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.

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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

 

Celebrate 2016

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Culture Espresso sits at the junction of 38th Street and 6th Avenue in Manhattan, New York City. Seated at a high stool before a marble table facing the full-length glass panels that surround this café, I’d like to think I’ve found the New York equivalent to the Delfi Orchard Starbucks where I have incredible memories I hold dear – the pace of footsteps has significantly decreased at this junction, population density even more so. The fireplace exits of the residential bricked-buildings create uncanny symmetry across the street and most of the remaining stores remain closed. This is the street that awakens naturally; as opposed to the ever-awake Broadway Avenue where lights and sounds are no less than a sensory overload. This is the morning of the last day of 2016 for me, there is a playful sense of victory as if I’ve ‘bought an extra day’ by spending countdown in America. That aside, this piece is in reflection and celebration of the year that has come and gone.

I guess you can say this was my gap year. If you’ve heard this story before, please skip this paragraph completely and go to the compartmentalized lessons I have attempted to draw from the countless, precious experiences and people from the year. Awaiting to read Occupational Therapy in the University Sydney, I only commence studies in March 2017 (departing for Australia in February). A vastly different new normal from the one I have imagined while I was studying for ‘A’ Levels, I never expected to take anything more than an 8-month break nor leave this country that I feel deeply connected with. In my family, we don’t call this a gap year, the word is almost taboo – it comes with connotation of too much uncertainty, even a ‘waste of time’. There is a slippery slope projection into the future that comes with the idea of a gap year that ends with my retirement alone and failing in my career. Of course, I respond to the ridiculous ‘timeline of life’ that we too often subject ourselves to with more laughter than pressure. (For now, at least.)

There is immense importance in the stories we tell ourselves: they reflect certain principles and beliefs we hold dear and sometimes act as reinforcements to our character; other times they can mislead us or contribute to a narrow-minded conviction that it’s ‘our way or the highway’. The only antidote is non-stop learning. My WordPress pieces have often attempted to achieve that balance in separate pieces, but for my series of ‘Celebrate (insert year)’ pieces (see Celebrate 2013Celebrate 2014 and Celebrate 2015), they have more often been about the former.

Uncertainty and Learning

slide01slide02slide03The ‘A’ Levels, in theory, is a series of exams that lasts no more than a month and a half. It is widely accepted that the implications are felt even before the month of exams commences – they say ‘It is not about the outcome, it’s the process.’ Now though, I can vouch for the anxiety that persists even after the series of examinations. Like a knot in our hearts, the tendency to place the worth of the years of hard work in a single result transcript is tempting; the social construct has it so. The first important lesson from the beginning of the year, then, was to forgive ourselves and unlearn what we have learnt about self-worth growing up in education characterized by paper chase and portfolio-driven assessments.

More than ever, I miss dearly the structured environment for learning that I have been blessed with. The unchartered terrains of internships in Raffles Hospital then in Early Childhood Development Authority have been space for self-discovery and continued learning, a legacy left behind by being in the Raffles Programme for 6 years. Persisting from July, is the space of Healthcare Scholarship and a Giving Week Stint raising funds for the Room to Read Global Organisation at the end of this year was very much dedicated to the appreciation for quality education that was an immense privilege. As I exit through the Rafflesian gates, I find myself in spaces where learning opportunities are abundant but must be actively sought after. I continue to craft the questions and revisit them out of habit but answers are no longer found in a single conversation with an inspired educator and knowledge-hungry peers, they are found in the processing of numerous sources and days of research. A newfound appreciation for the community of learning and excellence has found me visiting my alma mater and Junior College countless times across the year, each time rejuvenated by the unconditional love and desire to inspire of the teaching and non-teaching staff.

In face of the uncertainty post-Junior College that people don’t talk about enough, there has been necessary reading and reflection on solitude and being my own person, an idea not unfamiliar but necessitated only in this year.

