The Ration Challenge

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In Refugee Awareness Week (18-25 June), the Act for Peace Ration Challenge sees over 10,000 Australians come together to take rations that Syrian refugees in Jordan take, while actively raising awareness and funds to support the work of Act for Peace in the refugee crisis. This includes the provision of medical facilities, education support and food rations. The challenge organiser (Act for Peace) provides the rations that we eat – no meat, no coffee, no alcohol. This is not just about the dietary cravings dismissed or the privilege of choice forgone, it is an act of solidarity and a step forth towards peace. This piece is a pre-challenge reflection of my intentions of being a ‘ration challenger’. 

Compassion: We Are Family

Martin Luther King Jr once said, “We must learn to live together as brothers and sisters, or we will perish together as fools.” History has shown us over and over, how our trivial differences can distract us from our fundamental similarities – the wars fought, conflicts arisen; then, the countless apologies made and stories retold. The blemishes in the chapters of our past, each affirming that our differences in skin colour, languages spoken or geographic locality are but trivial differences. Fundamentally, we were created the same. The same human body, same human brain, same human heart; the same human frailties and vulnerabilities.

In the end, we are all members of the big human family and each of us, brothers and sisters. Arriving in Sydney as an international student, I have found home and love from individuals who were strangers less than 4 months ago. The depth of our relationships testament to our underlying humanity that connects us regardless of where we’ve grown up and the accent that coats our tongue.

Then, the refugee crisis is not a problem of ‘theirs’ or ‘ours’. There is no blame game or pointing fingers; it is collectively, a reality of the human family of which we are all a part.

Love: The Covenant

Growing up, as I learnt about more and more of the evil and suffering in this world, I found myself wanting so often to cower in the corner of ignorance. Like a child afraid of the dark covering her eyes with her hands, I preferred the view through the veil of oblivion – the thought of confronting these unsettling crises made me shrivel from helplessness. ‘Unnecessary,’ I thought. Time and again though, blessed with the courage lent by inspiring individuals each fighting important battles, I learned that the veil of oblivion might have protected me from the helplessness of confronting suffering, but it also shielded off the deep sense of hope that we need to feel to be truly, truly alive.

It is in darkness, that we find light; we can’t have one without the other. If you are, like I was, struggling with the fear of confronting evil and suffering in this world, I promise you that in the instant you lift the veil and delve in the darkness, you will simultaneously find light. There is a light that exists in each one of us, in every person – a God-given capacity to love. Without being taught or directed, we have an innate ability to care for a fellow human being, to cringe on the inside when we see a frail old man struggling to cross the road or to experience pain when we see someone else hurt. We were each made with that light in us, a light that calls us to love.

Gratitude: We Are Entitled To Nothing

This time last year, I stumbled into a Refugee Awareness Week event in Singapore where I was first introduced to the reality that the poorest nations in the world were paradoxically, the ones resettling the most refugees. It is as if the more we have, the more we earn, the less willing we are to give and share.  The more we possess materially, the less we embody as human beings. Sure, we are a product of the society that believes our nature is red in tooth and claw harnessing our defensive inclinations. We are holding onto our privilege, clinging on to save ourselves but from what? What are we trying so hard to protect by closing our eyes, hardening our hearts?

As we live our lives of impermanence, it is tempting to accumulate material treasures given the illusion of perfection – have that perfect job, perfect suit and tie, perfect family and somehow, maybe, then, that perfect life. We ask little meaningful questions about the beginning and the end, as if we have no concept of our finite time of existence. We never ask, “How did I come to be this privileged person in this safe country and not a refugee running away from home?” or “What is it that amounts to something in my final breath? What lasts?”

Three things will last forever – faith, hope and love – and the greatest of these is love. [1 Corinthians 13:13, NLT] Perhaps, we could maintain our privileged positions in oblivion and come up with defensive reasons not to give, we could come up with an endless list of things we need to protect; but without love, we are nothing.

Step out of oblivion with me today. A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, I dedicate this to the Empathy Taskforce that taught me the courage to be ever ready to make someone else’s reality my own in recognition that we are family; and to the God I’ve recently found who challenges me over and over to be a better person for His glory.

