Stories

Neate-Seberry family

 

A Homely Welcome

 

Being a part of the Homestay Program has been a humbling and heart-warming experience for one young Skennars Head family.

Before settling in the Ballina region, establishing their physiotherapy business and having their family, Romy Neate and Ben Seberry spent 10 years travelling, visiting some 60 countries around the globe. “Especially in the Middle East, people were so hospitable and did things to help us expecting nothing in return,” Romy said. “I’ve always felt that I wanted to give something back, to help others. Welcoming refugees into our home shows our children that the world is actually a small place and that your ‘family’ can exist far beyond your community.”

It was several years ago that Romy and Ben’s son Sunny was moved by the plight of refugees held in detention centres in northern Australia. “He wanted to visit Darwin and Christmas Island, or write letters to the people there,” Romy says. “It was around that time that we learnt about Ballina Region for Refugees and its Homestay Program and we thought ‘we can do this’.”

The first people they hosted were an Iranian family from Sydney, with four children under five years of age. “It was really full-on, but lots of fun,” said Ben. “The mother wanted to cook for us, so we bought halal ingredients and she made us some lovely food.”

What Romy and Ben didn’t learn until later in the visit was that they were the first Australians the family had socialised with in two years.

Since then the couple have hosted a second family, also from Sydney – a Pakistani mother and her two daughters.

“It’s been hugely rewarding for our family,” Romy said. “We wanted to help our children understand the suffering of others and to realise how privileged we are. These people don’t have many choices – both families were on temporary bridging visas –  and their future is largely in the hands of others. They had escaped horrendous situations and were living in limbo. It must be so soul destroying.”

Ben said he was eager for their three children – Zoe, 15, Sunny, 13, and 8-year-old Eddie – to see that refugees are normal people. “It’s not until you meet people in this situation, and actually talk to them, that you see how much they are like us,” he said. “We have always been keen to give our children different cultural perspectives and the Homestay Program has been a great way to do that.”

Excursions to Broken Head and Byron Bay, and bushwalking at Protesters Falls formed part of the itineraries. “But it’s really important to be respectful of your visitors’ wishes,” Romy said. “Our first family was really keen to see the area and do lots of things, but the second family needed a rest and were happy just to hang around. It’s their time out after all.”

For Zoe and Sunny, the experiences have been illuminating. “You see stories in the news about refugees, but it’s not until you meet them that you learn what they’ve been through,” Zoe said.

“Every time someone helps, it makes a big difference,” Sunny said. “It’s just about being nice and it makes you happy to help someone with less than you.”

And there have been broader rewards for the entire family. “When you meet people from another country and culture, you learn to appreciate your own country more,” Romy said. “Our family gets a lot out of the Homestay visits, too.

“It’s been an important reminder that even though refugees are all individuals, with their own stories, they need what we all need – love and support. They are people escaping hardship, who are happy to have a break from their struggles. It must be lovely for them to see their kids happy and having fun.”

 

To learn more about the Homestay Program, please contact Gunela Astbrink, Homestay Coordinator at homestay@br4r.org.au

Information about Ballina Region for Refugees is at: www. br4r.org.au

July 2019

 

My Manus Island friend: Finding a new life
 

My own home before I migrated to the Northern Rivers was at Aireys Inlet, a small coastal town in Victoria. There I was one of the founding members of a Rural Australians for Refugees (RAR) Group.

Amongst our RAR projects was a program developed by Julian Burnside, the well-known barrister and human rights and refugee advocate. This program was to connect volunteers,, who would be willing to supply phone cards, to detainees on Manus Island.

I was put in touch with an 18-year old Rohingya Muslim, Mohammud, who arrived by boat in 2015. Beginning in 2016, I made sure that it was possible for him to maintain telephone communication with his few remaining family members, now living in refugee camps around the world, by covering telephone costs.

I wanted to let Mohammud know through my action that some Australians don’t share their Government’s policy on refugees. Through our connection he was made aware that people were working in Australia on behalf of refugees, trying to change public attitudes and lobbying for policy change.

