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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Brave New Beginning

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Tucked in humbly at the corner of Allen Street, full-length glass surrounds the beautiful Cuppa Flower café and lets in just enough sunlight for us to collectively bask in the morning illumination. Lush greenery traces the compound and warm, fluorescent lights complement this morning’s peace. With the aftertaste of flat white from a yellow mug, cool breeze coming in through the entrance and the conversations that fade into the background, this piece is in celebration of 10 weeks down under.

These days I confront my struggle with floccinaucinihilipilification, the habit of estimating something as worthless. We have a tendency to build boundaries around ourselves, using shields or armours of different forms to defend against what might make us vulnerable – my defenses often start from the basis that “this is probably worthless anyway”. This new experience, that difficult conversation or this attempt to do things differently than before all probably worthless, so why try. Floccinaucinihilipilification is one of the longest words in the English language and as Kristin Neff writes, the mystery of why we do it is as baffling as how to pronounce it.

Wired for survival rather than for joy, our aversion towards vulnerability stand guard at the frontline of our responses to anything. The fear of vulnerability like an imaginary big, red, flashing ‘flight-or-fight’ button in our minds waiting to be pressed. Floccinaucinihilipilification is ‘flight’. To save ourselves from the daunting prospects of attack, we subscribe to the one life we know to lead because it has been tried and tested to death. We stop trying, suppress curiosity and murder possibilities. We settle.

With the blessing of time and support while in Australia, enrolling into the Courageworks Self-Compassion Course by Kristin Neff and Brene Brown has proposed an antidote. “Self-compassion is one of the biggest sources of strength and resilience that we have available to us,” Kristin Neff encompasses the crux of the power of being kind to ourselves. How often have we responded to someone else’s pain and suffering with love and kindness, while turning to our own with judgement and blame? The most fear-inducing element of vulnerability is the lie that we have been sold growing up – that if you stumble, fall, struggle or fail, you are different and isolated by imperfection that deems you undeserving of joy.

Let’s unlearn these lessons of isolation and choose to tell ourselves in times of hurt or difficulty that: “I am suffering.”, “This is part of the shared human experience, I am not alone” and “May I give myself the compassion that I need.” The endless runaway from our shadows ceases the moment we acquaint ourselves with darkness as a critical part of being human. It takes courage, it is scary but where there is darkness, there is light. With the strength from knowing that we’ve got our own backs through thick and thin, may we arrive at bolder and unimaginable possibilities.

Joy, For Sure

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Rays of sunshine peek in through the windows of my bedroom and the overhead fan whirs above me. With the aftertaste of warm Milo and Oreo cookies lingering in my mouth, I have spent the past hour reading The Price of Inequality by Joseph E. Stiglitz while awaiting sunrise. Jetlag had me up early this morning. It is the second day back in Singapore after a 27-day adventure in America, filled with reflection and learning, I can’t help but think How incredibly lovely it is to be back home.

This time last year I basked in a new normal – no more studying day and night, no more anxiety, but instead the taste of liberty bringing pleasure. My days were freestyle, guided only by my own aspirations and appointments with loved ones. The school timetable that dictated my expense of time was replaced by a planner. I remember then, as I have now, I cleared out my cupboards and rearranged my desk. A trip to town had me return with new stationery and accessories to my humble abode. I bought new books, sold old ones; got a haircut and clipped my nails. I remember thinking to myself, What a beautiful life. As if these little routines have become my occasional practices to feel rejuvenated, the beginning of a new year and the return to Singapore has seen exactly that. I’d like to think that practicing a year of wholeheartedness and reframing with intentions rather than goals has allowed me to be more adept at experiencing the joy.

My bedtime go-to is now What I Know For Sure by Oprah Winfrey. Categorized by themes, the first is ‘Joy’. In which, she writes, “the gift of deciding to face your mortality without turning or flinching is the gift of recognizing that because you will die, you must live now. Your journey begins with the choice to get up, step out and live fully.” Perhaps these seemingly mundane and insignificant practices mean so much to me because it represents taking ownership; being responsible for the environment and frame of mind with which I ‘live fully’.

In 2016, an incredible practice was a gratitude journal. For every day of the year, I took the last waking minutes before turning in to write at least three moments from the day for which I am thankful into my planner. Brene Brown explains that joy is an emotion associated with vulnerability because we are uncertain of whether we are deserving of joy. As a defense, we sometimes do not allow ourselves completely experience the joy – to dampen the vulnerability we necessarily dampen the joy. To kick the bad habit, this piece is truly an expansion of what goes on in my head at different points of the day as I take pictures with my mind of the fleeting moments and the gratitude journal practice I am once more practicing for the year ahead.

Moments that fill us with hope and love and faith can often be fleeting, but with every moment comes a choice. The choice is to sit it out or dance and each time, I hope you dance.