Afghani refugee Yazdan Jawshani and Indigenous leader Lowitja O'Donoghue share a journey of commonality
Yazdan Jawshani, a refugee from Afghanistan, and Indigenous leader Lowitja O'Donoghue have something in common
And not just something. The Journey of Healing for Australian Indigenous people overlaps in many ways with the journey for refugees in Australia.
On 26 May, 1997, a report tabled in Federal Parliament shook Australia. Bringing Them Home detailed painful evidence of the removal of thousands of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander children from their families.
The report recommended that a Sorry Day be held. A year later over half a million people responded, signing Sorry Books and taking part in ceremonies on Sorry Day. In May 1999, this people's movement launched a Journey of Healing. Sorry Day events are held annually on May 26.
The speeches below are thematically linked via this Indigenous commemoration day.
1 August 2003: The plight of the Mandaeans: A new Iran contra deal - "The Government wants to test the resistance of Australians to this indecency. I hope they are unpleasantly surprised and that Australians will draw the line at forcing people back to situations where their very lives are at risk." In this piece, which appeared first in Margo Kingston's Web Diary, Carmen Lawrence discusses the Mandaean issue.
12 March 2003: It's not unlike the pain of my own people - Lowitja O'Donoghue speaks out: Giving Ruddock the additional 'Indigenous' portfolio is to recognise the racial agenda in Howard's own mind. Aboriginal people and the Stolen Generation have demanded an apology on the basis of racial injustice. And its very hard to see injustices to refugees to be anything other than race motivated.
Yazdan Jawshani and Lowitja O'Donoghue spoke at a public meeting in Port Augusta on Saturday 28th June. The meeting was organised by Port Augusta Rural Australians for Refugees to discuss the Baxter Housing Project.
Below is the text of Yazdan and Lowitja's speeches.
Introducing: Yazdan Jawshani
The first speaker, Yazdan Jawshani is from Afghanistan. He's 19 and a year 12 student in Adelaide. Last year he was the winner of the State's language award for Persian, over year 12 students from Iran, where Persian is the native language. Yazdan has a wife and small daughter in Afghanistan. Although he made contact with them through the Red Cross while in Woomera, recent attempts to renew contact have sadly failed. Yazdan tries to overcome his concern by concentrating on his studies. Yazdan is one of a number of boys who have come to know Lowitja and we look forward to what he has to say.
Thank you for coming to hear what Lowitja and I have to say. Unlike Lowitja, public speaking is new for me, so I hope you'll be patient. I am also a little emotional after being at Baxter. Many of my memories of detention have been ignited.
But I want to begin by paying my respects to the Aboriginal people and their ancestors in this place. They are our hosts. We are their guests. And I respect their hospitality.
How can I possibly tell you - in such a little while - what has happened to me in the last 3 years since I left Afghanistan? How can I fully tell you what it was that brought me here? That story is so full of pain.
And full of adventure. It is so full of struggle. But some good has come from it too.
I love my own country, but I am not safe there. I have come to this country and have come to respect it.
I will tell you just two stories. I will tell you about a trip to the Flinders Ranges with Lowitja. And I will tell you about a film we saw together called Kandahar.
It was on Australia Day last year that I first met Lowitja. She was putting on a party with a friend of hers. We were to have Afghani food under a black sky and cascades of fireworks in the park. It was the night of Skyshow. The Europeans had arrived in little boats at Sydney Cove. And there was a party. We had just got off little boats ourselves and were guests of one of Australia's indigenous leaders. If only Captain Phillip could have seen it.
I turned up with my flat mate that night, not knowing what to expect. We hadn't been long out of Woomera. Ali was even more nervous than I was. He looked like he was dressed for a disco. When he met Lowitja at the door he didn't know what to do. He puffed out his chest and acted as though he owned the place. Lowitja was taken aback, and then confronted him in the way only Lowitja can, and still be your friend. "You've got tickets on yourself", she said. By the end of the night Lowitja's friend explained to Ali what that meant. "You know those clothes in the shop?" he said. "They've got tickets on them that say 'buy me'". Ali broke into laughter and embarrassment. Lowitja's been our friend ever since.
We have found that we have a lot in common. That night, Lowitja showed me her story, which was published in The Australian, and which she'd only come to know herself some months before. I learned how she had been taken from her mother and the tribal lands of northern South Australia. How she was brought up against her wishes in a country house at Quorn, run by two religious women. I learned how her official parent was the Protector of Aborigines. And how she had struggled against being a servant to eventually get the top job for Aboriginal people in ATSIC.