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If Home Was Safe

Joie de Vivre is the name of the University of Sydney’s Cumberland campus food court, and French for “a cheerful enjoyment in life”. Mornings here are characterised by the radio in the background accompanied by familiar sounds from the coffee machine; there are morning-goers interspersed across the separate varnished wooden tables, on grey chairs. Most of us, MacBook users and coffee drinkers. The whiff of caffeine blankets us and the sunshine streams in as if to greet us. Joie de vivre, absolument. What comfort we each immerse in, with no worry about tomorrow – no need to ask ourselves ‘will I live to tomorrow if I stay here’, ‘must I run away to keep my family safe’ and ‘if I run, where else could be home’, ‘if I plead to strangers for love and mercy, will I receive’.

This piece is about those who ask these daily questions at every waking moment, those who must answer these questions for themselves and for their families. For those whose struggle daily is about survival: not the sort of ‘survival’ we worry about concerning our professions or grades or climbing the ladder of ‘perfection’, but the sort of ‘survival’ concerning wading of oceans to avoid deadness.

There are 60 million displaced people in the world in the minute. There are myths surrounding these statistics that we, in a privileged position of safety and security, have the responsibility to unpack truth about. Only then, can we make informed decisions that have tantamount impact on vulnerable human lives. Allow me to take apart just one that I’ve commonly uncovered in my conversations:

At least seven migrants drowned after the heavily overcrowded boat they were sailing on overturned on May 25 CREDIT- AFP

At least seven migrants drowned after the heavily overcrowded boat they were sailing on overturned on May 25 CREDIT- AFP

MYTH | “If we stop the boats (of refugees) from entering the country, we dissuade people from getting on boats in the first place and risking their lives. We keep them safe.”

What is true – Refugees do die at sea.

The journeys are treacherous and the conditions on these boats have poor hygiene and sanitation; there have been reports of violence on board these boats (including sexual violence) especially for boats that drift at sea for long durations of time. In the first half of last year alone, at least 2,500 refugees died trying to cross the Mediterranean to get to Europe.

When we consider this option in isolation, it does seem dangerous and one cannot fathom why such an absurd decision is made. The myth itself is premised on the assumption that the decision to leave one’s home and get on a boat with one’s family is a “choice”. The reality is that for any refugee, one has to consider his/her situation in whole and compare the options relative to one another – the country mired in conflict and physical threats to survival or the waters toward other possibilities.

What is not true – Our policies that turn boats around back to where they came does not stop the boats. Quite the contrary, stopping the boats does not keep the refugees any safer and instead, places them in a position of greater vulnerability to danger.

When boats are turned around, they are chased back to sea, where they are vulnerable to extreme weather conditions, piracy, kidnapping and violence. The ‘deterrence approach’ has abandoned refugees to their fate. When the refugees literally run away in desperation, reach their hands out to us for help and beg on their knees for mercy, we say, “No. Stay where you are.” Refugees being turned away from Australia end up in Southeast Asian countries and the numbers of asylum seekers in the poorest countries in the region are increasing dramatically.

As ongoing conflicts systematically destroy the homes of many, imagine the desperation and despair that accompanies the radical decision to leave behind all of home and get on a boat that never turns back. Photographer Brian Sokol and poet Jenifer Toksvig’s work brings the first-hand testimonies of refugees all over the world – in the eventual poem ‘What They Took With Them’, items that refugees mentioned were “national flag” and “house keys”. Who doesn’t want to stay home?

Who doesn’t want to stay home if home was safe.

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A young girl crowds with other asylum seekers under a tarp while making the three-day boat journey from Indonesia to Australia in 2013. Soon after this photo was taken, the Australian Navy took the passengers to Christmas Island and eventually on to Papua New Guinea and Nauru. © Joel van Houdt / Hollandse Hoogte

Here’s my call to action. The first Indigenous Australians arrived on boats; then, in 1788, colonial masters from Britain arrived in boats. Today, ‘the boat people’ is part of everyday language to refer to refugees seeking asylum in other countries after fleeing their own. The tragedy of 59.5 million refugees in the world together struggling in-between, paying the human cost for our apathy and self-interest is a reality we can’t ignore – it is the ongoing act that will become history. There is always something you can do; start where you are and do what you can.

