A page dedicates to two fiercely dedicated advocates who left us...
"Jean Oates' letters, speeches and leadership would no doubt have had a role to play in the improvements that have gradually been forced upon the Government, as it has had to turn away from a path of increased victimization and injustice."
"If we sit on our hands, nothing may change and I do not want to carry this shame until I die. I am searching for something that will really make a difference. I think that I owe it to the people in detention." (Nancy Cooper)
In the lead-up to our 2008 Annual General Meeting, an email arrived from one of our long-standing association members and highly dedicated supporters, Jean Oates of Whyalla Rural Australians for Refugees. The email read:
Thursday January 8, 2009
I would love to be at the [2008 Annual General] meeting. Please present my apologies - especially to Linda [Briskman] who was a fellow visitor to Baxter. I am presently knocking on the Pearly Gates but it seems they are not quite ready for me.
Don't feel sad Jack. I have had a long innings and have had a mission to accomplish. I think I did it well!
I hope it is a successful event and the organisation gets even stronger.
It was Jean's last email to us. Even while we suggested in reply that "they may not want you yet, Jean!", she passed through those gates just a few weeks later, leaving behind our very fond memories of her work.
As dedicated as Jean was, was Nancy Cooper, who acted as the secretary of the Whyalla RAR group, and who together with Jean and many others, carried a deep commitment to visiting all "their friends" in the Woomera and Baxter detention centres, and who wrote and wrote and wrote to their politicians in an effort to change the policies and politics in Canberra during the Howard years.
Below are some news items related to the passing of Jean and Nancy.
19 February 2009: A Possie in Aussie: Nayano Taylor-Neumann's response to Tampa - Since Tampa 2001, thousands of ordinary Australians stood up and baulked at the treatment of 'unannounced and boat-faring' arrivals on our shore. This page is the story of one of those advocates and activists: Nayano Taylor-Neumann from South Australia. She became a worker at a settlement program, a Blogger and a PhD student. And she became one of Project SafeCom's supporters and members.
2 April 2008: Remembering Betty Dixon, our feisty advocate - Australia incarcerates asylum seekers in detention centers - but people like Betty Dixon were not willing to accept it. She did not have the face of a typical rebel against the system, a system she described as "degrading to humans and racist". She was one of the thousands of "ordinary Australians" who vigorously protested against mandatory detention, but for some reason many people remember her, even in the years after she passed away.
12 March 2005: The testimony of Moira-Jane - Moira-Jane Conahan went to Woomera in March 2000. Her speaking out was one of the first witness testimonies that eventually dismantled the Woomera detention centre. "The night before I left we were watching Four Corners [...] but I laughed it off and with a minor amount of trepidation left for Woomera."
11 February 2005: Visiting Baxter: Joy Huson and Gareth Evans visit the Baxter detention centre - "Her case exposes the treatment of people by DIMIA, the bungling by Public Services and the "I didn't know" from politicians who surely are required 'to know'."
The Island - Saturday Magazine
Colombo, Sri Lanka
28 February 2009
By Anne Abayasekara
Jean Oates' mortal remains were cremated in the little town of Whyalla in South Australia on February 2 this year. You might ask, who is Jean Oates and what is her connection with Sri Lanka?
Let me tell you something about this extraordinary woman whom I was privileged to meet when I was in Australia last year. My son Ranjan who also lives and works in Whyalla, first met Jean and her husband Stan when the Australian government was demonizing asylum seekers and an oil tanker, MS Tampa, which had taken on board 438 asylum seekers who were on a sinking wooden boat, was not permitted to enter Australian waters. (In 2001).
That awoke the dormant, humanitarian spirit in many Australians who were roused to action by the then Government's policy which was to confine asylum seekers in heavily-guarded, specially built detention centres.