Lowitja and I saw Kandahar together some time later.
Again we were under a dark summer sky this time, in Adelaide's Botanic Park. Kandahar is the story of a woman who had fled Afghanistan to seek asylum in the United States of America. There, she had become a journalist, but her sister remained in Kandahar. Her sister told the journalist in a letter that she would commit suicide out of despair at the coming eclipse of the sun.
To stop her doing this, the journalist began her travel into Afghanistan, entering from the Iran border and travelling into Afghanistan's most western city, Herat. Herat is one of the world's great cities. Alexander the Great was there and Ghingis Khan savaged the city many years later. It has a history of poetry and the arts. It's famous for its miniatures and its architecture. And along the road from the border into Herat, the journalist would have passed my village and entered the great city ruined time and again by war and bloodshed. As a youth of fighting age there was only one path of escape for me and I took the chance of getting to safety in Australia.
Across the desert from Herat to Kandahar, the journalist in the film met various people, some of them Hazaras like me.
The Hazaras have been the oppressed people of Afghanistan. We have our own dialect and we are generally of a different religion from other Afghan peoples. And we look different. In many ways we have been like the Aboriginal people in Australia. We have been treated as different. We have been denied the rights others have had. We have found it hard to get good jobs and education. We are good workers, but we've had to accept any labouring job that would come along. For many years, when the British were in Afghanistan, we were slaves. Our grandparents were traded at the markets as mules. And we faced the threat of complete extermination or genocide - under the rule of the Taliban.
But, as I watched with Lowitja the film under that dark Australian sky, I became aware of a rich cultural beauty that we shared. The producer of that film had an understanding of the land and its meaning. For those of us who wanted to see it, he took us beneath the skin of the story and exposed the flesh, bleeding though it was. There, starkly uncovered on the screen, was the poetry, the loyalty and the mountain and desert land that has nurtured my people for all we've been through. And even though the buildings are little more than rubble now, the mountains stand tall and unshaken as if holding some overpowering governance.
Not long ago, Lowitja had to go back to Quorn for a meeting of all those people who had been brought up with her at Colebrook the name of the hostel or house where she lived. For her, it was like going home. And, as I'd written Lowitja's story for school in year 11, she asked me if I'd like to come along.
As we climbed from Pt Augusta into the Flinders Ranges, we passed the riverbed where Lowitja was married under the river gums to her husband, Gordon. We'd later visit his grave. And then, going past Lowitja and Gordon's old house in Quorn, we turned into the drive at Colebrook. With the mountains in the background and her Colebrook family coming out to meet her, I was suddenly taken back to Afghanistan, not only because some of them had Afghan names. In a strange sort of way I was caught between two worlds. These people coming out to embrace Lowitja were my family coming to welcome me home. The arms extended were arms that had worked hard, had embraced long and had wiped away many tears. Many of the men had died. The women struggled on. These were the arms of my mother and father, and of my young wife, my cousin.
It started to rain, and while Lowitja was at the meeting, I headed off to visit some of the traditional rock art in the caves high up. I got drenched on the outside by the mist that promised the coming of winter and on the inside by the vigorous climb up the hillside. I was like a child. I was like a bather, unhindered by the water and playing in the wet mountain spaces of rocks and caves. An eagle descended to prey on a kangaroo hit by a passing car. A fox came out without fear to share the meal. Then, the next day, we stood at the crest of a ridge and looked over one of the great purple gorges of the Flinders: and I was home.
It didn't matter that the Flinders are all that remain of mountains the size of giants, like the ones that I see from my window near Herat. These are the mountains that have secrets to tell, and give us reason to be brave.
At the beginning of last year, just after that first meeting with Lowitja, school went back after the break. Like Lowitja as a child, my official parent had been a Government minister the Minister for Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs. I had been under 18 and what was called a UAM, an unaccompanied minor. Perhaps there's an irony in the fact that the home in which Lowitja was detained as a child was operated by the United Aborigines Mission UAM.
Now I was 18 and on my own. I was, in Australian terms, an adult. I had my birthday, just like Lowitja, given to me by the State. Hers was on the first of August, the birth-date given to horses, and mine was, like most other Afghan refugees, the start of the year. So, at 18, I had a choice to make. Should I get a job or continue at school? It was not an easy decision. The future was unknown. I could get money for whatever the future held. Or I could get an education. This was my only opportunity to do that.