Of course, it was important not to give false hope. During Mohammud’s stay on Manus I tried just to act as friend and supporter, sharing everyday life matters with him, sending photos of family and describing the usual events of normal life. In training for my role it had been stressed that refugees who have experienced trauma want and need to hear about normal experiences and I tried to do this.

Mohammud, still so young, has been on an incredible journey, from flight  from Myanmar to acceptance for residency in the United States. Now he tries to work, to recover from his four difficult years spent on Manus Island and create a new life.

I believe my personal relationship with Mohammud has been important to him and he has told me this many times. Making the ultimate transition, leaving behind friends made on Manus Island to face an unknown future on his own, was difficult for Mohammud. I really hope that I helped him to get through his ordeal by sharing the issues and struggles of both prolonged detention and final release.

Mohammud’s English improved throughout his time on Manus and I am in touch with him in the US through phone conversations and texts. I live in hope that he can have a good life in his new home country. I also continue to watch with great concern how the lives of refugees in continuing detention on Manus and Nauru Islands are playing out.

Submitted by Tania

A short story………….

Yasmin and Frances

By Christine Ahern & Pauline McKelvey
I t’s an everyday scenario. A woman is working in a kitchen when her mobile phone goes off. There’s an SMS just in. Does she stop what she’s doing to look at it? Or tell herself “later will do”?
But wait. What if this woman is one of a group providing lifelines for those trapped far away on a remote island, people who are in desperate need of friendship?
This story is about the Pacific solution that isn’t at all pacific. Men and women seeking asylum in Australia, held on Nauru and Manus Islands, continue to endure traumatic experiences. Many fear there are no definite plans for their resettlement.  Trapped in this refugee nightmare, it can be critically important for each of them to know that someone, somewhere in the world, cares.
Frances, living in Byron Bay, joined BR4R (Ballina Region for Refugees) a few years ago. This is an organisation spanning the Shires of Ballina and Byron that supports and assists refugees and asylum seekers both in offshore detention and in the community.
After becoming a member of BR4R Frances was invited to contribute as part of the Nauru Friendship Group.  It involved her in developing and maintaining direct connection with an asylum seeker through regular phone and online media.
This special friendship inspired Frances to reflect on an incident which, for her, poignantly highlighted the contrast between everyday Australian life and the realities of refugee detention. In this account the name of her asylum seeker has been changed.
Frances has made the trip down the coast, to Yamba, to visit her sister and nieces. They will be celebrating the birthday of one of the girls. Frances cherishes her relationships with all her nieces and everyone else in her large family.
Her phone pings. It’s Yasmin, texting from Nauru.
‘You are well? Is a good time for talking?’ 
Yasmin is always painfully polite. Despite Frances’s insistence that it’s not so, Yasmin is sure she must be a nuisance.  Frances texts back.
          ‘Yes, Yasmin. Lovely to hear from you. I’m at my sister’s house. It’s my niece’s birthday. We’re about to make a cake.’
Frances tone is deliberately light. It has taken months to build up trust.  At the beginning of their connection, Frances had been able to clearly read the caution between the lines of Yasmin’s texts:
          ‘Yes, I am Yasmin. I do not think I know you.’ (Who are you, Frances?)  
          ‘I am well, thank you, Frances. I hope you are well too.’(Why are you contacting me, Frances? Why should I trust you?)
         ‘I am very comfortable here. It is a bit hot – sometimes more than fifty in my tent. But I am not complaining.’ (Are you really the Australian government, trying to trick me?)]
In this exchange Yasmin’s reply takes a little while to arrive while Frances and her nieces are looking through cupboards for cooking ingredients.
You are making a cake?
Back goes the reply:
          ‘Yes, a chocolate cake. My niece’s favourite.’
And this time the return text is quick:
          ‘This is my family cake. I learn to make it with my mother.’
A texted recipe for a chocolate cake follows. It’s simple and not too different from the one that Frances and her nieces are about to make, although it contains cardamom.  Frances thinks that would a really nice addition but isn’t sure if her sister will have any. It’s not an everyday ingredient in Australian cuisine.