Gratitude and Giving Back

slide10slide11In Junior College, I was always reminded that grades matter, but who you are matters more. The privilege of crossing paths with Halogen Foundation Singapore and Youth Corps Singapore was the constant source of this important reminder. Built on a foundation of educators and of family, who believed that I was worth a whole lot more than my achievements and that my achievements were simply reflections of more important values that I possessed, I owe my resilience today to these people. I used to negotiate for a gap year to devote time to not only the abovementioned learning, but also to the service I hoped to give back to these people and communities.

I am incredibly thankful for these spaces that have continued to embrace me in spite of my formal departure and regardless of my absence while I was a full-time student. The opportunities I’ve had to represent teams or causes larger than myself have continued to reaffirm my belief that nothing important gets done alone, and together, we can do great things.

In one of my favourite reads in the world, Daring Greatly by Brene Brown, I have learned of the ‘culture of scarcity’ that has plagued us. We never find anything or anyone enough, including ourselves. The time never enough to accomplish our tasks, the resources never enough to go around (so we ‘must compete’), the recognition never enough to feel worthy. In the past, shame was a two-person affair, at least. Today, we learn to do it all by ourselves – we convince ourselves we are not enough (not skinny enough, not smart enough, not capable enough). In a lifestyle of service, I have learned to be more empathetic, mindful and compassionate – these practices central to the person I want to be. This keeps me focused on personal development and being thankful. This is the antidote I have found for scarcity. Remember this: the opposite of ‘scarcity’ is not abundance (because abundance suggests excess); the opposite of ‘scarcity’ is enough.

Still learning from each volunteer I work with and still immersing with every partner in service, my perspective of the world is constantly recalibrated in a way that reminds me that we are all global citizens in a place so much larger (both physically and metaphorically) than ourselves. Only when we engage with the world around us from a place where we believe in enough, will we find joy.

Wholeheartedness

slide04slide05slide06slide07slide08slide09I mention in my earlier piece on Wholehearted Living about the concept’s principles. The idea, in a nutshell, has it that we find peace with the earlier mentioned culture of scarcity so that we can meaningfully engage with those around us. This has been a struggle that surfaced in this year relatively distant from the tight-knit communities I have found strength from. In having to actively reach out and be a part, there has been self-doubt and no short of self-assessment about the person that I am.

The challenge to living with wholeheartedness is that we often lack courage to be who we are bravely. It makes us vulnerable to a point of discomfort. In the month where I investigated the issue of suicide prevalence and the roots of depression, it was painful to find that we have created a society where so many cannot feel okay being the person that they are and even more so to have these thoughts of self-doubt find resonance within me. I am still practicing. On this road of self-compassion and mastering vulnerability, I owe thanks to the closest of friends who truly, truly love me not regardless of my flaws but because of them. It is because of the genuine company of people like you that I am slowly learning to believe that people, in general, are always trying their best (and so am I).

Daring Greatly

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If you’ve heard my quote the Man in the Arena Speech by Theodore Roosevelt before, you’re welcome to skip this paragraph. Here goes – it is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Ever since I’ve fallen in love with this quote so telling of true bravery, I have newfound courage to pursue feats, tread untrodden paths and take calculated risks. If I played word association with the phrase ‘Daring Greatly’, the outcome would be: Strong Mind Fit Body, Empathy Taskforce, Dreamcatcher and newspapers.