I am grateful to Lowitja for helping me make the decision I did. Hospitality is part of being Aboriginal and in our culture, it's the same. Lowitja welcomed me and made me feel at home. She shared her story and her life. She accepted me as one of her family.
I'm now doing year 12 and I'd like to go to university to study dentistry after this. It's very expensive and I don't know how I can do it. I don't have the money. But I am a stronger person for having made the decision I have. And I know I can help make a better life for my family, hopefully this country and Afghanistan because of it. Lowitja has set an example. As one of Australia's first peoples, she climbed over difficulties as though they were rocks on the mountain, she took opportunities that came along and now she advocates for her own Aboriginal people, street people and the latest boat people, all of whom struggle to survive.
There are many like me in Baxter. Many of you have made them feel welcome and visit them. They have a lot to offer once their humanity is restored. Aboriginal people claim to be on a Journey of Healing. Those who I met at Baxter this afternoon want so much to have that opportunity. Whether they're from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran or Sri Lanka, they have been through hell. They need to see the mountains and feel the gentle rivers of this country. And they need to be taken into the hearts of Australians.
Introducing: Prof Lowitja O'Donoghue
Not far from here is the Lois O'Donoghue Hostel. It's a small reminder of the contribution the now-Lowitja O'Donoghue has made to this community and to Australia more broadly. Yazdan has alluded to her work for Aboriginal people and for the homeless.
She is a national leader who has been outspoken on matters concerning the wellbeing of her people. She was Australian of the Year in 1984 and has two of Australia's highest honours, the AC and CBE. Lowitja is a Professorial Fellow at Flinders University and has been listed among Australia's 'National Living Treasures'.
Over recent months she's been vocal about matters that stand in the way of delivering real services to communities. She has had the top job herself, as Yazdan has said, and she has continued to serve on the board of the Indigenous Foundation for Rio Tinto and until recently chaired the CRC for Aboriginal and Tropical Health. She has the forthcoming Festival of Ideas named after her and she is patron of many organisations that achieve outcomes in the community. She is here today as Patron of A Just Australia, an umbrella group for organisations like Rural Australians for Refugees and many others. And it's in that capacity that I welcome her today.
Thank you. I am pleased to be here and, like Yazdan, pay my respects to the ancestors and elders of the land. Port Augusta is an important landmark for me, as you know. My brother lives here and part of me does too. It's very much tied up with my story.
And I want to say a special thanks to the people that put aside their visits to Baxter this afternoon, simply for us. We have found it's not easy to get into Baxter on a Saturday. But people have bent over backwards so that we could get in to visit our friends. And I want to say thanks. And please thank the people you were to visit for letting us come instead.
I want to acknowledge Yazdan as one of the young people who have come into my life these last two years. He was being very generous about what he had to say. But I want to assure him that I have benefited too. We all have. It's not always been easy. There's been some pain. But that's being family. And we have found a love and support for each other. We so much want him to go to university. We'll try to get him there.
As Yazdan has said, I'm an advocate for people who are struggling. That's the bottom line. I'm not a critic of the Government. I have no political allegiance. But I am an advocate for justice. And that's why I do what I do. That's why I'm a patron of A Just Australia. Richard Butler and I will be strangely sharing the same platform in a week or two when I launch the Festival of Ideas in Adelaide. We come from totally different places. Richard Butler, as you know, was head of the United Nations inspectors that went into Iraq to find Sadam Hussein's Weapons of Mass Destruction. He was opposed, as you may also know, to Australia defying the United Nations and joining George Bush in an attack on Iraq. Now he's attacking the government for trying to compromise its relations to the United Nations and so weakening that body.
Richard Butler said on the ABC's AM program yesterday:
"This government is quite prepared to go against international law. It does so on refugees. It does so on mandatory detention. It does so on Aborigines. This government is talking about rogue states and outlaws. Yet it is behaving like a rogue state and an outlaw. It does so on refugees, it does so on mandatory detention and it does so on Aborigines."
And will we sit there and let this happen? I, for one, will not sit there and let this happen to us.
Some years ago I stood in front of the United Nations Assembly myself and put Australia slap bang into the middle of a forum to protect the interests of Indigenous peoples worldwide. I called on international law to protect Aboriginal and Islander peoples. We had a long way to go in this country, but we fought hard to get our heads above the racism and injustice now well recognised as part of our darker history. We can criticise Aboriginal leadership all we like, and some of it is well deserved. But we fought hard with the support of certain good people who are not aboriginal. Together we fought simply for justice. Together we fought for understanding. Together we fought for equal rights to health and water - for food, education and jobs. Together we fought to abolish racism and achieve status and dignity for Aboriginal and Islander peoples.
