Issue 31: West
I think of myself as a community worker and advocate before I think of myself as an artist. Art flowed from what I had seen and heard, because with art you can take risks and reject censorship; I came to art making as the only possible means to communicate. For the last four years I have been immersed in asylum seeker policy and politics, in a job where I have worked on a daily basis with people who arrived—by boat or by plane—to seek asylum in Australia.
Everyone who works in this field experiences a degree of vicarious trauma, and most of us want to change the system, but we are all bound by the policies of the organisations that we work for, and also The Australian Border Force Act. Speaking out, or even just talking about the facts, can have some very serious personal and professional consequences. It wasn’t possible for me to maintain this silence; I needed to do something to change public opinion, or at the very least find a way to communicate what I knew with the broader community. Asylum seekers themselves can’t really ‘do media’, to do so might put their application for protection in jeopardy. Besides, most are sensible enough to know that publicly criticising a government that they rely upon for safety will be detrimental to their own wellbeing.
In 2013 I started to make documentary style artworks based upon my experience working with asylum seekers. I worked across different forms, always looking for different modes that would communicate the stories that I was hearing on a daily basis. The first work was a film, Dawle Aks 2013, about the humiliation asylum seekers endure when they are released from detention: grown men are made to carry all of their worldly possessions in matching hello kitty bags while they are marched through the airport by SERCO. It seemed to me such a deliberate spectacle that could have been avoided. My second work was a verbatim theatre piece, which described from five different perspectives the absolute terror of getting on a boat to come to Australia, and the difficulties adjusting upon arrival.[i] If You Come To Australia was written in collaboration with the five asylum seekers, and performed by asylum seeker advocates. It premiered the Sydney Fringe Festival to a sell-out audience in September 2015.
For SafARI2016, I wanted to do something more personal, so I developed Letters. For this project I collected 200 letters written by hand or by email from 200 asylum seekers, some in the community and some in detention. The letters were then offered to people attending SafARI. The aim behind this project was to connect people seeking asylum with ordinary Australians more intimately; film and theatre are passive modes, whereas letter writing requires a direct engagement.
I am often asked by people who have seen the work and read some of the letters as to how I connect with and form relationships with people seeking asylum, because this seems to me to be the missing link. Unlike Europe, we have very few asylum seekers living amongst us in the community and it is not possible to strike up a friendship organically, especially if you live in affluent, inner city communities.
In a way, Letters was the most complicated and ambitious project I have conceived to date because of the volume of participants. Getting up any artwork involving 200 participants is a lot of work, so I am not really sure what I was thinking trying to do something to this scale with people who are, if not in detention, then largely living at the margins of our community.
I already knew a few dozen refugees with whom I had worked to establish trust in making previous works, but this project demanded that I go well beyond my established network. Reaching out to friends and friends of friends, I found people through Facebook messenger and Whatsapp. I then made plans to visit people in their homes to assist them to compose the letters. Remarkably, after some introduction to myself and to the work, most of the people I contacted online trusted me enough to invite me into their homes. With that, I embarked on a twice-weekly excursion into different parts of Sydney’s west to meet with asylum seekers.
I should disclose that I live in the eastern suburbs, Rose Bay, to be specific. Because I live in a fancy postcode and enjoy all of the privilege that goes with it, a fair bit of effort went into collecting these documents. I would catch a bus, at least two trains and possibly another bus to get to wherever I was going; suburbs like Bonnyrigg and Smithfield are not easy to get to from Rose Bay. The journeys sometimes took more than two hours, and sometimes to collect only one or two letters, depending upon how many people I was meeting in an evening. Where possible, I wanted to collect the letters in person, the people I was working usually had limited exposure to the arts in Sydney, and wanted to know who they were writing to, what they were writing for, and what should they write? I needed to meet everyone individually to explain the context and purpose, and get their consent to be a part of the work. Overwhelmingly, the offer to participate was taken up with enthusiasm.