  • Born from a dream to bring neighbours together for functional fitness, Strong Mind Fit Body is today, a budding social enterprise that works extremely hard to create meaningful experiences to impart strength training awareness and promote inter-generational bonding. We believe that together, we can build a nation that is unafraid to age. With Champions and Fit Elves, like those who helped us pull off the biggest event of the year hitting at headcount of more than 200 at SMFB Christmas Special, we believe so more than ever. If you’d like in on our better tomorrow that we commit time and energy to work towards, please let us know at SMFBgeneral@gmail.com or apply to be a Champion (regular volunteer) at bit.ly/SMFBchampapply
  • Before Youth Corps Singapore’s first Empathy Taskforce was formed, we pulled off a Human Library surrounding the theme of service and giving. Today, we explore various issues of concern by curating programmes that bring life to the Red Box and inculcate empathy in our fellow peers and Youth Corps members. There are immense opportunities that lie ahead in what we can do. This year, peppered with uncertainty and surprises for us, I am thankful for how whenever I look at these teammates that I’ve only gotten to know for less than a year, I always always know that we can do it.
  • Dreamcatcher, a camp for a Primary 6 cohort on imagination, creativity and problem-finding/solving was an opportunity that I stumbled upon. Setting the record for one of the most enjoyable camps I’ve experienced (along with the Youth Corps Induction Camp), being Camp Captain was no less than a privilege. Reflecting upon this experience, I owe immense thanks to the 56 strangers-turned-friends who earned my trust from giving their best to create an experience that we can today, call our collective masterpiece. Thank you for reigniting hope for me in a time that was trying. They say house is a building and home is a feeling; the way we lead the camp shoulder-to-shoulder felt like home.
  • Finally, newspapers. I started a record of social and traditional features of my face, story or reflection pieces I have once written – when you have your opinions and thoughts rewritten that many times or quoted (sometimes out of context), you start to learn the diverse standpoints that each site has and these features are about anything but you. As an individual, I have found to represent something other than myself in these media features. Still undecided about some of these articles, I am certain of the gratitude I have towards those who have stood by me and kept me grounded to the person that I am amidst razzle dazzle. Thank you, also, for appreciating my WordPress pieces as I articulate my thoughts and self in pursuit of clarity and authenticity.

My cup of latte is three-quarter full and the latte art on the surface is long gone, whatever remains is bittersweet. The espresso stronger than the milk, the aftertaste of caffeine lingers. Here’s to a beautiful last day of 2016; where we aren’t closing a chapter, and the adventures are truly only just beginning. Happy New Year, may this (actually arbitrary) time for celebration and rejuvenation also be one of reflection for us all; where we ask important questions like What have I learned about myself and the world around me in this year? How does that change who I want to be in 2017? and How do I get there, what kind of choices can I make? It is a pity if we live in constant inconsistency with who we hope to be and what we hope to be doing, where we “claim to believe in something but constantly act otherwise” – let’s live in a mindful way so we can never say this about ourselves. Carpe diem.

Give and Take

In 2 weeks from publishing this piece, 35 friends and family came together to pool 1326SGD (approximately 930USD) to be contributed to the Room to Read Girls’ Education Program. This sum can support at least 3 girls in the next year.

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The International Day of Giving is celebrated on the Tuesday following Thanksgiving in the United States and widely recognized by shopping events like Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Also known as #GivingTuesday, the annual affair rides on the holiday sales to encourage individuals, organisations and communities to give generously to a cause of their belief. Every year, #GivingTuesday has served as an important reminder for me to be thankful for privilege and of noblesse oblige (that privilege entails responsibility). Then, compelled by my belief in the power of influence, I share the #GivingTuesday stint with those around me whom I care about dearly in hopes that a spark will start a fire. This piece is for Giving Tuesday 2016.

#GivingTuesday (2013-2015)

My first initiative began in 2013 at Year 4, bringing #TreatsOnGivingTuesday out on the streets – this involved handing out goodies to strangers on public transport or on the streets as I went about the day, in advocacy for kindness that (contrary to popular belief) takes little time out of our days to practice. 2 years of #TreatsOnGivingTuesday saw almost a hundred Kindness Advocates join me on board; amongst whom, closest of friends to acquaintances. We actively practiced kindness and in return, forged friendships and rediscovered hope.

Last year in 2015, Giving Tuesday was a time for reflection on my Watoto Journey – in conclusion of the 3 years for which I had been rallying classmates to give monthly contributions to Sponsor a Child with Watoto Organisation. A holistic care programme initiated as a response to the overwhelming number of orphaned children and vulnerable women in Uganda. The Watoto model involves medical care, trauma counselling, education and spiritual discipleship; pursuing the dream of rebuilding Uganda by investing in the next generation of children and women.