But Terry Plane's article in the City Messenger in Adelaide on June 11 is sobering. He describes "Fourth World conditions in SA" in 2003. In Fregon he says,
"It's not that they don't live like us. A lot of them aren't living like themselves. They exist ... in appalling conditions. The wonderful old men are frustrated. They want the kids back. They won't teach the kids traditional law because the kids aren't fit to learn it. Physically, spiritually, anyway. The old men can see communities torn by degradation and desperation. You have to stay positive. But I don't know what you can do. But if there's anything, anything at all, please do it."
And we're turning our backs on international law? Over my dead body! We're turning our backs on Aborigines? We're turning our backs on people seeking asylum in this country? Over my dead body! It's simply not in Australia's best interest.
In international law asylum seekers who come to Australia by boat are NOT 'illegals'. They have not come here illegally. The word 'illegal' is the language of propaganda. It is like the word 'half-caste' and 'quadroon'. It's inflammatory language to build discrimination and separation. We've had it in this country for years. For Mayor Joy Balluch to say, as she did in the Transcontinental on 30th May, "They're illegal in our country and that's the bottom line" means she has bought the Government's propaganda package. She's too smart for that. She's smart enough to see that DIMIA doesn't ride "rough shod over" the Pt Augusta Community. And I'll support her on that. But I'd offer to send her back to the international agreement Australia signed over refugees. Its use of the term 'illegal' is only to differentiate between authorised passage and unauthorised. It's not as we use the word 'illegal'. The government has used the term for propaganda. And that's why the courts are on the side of refugees and asylum seekers. While no one approves of people smuggling, the mode of entry to Australia for asylum seekers is irrelevant under international law.
This government goes against international law on refugees, says Richard Butler. It does so on mandatory detention and it does so on Aborigines.
A few weeks ago, Ian Chappel and I were at Pt Augusta Secondary School. We visited the children from Baxter who'd recently started studying there. And, as we saw how well these kids had adjusted, I remembered some letters I uncovered from the State Records when researching my own story.
Let me read to you from the Protector of Aborigines' report of May 1931, after some outrage occurred in Quorn when Colebrook kids were to go to the school there.
'At Quorn I interviewed the Mayor, Town Clerk, Doctor, Secretaries of the School Committee and Mothers Club and others', says the report. 'Nearly all those spoken to expressed the opinion that the native children from the Colebrook Home should not be educated in the primary school with the white children. Some of the people said that the feeling was general throughout the town, but one or two thought that only a certain section were complaining.'
The grounds on which exception was taken to native and white children being educated together were: -
The danger of white being adversely affected morally through mixing with the natives who are supposed to have stronger and earlier sexual development.
The risk of endangering the health of the whites through contact with natives who might be suffering from some form of infectious disease.
The difficulty of teaching children in the same grades whose ages differ by two or three years.
That the sulky and stubborn disposition of some of the native children has a bad effect on the white children.
That the native children should not be compelled to do the same amount of brain work as the whites, but should be given more manual work.'
Those minutes were written 72 years ago. And I ask you, how much as changed? It all sounds so terribly familiar. Embarrassingly familiar! So you would have been pleased to read in the Transcontinental last week:
"The benefits of the children being in the school are already showing, Mr Ashby said, with one senior boy increasing his reading age by three-and-a-half years in just over two months. Others that are in Year 10 are now doing Year 11 and Year 12 subjects, Mr Ashby said. Mixing with other students at the school's two campuses has also not been a problem, with a number for students visiting the Baxter students on weekends at the detention facility."
And At Willsden Primary, principal Gavin Khan (a nice Afghan name) said,
"both the Baxter students and other students at the school are learning a lot from each other. They are excellent ambassadors for our school and community and I personally have not received any negative feedback at all from the time that they arrived here."
Some of us attending the school at Quorn did reasonably well too.
'This government goes against international law on refugees', says Richard Butler. 'It does so on mandatory detention and it does so on Aborigines.'
Let me be quite clear about this. Mandatory Detention has been used to punish innocent people so that others will be deterred from coming to Australia using people-smugglers. It's now clearly out in the open. The Minister has said as much and DIMIA officers have been quite specific. And let be quite clear about this too: such a use of detention centres is clearly in breach of international law. Why is it, again, that the lawyers have taken up the cause for asylum seekers and refugees? It's certainly not out of ignorance. It's to bring about justice and a fair go values for which we are told Australians place importance.