There were the formalities. Of course the people I was working with wanted to know who I was and more about why I wanted them to write a letter. They wanted to know what to write, and to whom they were really writing, and about SafARI. I didn’t have access to an interpreter and many of the participants spoke little English. This took time on each visit. I met a very articulate man on one visit to Merrylands who was unable to put pen to paper while I was in his house. He told me that he would think about it and send me an email instead. A few days later I received the email and it was over 3000 words long. He had written down his whole story, which included childhood anecdotes about his mother putting cotton wool into his ears at night so he wouldn’t wake up from the sound of bombs exploding.
The ritual of food was observed in almost every household that I went to. Upon arrival I would smell something simmering away in the kitchen and we could never get to work until I had first eaten at least two platefuls of a rich curry or four kebab skewers. In some houses the food was incredible, in others I could barely choke it down. This no different to visiting anyone for dinner, some of us can cook, others cannot, but we all try when hosting a guest, and a good guest will always eat their dinner. I had an excellent Palestinian feast in Punchbowl, stuffed eggplant rounded off with Coca-Cola. After dinner, I worked with the two high school-aged daughters of that family who wrote of their respective plans to be a graphic illustrator and an engineer. Both young women wrote that they hoped that the government policy would change and that they would be eligible to attend university when they finished their HSC.
After food I was often invited to share shisha, or to smoke a few full-strength, unfiltered cigarettes that had been recently imported from Iraq.
Then tea, or coffee made of more powerful stuff than I would ever normally dare to drink. Auburn has many asylum seekers from Afghanistan. After a meal they share a drink made of fermented milk called doogh, which is supposed to aid digestion. I have been offered this drink many times and sadly it always makes me retch.
The homes were usually sparsely furnished, but very crowded. We would sit around the floor in the lounge room to write our letters and I often glimpsed bedrooms that had no furniture but 3 single mattresses on the floor, which the housemates shared.
The people I visited would often apologise for the state of their homes, explaining that they wanted a nicer house, or nicer furniture, or for it to be cleaner, but that they sent most of their money home to their families.
Most of the houses accommodated groups of men, whether Iraqi, Iranian, Afghan or Tamil. Sometimes up to 12 in a single house, if the men had wives or children, they were still back in their home countries.
My visit was always something particularly exotic, not only was I an ‘Aussie’, I was also a woman. I did feel a certain degree of risk to myself in undertaking this project. I have no interest in perpetuating the myth that migrant or refugee men are especially prone to violence, sexual or otherwise, they are not. Regardless, I was putting myself in a vulnerable situation by visiting houses full of strangers night after night, usually without really telling anyone where I was going or how long I would be. Realistically, this is a stupid thing for any woman to do by herself. Walking back to the train station late at night after my visits to these far flung suburbs also felt unsafe.
Despite the risks, I decided that the project was worth it and came away totally unharmed, as the rational and fearless side of me knew that I would all along. I make this point because there is risk involved in forming these relationships on both sides. Asylum seekers have many reasons to mistrust people in our community, without doubt. Australia has been unkind to them. But in my experience, if you go to the trouble to make a connection in good faith, overwhelmingly refugees will trust and invite you into their lives.
Returning to my reluctance portray myself as an artist, really I am not. The work I have been making has just been the documentation of the lived experience of others within our society. The reward for me is seeing people respond to the letters, finding that that people really do want to hear the stories of asylum seekers, it is just that they are so hard to get to and intangible. I understand this, and it become my fascination and obsession.
My advice to those who are interested in connecting with refugees, is simply to do it, find a way, you will be welcomed. I have been so fortunate to have met and worked with many extraordinary people. All it takes is patience, time, Whatsapp, a bus, two trains and another bus. I advise you arrive with an empty stomach.
I would like to shout out to Powerhouse Youth Theatre, Urban Theatre Projects, Bankstown Youth Development Services and Settlement Services International. These organisations have supported me in making my work and are themselves working every day to share the stories of asylum seekers who are living in Western Sydney. Also thanks to the curatorial team at SafARI2016, who supported Letters.
[i] Roslyn Helper, ‘Hear first-hand the stories of five asylum seekers who have made a new life in Western Sydney’ in Concrete Playground, 1st September 2015.
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