‘One thing I can ask you: as someone who is looking for asylum, we need love from you. We need someone to understand. We need you to help us, to change [society’s] mind, because we can bring something if you give us a chance.’ This was the key message delivered by Burundian asylum seeker Saul* during his keynote address at the launch of JRS’ photo exhibition to mark this year’s Refugee Week.
Saul told of his family’s political persecution during which he witnessed the apprehension of his mother and the murder of his two young sisters. Australia was a country to which he had fled not through choice, he explained, but due to an absolute lack thereof.
‘When I came to Australia, everyone was trying to ask, “Why did you come to Australia?” To be honest, to come to another country is not like you can call it a choice because you had no choice,’ he said.
‘The purpose was, I need somewhere to be safe, I need somewhere I can live like other people, somewhere I can start to realise, “Who am I, what can I do, what can I bring to the society?”’
The difficulties Australians experience in trying to comprehend refugees’ motivations to flee their homeland stem from this country’s own lack of conflict – a status quo reflected in the colloquialism, ‘no worries’, Saul said.
‘It’s hard sometimes for people from here to understand because you have no trouble, you have no worries. You never see people shooting other people and you’ve never seen people with knives [stabbing] another person,’ he said.
‘It’s very hard for you to understand us, because you [think differently] about people from outside the country – “We don’t know what they’re bringing, we don’t know what they’re going to do here”. But I can just tell you: we need you. We need you to help us, to change [society’s] mind, because we can bring something if you give us a chance to be in society, give us a chance to discover ourselves, to get on with our lives. [If] one day we go back to our countries, we’ll bring to them the love we get from you, the hope you give to us, the knowledge you give to us.’
Saul’s plea for love and understanding was reflected in the photo exhibition, Sanctuary and Sustenance, which chronicles the lives of refugees from Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. JRS mounted the exhibition in partnership with The Wayside Chapel, a Sydney-based organisation which shares JRS’ mission of providing unconditional love, care and support to people in need.
‘This exhibition is a chance to catch a small glimpse into the life of refugees, lives that are so often lacking in media representation,’ said Marcus Ross, Government and Advocacy Manager at The Wayside Chapel.
‘Wayside has long sought to be a voice for the voiceless, a haven for those who’ve become invisible in our society through things like homelessness, and this rhetoric over stopping the boats has also rendered those refugees on the boats invisible. These photos and the accompanying stories have the ability to make that abstract immediate, they have the ability to make this foreign thing personal, and every single story of a refugee is personal.’
JRS’ director, Fr Aloysious Mowe SJ, said the current civil war in Iraq, which has created yet another refugee crisis in the region, illustrated the need for strong states such as Australia to share responsibility for people dislocated in the process. JRS had deliberately focused this year’s Refugee Week event on refugees in Syria and the Congo, he said, in an effort to highlight this reality.
‘Australia needs to get out of its mentality that asylum seekers coming here are an Australian problem that Australia will solve according to its own interests. Refugees are not an Australian problem; they are an international responsibility. We cannot cut ourselves off from the rest of the world and say, “It is not our problem, we are only going to look out for ourselves, mate”,’ he said.
‘JRS [also] wanted to highlight the fact that the vast majority, some 80 percent, of asylum seekers and refugees are taken care of by the world’s poorest countries, not the richest. There are 1.1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon; practically 1 in 4 persons in that country is now a Syrian refugee. Jordan, with a population of about 6 million, plays host to some 600,000 Syrian refugees. Contrary to what we get told by the politicians, Australia is not being over-burdened; Australia is not being rorted. We are nowhere near doing what we could and should be in terms of our responsibilities and our legal obligations.’
Saul’s name has been changed to protect his identity. Sanctuary and Sustenance will be on display until Friday 27 June. Check here for opening times. Read the full transcript of Fr Mowe and Saul’s speeches.