Jean's path crossed with Ranjan's when they joined hands with other concerned Australians to form an association called "Whyalla Rural Australians for Refugees" ("WRAR" - part of a wider movement of "Rural Australians for Refugees"). Jean was President of WRAR at the time of her death. The Baxter Detention Centre, opened in September 2002, was about 60 km away from Whyalla and amongst the first inmates were two Sri Lankan lads, Sabah & Karan, whom I met in happier circumstances last year. Members of WRAR visited there regularly to make life a little more tolerable for the internees who were of many nationalities - Sri Lankan, Indian, Iraqi, Iranian, Afghan, etc. Jean Oates was a City Councillor. In 2002 she made a stirring speech at a meeting of the Whyalla City Council, illustrating it with facts about real refugees she had personally met, in support of her own motion that Whyalla become a "Welcome Town for Refugees". Her motion was accepted. Today, Jean is affectionately called "Mum" by many people of different ethnic origins, including some Sri Lankan lads.
I saw a booklet given to Stan and Jean when they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 2004. It contained "Loving wishes from a few friends whose lives you've touched forever" - people with names such as Rohan Nilantha; Sarath Amarasinghe and Anna Loh; Parvin & Reza Resaie; Ramin, Elhan, Veeda & David Azizfard; Khalil & Parvin Omar. Here is what Sri Lankan Rohan Nilantha wrote:
"When I first arrived at Baxter Detention Centre, I did not know any Australian people. I too did not attempt to get to know any Aussies. It may have been because I did not have a good impression of them. However, through my good fortune, there appeared a couple whose kindly ways touched my heart - it was you, Jean & Stan Oates. Since our first meeting up to now, you have been at times like loving parents to me; at other times like friends, so dear. I can never forget your reaching out to me in this way."
The Azizfard family, after recounting all that Jean & Stan had done for them, concluded with:
"We know that there are many people all around Australia who are helping refugees in and out of detentions centres ... but there is only one Jean and Stan."
Few were aware then that Jean was already into her gallant 12-year-long battle with cancer. When I visited her, while chatting away with us, she suddenly said, "It's so hot!" and casually put her hand to her head to remove the wig which covered her baldness after chemotherapy. She never let her illness stand in the way of her reaching out to people. In Whyalla, I met a newcomer from SL, the young bride of Nalin who was in the jewellery business there. Jean soon took Nadeeka under her wing, showed her around the town, encouraged her with her English, took her grocery shopping. A keen knitter, the last items Jean knitted were a woollen jacket and cap for the baby Nadeeka was to have towards the end of last year. She took them over personally in December, a few weeks before she died. Ranjan and Niranjala had visited Jean on January 12, 2009. and found her 3 adult children had been with her and Stan and they had all discussed Jean's own plans for her funeral. "Jean not only taught us how to live fully, she showed us how to face death with grace, courage and humour," wrote Ranjan to me. Although she was obviously becoming weaker physically, her indomitable spirit kept her going.
On the Sunday, Jean had spoken in her Anglican church of the situation in Gaza and what they might do to collect funds for the civilians there about whose plight she was most concerned. The Bishop of the diocese made a special visit to Whyalla in order to see her before she became too ill to receive visitors. The Mayor of Whyalla, too, called to see her and left with tears in his eyes. The last time Ranjan and Niranjala saw her, Jean had joked about the 'big party' she would soon be giving and asked Stan to make sure that EVERYONE was invited!
In January 2001, Jean was awarded a Centenary Medal for her services to the community. It would require considerably more space than is available here to tell of Jean's full and continuing involvement in the community right up to the end, so I am quoting some excerpts from the tribute that Ranjan paid at her funeral service, words spoken in celebration of the life of an exceptional human being who made a difference in ways that are a shining beacon to all people everywhere. I quote:
"Thank you, Jean - For inspiring 'new worlds to be born' within us, and enabling us to enrich our human experience; for wise counsel and leadership of the WRAR group, and for your vision imparted by practical example, whereby peoples from a variety of cultures could weave a beautiful tapestry out of various threads; for showing us that mature years, a large family circle, serious health issues, do not mean that one shuts out 'others' from one's embrace; for the sincerity of your friendship and the fragrance of your life which will endure, and be cherished by many people in many places for years to come; for being a second 'Mum' to many young men in South Australia, who were far away from their homes and were blessed to find in you 'a candle amidst the darkness' of their bleak days and nights; for showing us that living life to the full is possible in spite of hardships that may come one's way, and that love, compassion and empathy are eternal human values which need no language to define them; for extending the definition of 'my group' to go beyond my family, my relatives, my community, my church, my ethnic group, my country ... to encompass all humankind."