The #GivingTuesday 2016 Cause – Education

One year exactly since my exit from formal education to the ocean of uncertainty, I hope to dedicate this Giving Week to celebrating education. What has been the most critical investment, instrumental to the individual that I am today, is completely inaccessible to at least 50 million children in the world. The quality education made compulsory and then heavily subsidized for all Singaporeans at the primary school level is only the tip of our iceberg of privilege. Then, the sturdy desks, reflective whiteboards, stationery and stationery shops, food stalls in spacious canteens, well-trained teachers and driven peers; all icing on the cake. It astounds, if not frightens, me that today, more than 72 million children of primary education age are not in school. The generation that is to take over and bring forth entire communities (even countries) further into the 21st century, large proportions of whom, illiterate. Imagine that.

Yet, the dollars and cents are enough to go around and the statistics above can change, one individual at a time. This year, my #GivingTuesday is dedicated to Room to Read Global Organisation – a global charity that believes that World Change Starts with Educated Children. Investing in education from improving infrastructure, training professionals to the keeping-children-in-school part, the organization has had an incredible track record of accountability and transparency in the past decade. The Girls’ Education Program places girls in school throughout secondary school education and keeps them there for $300/year sponsoring school fees, uniforms, textbooks and personal allowances for food and transport.

On Giving

We are too often skeptical rather than curious about donating to global charities; too often acting in silo rather than as the global citizens that we truly are; more frequently comfortable with status quo than we are willing to seek out harsh realities. The price of our inaction and oblivion is paid by fellow human beings. The paradox lies in that our fortune does not find our nation necessarily happier nor more fulfilled; we make sense of our resources against the backdrop of scarcity rather than abundance and think of our fortunes as zero-sum (if we give so another can prosper, we irrationally believe we will suffer as a result).

A teacher who attempted to teach a class about privilege had the students sit in neat rows and columns (desks in exam style seating) and placed a waste paper bin at the front of the classroom. Each student, given a crushed paper ball, was told to throw it into the waste paper bin. The students at the front of the classroom had a significantly easier time accomplishing the given task. Those at the back of the classroom though, failed in spite of committing an incredible amount of effort into the given task. Trying over and over, some students began to express unhappiness towards the “unfair disadvantage” that the students at the front enjoyed. To which, the teacher replied, “you are in the same classroom, given the same task and instructions; if there are students who can accomplish then why can’t you?” Some students at the front of the classroom, who had accomplished it almost effortlessly nodded in agreement. Soon, at the back of the classroom, infuriation and dejection emerged.

The trouble with sitting at the front row and taking merit for the seating arrangement set by chance is that we forget to turn our heads around and listen closely to those who are not us.

Get Involved

It is in my deepest hopes that by 12 December 2016 (Monday), I can rally pledges (from friends and family) of any amount and raise at least $300 for the Room to Read Global Organisation Girls’ Education Program – contributing an amount enough to keep one girl in school for the next year. Any donation counts, the value lies in our acknowledgement of privilege and the moments (albeit brief) that we dedicate to compassion. Compassion, in essence, refers to the way we choose to make someone else’s problem our own and take personal agency in the affair.

You may donate on an individual basis directly to the organization here.

Theodore Roosevelt once said that “it is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

This is an invitation to be in the arena, let’s be in touch at shermaineng_1997@yahoo.com.sg. Together, we can change their story.

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In celebration of the schooling years that have been put on temporary pause

Unpacking the Refugee Reality

RAW

Winding down the month dedicated to digital detox, I find it timely to write about the important lessons that this month of making time for myself has offered me. Importantly, with this writing and clarification of thoughts, I hope to revisit the value of awareness. Absence is silent – for as long as we do not actively search for it, we will remain dangerously unaware. In our comfortable lives of privilege, it requires extra caution for so many important issues are absent from our everyday lives. We fall prey of apathy, of unkindness and of a lack of understanding. More time dedicated to reflections, reading and attending meaningful discussions this month have brought to light issues that we do not talk about enough. Hence, this is the first piece in a series of three that I have decided to write on issues I have recently been offered increased insight and awareness on.

