Mobilising rural Australia - Page 2
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 3: Webs of Power
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Ann Coombs
THE WORK THAT MANY RAR PEOPLE DO IS AN INSPIRATION. On a trip through NSW, Victoria and South Australia, I stayed with some of them. The first was Joc Stenson in Mudgee. Joc, a retired social worker, has been a tower of strength to some of the young Afghan refugees working at the Mudgee abattoir, helping them with their visa applications and English lessons. She has a big heart and a kind of cheerful weariness, as if there's not much the world can throw at her that she hasn't seen.
There are about a dozen Hazaras, all on temporary-protection visas, at the meatworks. This afternoon, two of them, Ari and Nassim (not their real names), came over to see Joc. Nassim's temporary visa expires soon and he desperately wants a permanent one. A permanent visa would allow his family to join him. Recently Nassim heard that his little son had died back in Afghanistan. He hadn't seen him for more than three years.
Nassim's story is a familiar one. In his village the fundamentalist Taliban were on a rampage. There was no escaping the fatwah. The Hazara are Shia Muslims, which the Taliban do not consider Muslim at all. He had three choices: to become a fundamentalist, to leave Afghanistan or die. So he fled.
Three years later, nothing has really changed. "The people whose hands are covered in Hazara blood are still there. The fatwah is still in place," he says. He misses his family terribly – "family is the most precious thing" – but is still too afraid to return.
I met Ari at the first RAR national conference held in Mudgee last December. At 18 he is one of the youngest of the Hazaras, but because his English is the best he is constantly called upon to act as translator. It is terrible to think of the horror stories this teenager has had to hear and translate in his role as go-between. But Ari has seen horror in his own right: "I have buried more than 20 bodies with my own hands." Yet he always seems cheerful. He looks even younger than his 18 years.
Ari translates Nassim's story fluently. He has an easy flow of colloquialisms that he drops into the conversation with a grin. His favourite is "I'm going to shoot through now". He laughs every time he says it.
Joc is very thorough as she works through Nassim's story with him. She is methodical and respectful. The chances of his being granted a permanent visa are slim. The Government has made it virtually impossible for boat people who have arrived in the past few years to ever gain permanent residency. But if Afghanistan is deemed dangerous enough, the Government may grant him another three-year temporary visa. He may spend the rest of his life on temporary visas, unable ever to be re-united with is wife and surviving children – "Family is the most precious thing".
But he smiles at us and appears cheerful. Joc says the men almost never show their pain.
BERNADETTE WAUCHOPE IS THE POWERHOUSE BEHIND PORT PIRIE RAR. Port Pirie is one of the poorest towns in Australia but also one of the most generous. Committed people who don't have a lot themselves are spending precious time and money helping the detainees in Baxter detention centre. Every day people drive the 100 kilometres from Port Pirie to Baxter to visit the asylum seekers, offering friendship and practical support. When I was there the town was preparing to welcome two families on bridging visas. People on bridging visas get virtually no government support and are not allowed to work, so whoever sponsors them is taking on a big responsibility. Port Pirie and other RAR members are working up a support network to provide health care, housing and living allowances for newly released refugees.
A number of people in Port Pirie RAR, although by no means all, are part of the Catholic Church. When RAR first started making an impact, we heard that there was a rumour going around Federal Parliament that we were a Catholic front. Susan, who is a secular Jew, and I, an atheist, were highly amused by this. But it is true that quite a lot of RAR supporters are practising Christians. They put their Christianity into action.
I DON'T KNOW IF ELAINE SMITH IS RELIGIOUS OR NOT – I've never asked her – just as I've never asked any RAR supporters their political affiliations. Elaine, who lives on the north coast of NSW, has taken up the cause of the detainees on Nauru. Dozens of them write to her, ask for help. She is swamped by the need. They write with their medical ailments, seeking her advice because the advice available to them on Nauru is rudimentary. Elaine emails out for help to others in the RAR network. People rally, do what they can. But how much can they do? The detainees are still stuck on Nauru, unable even to receive visitors.
When twenty-one detainees were released recently and flown to Brisbane, Elaine and husband, Geoff, drove up to see them. It was the first time she was able to give "her boys" a hug. These were boys and young men who had arrived on the Tampa. The ones who were "never to be allowed on our shores", the ones who were sent to Nauru, supposedly for just a couple of months. Two years later, after much pressure from refugee supporters, church organisations and Democrat leader Andrew Bartlett, they were released. But they were given only temporary visas – they are still in limbo.