Frances reflects: how many times have Yasmin and her sisters gathered in their family home and made a chocolate cake? Yasmin has managed to keep up minimal contact with her loved ones, Frances knows. But what could it be that would cause someone to flee a loving family, a fulfilling job as a midwife – Yasmin had been a midwife for more than twelve years – and the country her lineage claimed as their home for thousands of years? It would be constant danger of rape, death threats and/or the certainty that you would be persecuted, perhaps imprisoned, for being different or holding different views, Frances concludes. Here ends the similarity of the Australian setting and the one Yasmin has fled.
There are some things that are never talked of by Frances and Yasmin. Such as the voyage by boat to reach Australia. But it is legal to seek asylum in Australia arriving by boat. Why is the myth perpetuated, Frances asks herself?
She wonders: “would I take my chances on a rickety old boat and head off for New Zealand if I believed that members of my family were going to be killed, raped and jailed for no reason?” Thinking of her own family, her parents, her precious nieces and nephews, Frances knows the answer. “You bet I would.” And her next question: “how would I feel if they then locked me up?” Angry and despairing, of course. Very angry and very despairing.
Frances gives herself a mental shake. Unquestionably, health and security checks are necessary. But under inhumane conditions? No!  Frances will never accept that this is either necessary or acceptable.
In this texted conversation in her sister’s kitchen, Frances is aware that if it were normal circumstances – very different to those she shares with Yasmin – she would be responding with something warm and inviting: ‘I hope we can get to make a cake together and share it soon.’ But she checks herself.
Frances’s role as participant in the Nauru Friendship Group is to provide support and to help keep Yasmin’s hope alive. But not too much hope. Too much hope can be a dangerous thing. Yasmin could be deported back to Iran with no notice. She could be taken to another country, never allowed to step on Australian soil. She could continue to suffer on Nauru, losing more and more faith in the future and parts of herself in a deepening depression. Frances is deeply concerned for Yasmin. Despite the polite and neutral tone of their conversations and her texts, Frances feels she can detect growing frustration and despair as time limps on with no resolution.
Yasmin does not always feel safe on Nauru. She suffers constant headaches and backache. Money is scarce. Sometimes there’s not enough to buy drinking water when the temperature is above fifty degrees inside her tent.  Nauru is hot and dry, sitting directly on the Equator. Yasmin has repeatedly been refused permission to travel to Australia for an operation that doctors have said is necessary.
                 ‘Thank you, Yasmin. My nieces say hello. They are going to use your recipe. Your English is getting so good.’  Frances knows that Yasmin is trying to improve her English.
                ‘I so happy for you and your nieces. I am hope you enjoy your cake.’
Frances pauses and then shares the message with her nieces. Chloe, the eldest, says to please send good wishes to Yasmin. Ellie, the youngest, asks when they might be able to meet Yasmin, their auntie’s friend.
And Frances replies: ‘‘Who knows?’ When Australia finds its heart, I guess.’
Frances and eleven other active members of the Nauru Friendship group continue to reach out to refugee women friend-to-friend.  As well as providing the support of personal phone calls, Whatsapp, Facebook and email contact, they respond as best they are able to requests for essential clothing, food supplies and phone credit.
“Two of the issues facing men and women on Nauru are limited medical care and access to culturally familiar food. This year we have had increased requests for Persian grocery items as the Iranian women want to be able to cook their own food. The parcels of herbs, nuts and other things we are sending over are warmly appreciated by the women.”
Friend to friend, kitchen to kitchen, these offerings mean so much.
Footnote: Yasmin was offered resettlement in the USA and is now rebuilding her life there. She finally has hope and freedom. She and Frances stay in contact. Three of the other women connected with the Nauru Friendship Group in the past year have also been resettled in the USA.  Currently approximately 30 children and 309 adults on Nauru, and around 700 men on Manus Island, are still awaiting their release.
BR4R works to raise awareness of refugees, hosts people seeking asylum through its Homestay Program and advocates for a more humane Australian refugee policy. BR4R has also directed attention and compassion to the vulnerable men and women on Nauru and Manus Island, who have been rendered voiceless and invisible by current and previous governments. 

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