It doesn't take much grey matter, I should have thought, to see that if 'people smuggling' was our problem we could have tackled it by cutting off supply. But the Prime Minister's own words give us a clearer picture of the government's agenda: "We will decide who comes here!" So it's not about the needs of people, but of our needs of them. Are they rich? Are they skilled? Are they like us? That's the issue. Greed! Not justice! I wonder how Aboriginal people would fare if they had not been here first. Bad enough to be here first!
Meanwhile we hold people in the prison of detention camps or the outside prison of the Temporary Protection Visa. We keep them in prison.
Barry Wakelin wrote in the Whyalla News a few days ago to a refugee advocate angry over government policy. He asked the advocate where his 'compassion lies for many in the genuine prison a few kilometres down the road from Baxter who many would argue are just as worthy of his sympathy.' It was recognition of Baxter's prison status, genuine or not.
Of course the people in the Prison down the road need our visits and our attention. That's not the issue here. International law is clear. Detention is not to be used for punishment. It is not to be a prison.
So, we have to find a way out of this mess. And one way the Government has tackled this satisfactorily in the past satisfactorily for some at least is by way of Residential Housing.
On Wednesday, The Minister stated his preferred site for the Port Augusta Residential Housing Project, a project based on what had worked well in Woomera. And the preferred site, as you know, is Ellis Close in Port Augusta West.
When I last went to Baxter some weeks ago, it was clear to me how some people are in desperate need for a more humane approach to their long-term suffering. Yazdan is no different from most people there. They are people just like you and me who want to live. They've done nothing wrong. They've NOT come here illegally, for heaven's sake. There are people from Iran there who are Mandaens, about whom the government seems to know very little, passing them off as Christains or something. They have lived terrible lives in their home countries. They are gentlefolk and highly gifted as jewellers and gold merchants. They love peace, more than anything. It seems to me that we don't understand what religious persecution is, one of the five determining factors for refugee status. But that's not their fault. It's ours. And so, we keep them locked up. In prison! 'This government goes against international law. It does so on refugees, it does so on mandatory detention and it does so on Aborigines.'
The Minister responsible for all three is Philip Ruddock. Whether or not he's his own man is a question. Perhaps he's not? But some of us have had enough and we are speaking out and trying to do what little we can to restore humanity to people who have lost hold of it.
I've been speaking out ever since Philip Ruddock took on the extra portfolio of Indigenous Affairs. And when he was caught out saying it was the 'recreational' part of his portfolio I was furious. For one thing, it has led to some real confusion about separation of portfolios under the Minister. Will Aboriginal funding be diverted to Immigration and Detention Centres? Will Aboriginal funds be diverted to the Residential Housing Project? Who will pay? Will it be Aboriginal people?
Well, I think I can answer that. The portfolio of Indigenous Affairs is entirely in different administrative hands from Immigration and Multicultural Affairs. And there is no crossover at all.
But what I would like most to assure you, is this: the people in Baxter are people badly damaged by experiences in the past and the present. They are not enemies. They are not to be feared. Fear and discrimination drives a wedge into our communities like a knife. We don't need it. As Yazdan has said, my people, the Aboriginal people, and particularly the Stolen Generations have embarked on what we call a Journey of Healing. We have to move on and let others move on too. I'm convinced Port August can be such a place of healing.
And I would ask my Aboriginal brothers and sisters not to stand idly by. Claim the land for justice. Claim the land in the tradition of hospitality. Claim the land for peace and goodwill.
Some weeks ago I was invited to the home of the second richest man in Australia who was holding a dinner to raise money for Aboriginal tertiary education. He gives so much to this country in return for the wealth Australia has given him. That man started in Australia making packing cases for the fruit market. He came here as a simple refugee. His boat was not turned away.
And I would like his story to be told over and over by way of lives that are starting out in this country right now. It can. It should. And, with the permission of the people, it will. Let it begin in Port August and let Port Augusta prosper, not as a result of its greed, but its inherent goodwill.
I am part of a project where Afghan refugees can drop in to eat and talk at a private home in Adelaide. Yazdan is one of the people who come there. What I have experienced is what the people of Port Augusta can come to know for themselves. The kids at the school will be coming to know it already. And it's this; that sharing our lives enriches us. We may look different at first or wear funny clothes. But, as the boys constantly remind me, "We're all human".