I am on a month-long journey to lend my voice to those who go unheard, forgotten. In the lead-up to Refugee Awareness Week (18-25 June 2017), I will be raising funds for the refugee support efforts in Jordan. Syria refugees will be provided with education, medical services and ration packs amongst other necessities with funds raised at bit.ly/sherms4refugees. For those who, too, deserve joie de vivre.

RC17 Cover photos FB 7

What Is Sorry For

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The Aboriginal flag painted on a brick wall.
©bigstockphoto.com/ budastock

National Sorry Day in Australia brings people together in unity towards the healing of the Stolen Generations, their families and communities. From 1788, British colonial powers arrived by boat to the shores of Australia in search for land and resources – this was the beginning of a nightmare for Indigenous Australians as countless were forcibly removed from their families and communities. Numerous massacres were committed in this time; the unimaginable atrocities became a blemished chapter in the history of the world’s longest-standing traditional cultures. The trauma, injustices and grief persist today in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who experience inequality in economic, social and health spheres amongst others.

The first National Sorry Day was in 1998; the first public and formal apology made belatedly. Everything that follows (the reports written, research done, compromises made) are attempts at turning ‘sorry’ into action and transforming reconciliation from just lip-service. As a history student since high school, I have always been appalled at the wrong-doings that we can commit against each other as human brothers and sisters over and over, as if we never learn. Time and again, we let the distracting veils of self-interest make paper-thin excuses for cruel acts against one another – we let the politics have full reign, let the media deceive. Our democracies are lies we tell ourselves, for our votes choose us (not the other way round).

We are on a broken treadmill that never stops, running away from shame and guilt. We play broken recorders that repeat ‘sorry’s in different languages. Calluses grow on our palms as we try relentlessly, to wash away stains of our past. We try to forget – there are countries that choose amnesia by erasing the stories, literally, from textbooks; we try to repent – there are others that build endless memorials for those who once lived. Patience will run out, and so will space. The most important lesson of history is to reflect on our present and consider the ongoing acts that will soon become history.  

Today, suffering of all sorts permeate society even on an individual level. A beautiful paragraph encapsulates it,

“Today we have higher buildings and wider highways but shorter temperaments and narrower points of view. We spend more but enjoy less. We have bigger houses but smaller families. We have more compromises but less time. More knowledge, but less judgment. We have more medicines, but less health. We have multiplied our possessions but reduced our values. We talk much, love only a little and hate too much. These are the times with more liberty but less joy; more food but less nutrition. These are the days in which two salaries come home but divorces increase. We have finer houses, but broken homes.”

This is the paradox of our time. All over, humankind is facing brokenness in more ways than one. On a day dedicated to reflection of the world we live in from history to today, this is my invitation to step out of the ‘state of transparency’, where human suffering remains transparent and where crises remain ignored just because we think they do not directly affect us. For the ‘state of transparency’ to even have been a choice is a privilege that we earned no entitlement to and in this state, we fall prey to apathy, to live lives of ignorance and to run on treadmills we can never step off.

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Asylum seekers signal for help while making their way across the Indian Ocean towards Australia in 2013. © Joel van Houdt / Hollandse Hoogte

Here’s my call to action. The first Indigenous Australians arrived on boats; then, in 1788, colonial masters from Britain arrived in boats. Today, ‘the boat people’ is part of everyday language to refer to refugees seeking asylum in other countries after fleeing their own. The tragedy of 59.5 million refugees in the world together struggling in-between, paying the human cost for our apathy and self-interest is a reality we can’t ignore – it is the ongoing act that will become history. There is always something you can do; start where you are and do what you can.

From today, I will be embarking on a month-long journey to lend my voice to those who go unheard, forgotten. In the lead-up to Refugee Awareness Week (18-25 June 2017), I will be raising funds for the refugee support efforts in Jordan. Syria refugees will be provided with education, medical services and ration packs amongst other necessities with funds raised at bit.ly/sherms4refugees.

Hopefully, then as we each make our little efforts count, National Sorry Day wouldn’t just be a ritual where we strive towards saying “enough” ‘sorry’s. Can any number of apologies ever be enough for the lives that stop living the day the boats arrived?

I welcome thoughts, ideas and emotions at shng4630@uni.sydney.edu.au