Refugee Week in June last year became a pebble in the pond experience for Lou Walsh, a primary school teacher from Maleny. Lou took her family of five to Brisbane to meet refugees face to face … to hear them tell their own stories, of struggle and heart ache before finding a place of safety for themselves and their children.
What followed for Lou has enlarged her understanding and compassion for refugee families who she discovered are so like her own.
Lou takes up the story…
WHAT REALLY made an impression on me about the plight of refugees was watching the SBS special documentary series, Go Back To Where You Came, and then taking part in the Brisbane, World Refugee Day march in June last year with my whole family.
These two things sparked a desire to make a difference. I had already organised Harmony Day through the school to contribute funds to the Sunshine Coast BUDDIES refugee support group, but I wanted to go further.
The Scattered People is a music-based initiative which arose out of the Asylum Seeker Centre in West End in the
late 90s. Refugees, asylum seekers and kindred-spirited locals used music to express their struggles and their hopes to create solidarity amongst themselves and with many others who had ‘ears to hear’.
Currently they enter the Pinkenba Detention Centre each week taking their guitars to create a safe space where our humanity can mingle with theirs, where traumas can be softened, where confidences can build and where friendships can be nurtured.
I have become a volunteer with this group and have met families from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan as well as Tamils (the oppressed minority) from Sri Lanka. They all have stories to tell. Some of their stories have become
poems which in turn have become songs revealing pain, loss and a great love of family which we could all relate to.
Late last year, all of the families then housed in Pinkenba were transferred into community detention.
We didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to the families whom we’d come to know and love – one week they were there, the next week they were gone. We were delighted of course that they were free of the wire fences, but we felt the loss of our new friends.
Word of mouth soon spread however – they tracked us down on the outside, wanting more of what we’d shared in Pinkenba. As most of the families had been ‘re-settled’ in Nundah, we negotiated with the Nundah Neighbourhood Centre for a time and a space to continue our weekly music rehearsals.
You can imagine the first Thursday afternoon when our ‘boat people’ friends came through the door – women without their veils and men with beaming smiles – free to come and go. It was a wonderful reunion and I drove home that day elated to have found my friends – our new extended family.
Life had improved for the asylum seekers obviously, but still their isolation was an issue. Their days are spent learning English and familiarising themselves with our Aussie culture in the land they hope to someday call their new home.
I wanted to offer something personal to some of these families by inviting them to my home in Maleny – to offer them an experience of normality. The invitation was enthusiastically accepted. As I drove them into our small town and later walked them through Mary Cairncross Park, and then continued on for a barbecue at Baroon Pocket Dam, they were overwhelmed by the beauty of our Sunshine Coast hinterland.
Being here seemed to re-engage their own hopes of a peaceful future while touching the bitter-sweet nerve of nostalgia – reminding them of picturesque Northern Iran and exotic places in Afghanistan. Their silence – gazing out over the mountains – seemed to say it all, and they were lost in their thoughts of families and home towns left behind.
One dad and mum from Afghanistan confided that it was the first time they had seen their children smile for two years. It was wonderful to hear this from my first new Muslim friends.
This family are now regular visitors to my home.
During the week, we communicate via Skype. Then there was an email from another couple: “when we think about you and your family, our homesickness becomes less and less and we know you are like our family.”
I felt overwhelmed by this message and reassured them in response that we felt the same way – having gained much from knowing them too. I know that if the situations were reversed, we could count on them.
It has now been a year for me as I contemplate the benefits of having organised Harmony Day – I feel as if I’ve been enlightened and invited into a world I knew very little about. My family have been very much a part of this journey with me. We’ve shared different foods and introduced our new friends to important Aussie concepts like, “she’ll be right mate” and “no worries”. Our sense of humour is surprisingly aligned with that of these people.
Some of my neighbours here in Maleny have also opened their homes, their hearts and extended their hands in friendship. A doctor friend from up the road goes out of her way to be of assistance, and other friends have made themselves available to teach conversational English.
For ourselves, our friends and a growing legion of volunteers, there is a growing desire to be part of something positive which showcases to our new refugee friends the true Aussie spirit. Let’s hope it is something that becomes contagious.