Let's Quit Being the World Leaders in Refugee Mistreatment

Who wants to see change in the way Australia discusses, processes, and treats asylum seekers?

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30 July 2018, 3:38am

Illustration by Ashley Goodall

This article is supported by World Vision’s 40 Hour Famine Backpack Challenge, where you live out of a backpack for 40 hours and go through a series of challenges which represent hardships a refugee may experience after being forced to flee their home. In this series, we look at radical approaches to solving the world refugee crisis.

It’s time to tell the real story about refugees in Australia: the story of embrace, community welcome, and strength in diversity. For too long, refugees have been dehumanised and demonised. We’ve had our stories told on our behalf and our reasons for fleeing questioned, disbelieved, and presumed.

I arrived to Australia when I was 11 years old. I didn’t speak a word of English and everything felt new and different. I had just fled the invasion of Iraq in 2003 with my mother and sisters; we were refugees in our country and later became refugees in Jordan. My family was lucky that Australia’s family reunion policies were much more humane than they are today. We were almost instantly welcomed into our Australian neighbourhood and were able to rebuild our lives in safety. I am now a lawyer, an advocate, and writer; I love brunches, cats, and I’m a kickboxer. But I could have been none of those things if I was not offered the safety and welcome that I received 15 years ago.

The public discourse towards refugees has shifted significantly and not in a positive way sadly. Our media and public figures are failing to see the humans behind the headlines and the stories behind the numbers. But it wasn’t always like this, and my very existence as an Iraqi-Australian is a testament to this. Had it not been for our leaders allowing for people who seek asylum to reunite with their families, I wouldn’t be here today. Had it not been for the community and neighbourhood that I was welcomed into, I would not be the fearless and resilient woman that I am today.

I have worked with refugee communities throughout my career: whether it be in settlements services, advocacy for refugee rights, or legal assistance. I have witnessed the extent to which policy and media attitudes towards refugees has depreciated. As a legal professional and a refugee rights campaigner, I struggled to defend people who had stories similar to mine, simply because they arrived to Australia about nine years after I did. I couldn’t help parents reunite with their children because our political and judicial leaders stood in the way.

It seemed as though there was some sort of shift, where the general population no longer empathised with refugees. The decline of refugee rights was not met with the public outcry that I had hoped for and that made me question my identity as both a refugee and as an Australian.

When I’ve been at international advocacy events, I’ve been reluctant to say that I’m Australian and a refugee simultaneously. For a long time, I was in a mental battle trying to reconcile between the Australia that the 11 year old Fadak was first introduced to and the Australia I was witnessing at the present. By then I had reluctantly realised that the community of welcome that I received on arrival to Australia no longer existed as it once did.

Despite that, I couldn’t bring myself to believe that this was true—that the Australia I had first been introduced to had changed so dramatically. Or that our current border policies and media discourse were in fact reflective of our community values. In an effort to convince our leaders to adopt more humane policies and to bring to the fore positive stories of refugees and the communities that host them, I made an effort to seek out people like those who once welcomed my family and me. I made a bold and courageous yet risky decision to put myself out there in telling Australia, and the world, my story of displacement, finding safety in Australia, and the surrounding welcome of refugees.

During my attempt to travel all over Australia through the Meet Fadak project, I’ve so far met people who relate closely to my story: people who were recent refugees or migrants to Australia, people who fled the conflict in Vietnam, and people whom themselves or their parents fled the Holocaust. I have met people who are inspired by my story, some who travelled across Australia to hear it, and view it as a beacon of hope in dark times.

Most importantly, I’ve met many people all over Australia who no longer want to hear from politicians, campaigners or lawyers but who want to see, meet, and live with the people to whom we are offering safety and protection. These people know that treating refugees with compassion and dignity is an issue of how we as a community choose to display our humanity and unity to the rest of the world. That as global citizens, we have a responsibility—moral and legal—to display courage and action when it comes to refugee rights worldwide. These are the people who offered my family and I the welcome and the embrace at a time when we most needed it.

Witnessing neighbourhoods all over the country embracing people seeking safety despite the media and political rhetoric made me realise that it’s time to shift the narrative to that story. Away from the politics and the division, we must unite in our efforts to uphold refugee rights, because the majority of us know that everyone deserves safety and respect. We must pressure and encourage our leaders for more bold and compassionate solutions for refugees.

Most importantly though, it’s time to see people who have come here to seek safety for what they really are: a group critical to Australia’s cultural and societal make up. Your teacher, doctor, taxi driver, friend, lawyer, neighbour, restaurant owner or the guy who delivers your pizza could be a refugee. That is something our community has always valued and is something that we need to unite to protect. Now, more than ever, we have to lead the way in standing with refugees to say "we’re with you".

This article is supported by World Vision’s 40 Hour Famine Backpack Challenge. You can participate now by signing up here.