This first one is on The Refugee Reality.

Days ago, I had the opportunity to be amidst many advocates for refugees at the Refugee Awareness Week 2016 (RAW 2016) Panel Discussion put together by Advocates for Refugees – Singapore (AFR-SG) bringing together inspired (and inspiring) individuals with their stories to tell on the refugee situation. Before then, I had been completely unaware of the gravity of the Refugee Reality today – statistics have it that 59.5 million people were forcibly displaced people worldwide in 2014 alone, and 2.7 million people come from the Southeast Asian region. The numbers are shocking and I am almost ashamed at my oblivion to this reality despite my access to information.

AFR-SG is a local volunteer-led group that aims to create constructive platforms for community dialogue on regional and global refugee and forced migration issues. AFR-SG wants to raise awareness, address misconceptions and garner support for the refugee cause through constant engagement with the public. In their brochure for RAW 2016, the illustration of how these numbers represent lives and human beings suffering gave me further affirmation that this Refugee Reality had to be made known:

“Imagine your home – the place your family has lived for decades, has been destroyed. You fear for your children’s lives, every day and every night. You and your family no longer have access to jobs, incomes, secure food supply, medical care and education. Imagine some of your friends, colleagues and relatives have lost their lives in the civil war. You have to flee the chaos and violence. Where do you go? How do you get there?”

It is happening, right at our backyards. The Rohingya-Rakhine Conflict in 2012 saw a series of conflicts between the Buddhist Rakhines and Muslim Rohingyas resulting in hundreds of deaths and injuries. This led to more than 170,000 Rohingyas undertaking risky sea journeys, hoping to disembark at neighbouring Southeast Asian countries with little success. Subsequently, our region saw the Boat People Crisis in 2015 where Rohingya refugees paid smugglers large amounts of money to undertake these arduous boat journeys from the Bay of Bengal through to Andaman Sea with the intention of arriving in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia. The lack of legal frameworks to allow the disembarkation of these refugees left many refugees on these “floating concentration camps” for up to 6 months. The conditions on these boats are a far cry from liveable – the lack of sanitation allowed disease to spread, the lack of food lead to starvation and famine, the isolation saw smugglers take advantage of vulnerable refugees (especially women).

We must not turn a blind eye to this reality any longer. We have refugees*, asylum seekers*, internally displaced persons* and stateless persons* amidst us in our region – every one of them a human being with immense potential, with aspirations beyond their basic needs and they need help without a doubt. From the moment of displacement (which is of no choice nor fault of their own), they have been searching desperately for security and belonging. Here I quote members of AFR-SG:

“The Rohingya Muslims were stripped of their citizenship in Myanmar 30 years ago – they are stateless. Their status quo provides them no access to permanent residence, healthcare, education, suffrage and employment. The aforementioned are tickets to their susceptibility to abuse.”

  • A *refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.
  • An *asylum seeker is one who flees his/her own country to seek sanctuary in another country and applies for the right to be recognized as a refugee and receive legal protection and material assistance.
  • An *internally displaced person is one who has been forced to flee his/her home for the same reason as a refugee, but remains in his/her own country and has not crossed an international border. They are not protected by international law or eligible to receive many types of aid.
  • A *stateless person is someone who is not a citizen of any country. Citizenship is the legal bond between a government and an individual, allowing for certain political, economic, social and other rights of the individual.

As a Singaporean, I take my passport and IC as an entitlement for being given birth to within the geographical boundaries of this nation. The Refugee Reality feels distant because of the comfort that I take for granted. Our place of birth is by no means a result of our choice or effort and should not be good enough a reason to deny us a place to belong, a sanctuary for safety and access to basic necessities. These refugees pay the human price for circumstances beyond their control: political conflict, natural disasters, weak governance. It is time we rediscover the humanity within us to deem this reality as unacceptable and to recognize that this has to change.

It is disappointing that in today’s age of technology and information transfer, such realities remain under the carpet. It is time for more and better conversations about the Refugee Reality to surface.