. Here we see the UNHCR definitions of asylum seeker, statelessness, and an explanation of the difference between refugees and IDPs – Internally Displaced Persons who are trapped inside their own countries, theoretically under the protection of their own government even if it’s that government that is persecuting them. There are clarifications of the terms economic migrant and the spurious term ‘economic refugee’. This section makes it clear that they’re not terms that are hard to understand. What goes on in the media and our parliament is wilful misuse of these terms to back up disinformation, stereotyping, and blaming.
Having dealt with the language that muddies the water here in Australia, Sayer then goes on to tell the individual stories of her subjects. Each one of them, then, becomes a person instead of a statistic or a representative of a ‘problem’.
Sayer’s commentary keeps bringing the stories back to Australian attitudes. When she writes about the dangers faced by a Karen woman in Burma, she prompts readers to imagine themselves in a similar situation because she says she can’t imagine this herself, because she’s always been safe, well fed, able to access hospitals and so on. This honesty about her own limitations gives the book a powerful authenticity.
The book traces Sayer’s journey of learning: the refugees she speaks to usually begin the conversation with a survey of their country’s history and geography because like most Australians, Sayer didn’t know much about the Karen refugees from Burma; the Hazara people from Afghanistan or those coming from the civil war in South Sudan. She makes a life-changing trip to a refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border; she garners statistics about the reality of the numbers of people in camps and how some of them spend a lifetime waiting there; and she discovers some of the bureaucratic hurdles that have to be faced even when a person is granted refugee status. But she personalises these facts with individual vignettes: of people baffled by choice in a supermarket, of the joy of finding a missing wife, of the terror experienced when trapped by violence:
‘It was terrible. We were locked in our homes for three days and frightened to go out. In Afghanistan, every home usually has enough of the basics to last at least a month. With a 50kg bag of rice, 50 kilos of flour and your oil that comes in a big 16 litre container, you can cook anything. With these three things, and what vegetables you have in the pantry you can make almost everything you need so we were ok for food for a while.’
With the four of us drinking coffee, and looking out on a peaceful suburban street, it was hard to imagine Farid and Fatima locked inside their home in darkness, with all their windows and curtains closed and the doors barricaded. That this could have happened to our friends seemed obscene, but it was nothing compared to what was to come. (p.171-2)
It is the juxtaposition of horror with the placid lives so many Australians enjoy that makes this book different to other well-meaning books in this genre. Sayer doesn’t moralise, she personalises:
After that first meeting with Akec and her family, I had pondered about the meaning of home as I drove away from the restaurant and down the freeway, towards the lights of the city. It is a simple word, but one with complex definitions and meanings. For most, it starts out as a place where you are born and grow up and where you hold family gatherings and celebrations; love, laugh, eat and sleep, feeling comfortable and secure. It is a place from where you go to school, play, study and maybe even plan your future. I remember my childhood home from the 1960s in Hobart, Tasmania, in a simple weatherboard house where Mum, Dad, my five brothers and I squeezed into three bedrooms. It wasn’t just the physical structure that made our house a home; it was the emotional security that it provided.
The commentator, traveller and writer Pico Iyer says that home can be many places:
Whole lives will now be spent taking pieces of many different places and putting them together into a stained glass whole. Home is really a work in progress. It’s like a project on which they’re constantly adding upgrades, improvements and corrections.
But what if you don’t get to choose your home and where you go? What if some of the key concepts of home – safety, security, family, traditions and love – are torn apart and your home is destroyed or taken away, or you are forced to flee from it in fear for your life? Then, as many of the refugees I have interviewed have told me, ‘you home is whatever you can carry around inside you to begin again.’ (p.123-4)
I’d like to think that this book might become widely read. If you’re still with me at the end of this, spread the word….
Author: Rosemary Sayer
Title: More to the Story, Conversations with refugees
Publisher: Margaret River Press, 2015
Review copy courtesy of Margaret River Press.