Copyright © Upali Newspapers Ltd
The Island - Saturday Magazine
Colombo, Sri Lanka
28 February 2009
Re the article on Jean Oates on Saturday, I would like to say that during the course of the last 35 years here we have encountered many such Australians whose generosity of spirit overwhelmed us.
As new migrants in a block of flats we were made to feel welcome by our neighbours. An old lady who had no immediate family befriended us and as the years passed became a member of our family. She travelled with us to Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore and China. We looked after her till she passed away in a nursing home at the age of 95. She left a small amount of money to Manjula who asked us to use it for charitable purposes in Sri Lanka.
Through a group of Colombo doctors who donate their services to rural communities in remote areas, we used the money to restore a village tank and build 70 toilets in a tiny village ravaged by the Tigers. There is a plaque bearing Edna Anderson's photograph acknowledging her contribution to the restoration of community life in this village.
There are many stories of the extraordinary kindness of Australians towards refugee groups particularly African non English speaking people to resettle among typically Aussie townships. What is extraordinary is their ability to recognise our common humanity, setting aside colour and creed.
July 21, 2008
by Ranjan Abayasekara
It was a shock to hear of the sudden passing of Nancy Cooper who left Whyalla for Broken Hill last year. We expected that we would see Nancy again, here in Whyalla. We hoped we'd be able to catch up with her news, and reminisce about those heady days, when she was for many of us, the face of Whyalla Rural Australians for Refugees.
I recall attending the 'Frank Brennan meeting' on 7th July 2002, at the University - a meeting called by a group of concerned University staff, Marie Kennedy and Nancy being in the vanguard. A large number of Whyalla people attended the meeting and a small group agreed to gather monthly in the University. Whyalla Rural Australians for Refugees was formed. Nancy became the contact person and the secretary. She was the one whom we would contact for anything and everything pertaining to WRAR - meetings, silent vigils, protests, visits to Baxter, minutes of meetings, materials, dissemination of articles, letters to editors/poems etc. Her home phone number was published and her time and energy put at the disposal of WRAR members.
During the early days of visiting detainees in Baxter IDC, we usually traveled in one vehicle. She talked of her early conventional religious upbringing and parochial concerns of small town life, and later of her overwhelming gratitude to a university lecturer who had opened up the world and other cultures to her. After making the discovery that people were only different - not 'higher' or 'lower' - life would never be the same for Nancy. She determined that whatever went on in the world around her, she would live by the belief that "No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the mainland."
As more WRAR members became regular visitors to Baxter, Nancy was determined to maintain her involvement as a Baxter visitor. She took a sincere interest in the lives of those she visited and got to know them as friends. She took varied gifts, special food items, craft materials etc to them and soon had her daughters Joanne, Sheree & Zoe as well as grand-daughter Caitlin involved in visiting The sight of the large groups of visitors and detainees at Baxter Visitor Centre was common at visits led by Nancy, and the camaraderie and friendship shared was something to behold.
In July 2003, after months of visiting Baxter detainees, she foresaw that the Howard Government would likely be re-elected in 2004, and she had the hope of forming an active political group, so that we would either join an existing political party, or form our own party, to make an impact on the governments asylum seeker policy.
"If we sit on our hands" she said, "nothing may change and I do not want to carry this shame until I die. I am searching for something that will really make a difference. I think that I owe it to the people in detention." were her words. Their lives had become almost a part of hers and the definition of 'family' had extended. Her empathy had reached inside the electric fences. She continued to organise silent vigils and be present at almost every event as well as using her home and premises, for garage sales on a few occasions. Nancy displayed a similar commitment to the Whyalla No-War Group.
Nancy found the involvement in WRAR of people from different faith backgrounds and different church groups, quite astonishing. The passionate involvement in visiting Baxter detainees and contributing to WRAR activities by clergy and parishioners from many established churches was something Nancy admired and mentioned on many occasions.
Nancy's passing will be felt keenly by many in University and Social Work communities as well as WRAR members. Her memory and inspiration will continue to live on. But It is in the hearts and minds of the many Baxter detainees, who are now settled in different parts of Australia, where her memory will be dearly cherished.
They will remember a compassionate Australian who showed them that the Australian character was not portrayed by politicians, but by women such as Nancy Cooper.