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Issue #1773      April 12, 2017

No one is a stranger

I recently went to Bogor in Indonesia to visit a refugee community living there. The community was running a school for refugee children, the Cisarua Refugee Learning Centre. On the Friday afternoon after I arrived I walked into the school property and was greeted by a nine year old girl named Zahra who attended the school. When she asked where I was from I replied, “Australia,” and Zahra instantly responded, “I can’t wait to go to Australia!” I immediately felt saddened as I knew that with the current political climate her chances of being resettled in Australia were very slim. I soon realised that it would be tough hearing people’s personal stories over the next few days and knowing I couldn’t do anything to assist with resettlement.

Bogor, Indonesia: “Most people we spoke to had been in Indonesia for three to four years and some had been given refugee status”.

That first day Zahra and her father proudly showed us around the school. The school was in a two story house with six three-by-three metre bedrooms. Each room had been converted into a classroom for different age groups. While the rooms were very small for 20-plus students each, I was blown away by how beautifully decorated each room was, how creative and bright they were. The walls had been painted with inspirational quotes and vibrant pictures that brought a sense of joy to the otherwise old school property.

Zahra beamed while showing us her classroom and revealing how many star stickers she had received for her good work. She spoke English incredibly well, and we soon learnt that every class was taught in English in order to ensure the students could become fluent in the language before resettling in a new country. We then met the two people who helped run the school, Tahira and Khalil from Pakistan. It was amazing to discover how passionate they are about the work they are doing. I was very grateful for the time they took out to welcome us (my mother had joined me for the visit) and show us around.

That afternoon we went to the family house where we would be spending the night. We were warmly greeted and told that this was now our house too. The family was so lovely, and fed us multiple delicious and large middle-eastern feasts over the next two days. Their eight year old daughter and I played games and drew pictures together while her father sat for hours reading over a poem trying to learn English. It dawned on us how challenging it must be to have to learn a new language at a later age, and to be flung into completely new cultures and societies.

It was in our host’s house over a cup tea that Tahira shared the story of how she ended up in Indonesia. About four years before her husband had travelled from Pakistan to Indonesia and had boarded a boat to Australia in the hope he would be able to give his family a safe future. The boat went missing soon after it left Indonesian shores, and Tahira fled to Indonesia herself with their children to try to find out what had happened to him.

She soon realised Indonesia had a huge population and her husband could have departed from any one of a number of different ports, and after endlessly enquiring with different organisations, she realised that he could not be found. Her children ask often when their father is coming home, and she still has not told them that he has been missing for the last few years. We were in awe of how strong she was in raising her children on her own after having been through so much.

We were thrilled to then hear from her that after three years of applying for asylum through the UNHCR she had finally been accepted for resettlement in Canada. While she was grateful for the opportunity to start afresh in a new country, she was also sad to be leaving the tightly knit Hazara community in Bogor. She loved the school dearly and was easy to see that leaving it behind was not going to be easy.

I learnt a lot from my time with this community of people seeking asylum from Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. It soon became apparent that living in Indonesia was incredibly difficult for these families as they had no work rights and no access to medical help, and the children were not permitted to attend local schools.

They were making the best of their situation, and it was good to see they were providing as much as they could for their children to enable them to grow up healthy and happy under the circumstances. Although the families we met had adequate small apartments to live in with the basics they needed, and they had enough food to feed their children, I noticed there were virtually no children’s toys to be seen.

The parents shared that before they came they were able to save the money needed knowing it could be a long wait and some had family support. I asked what happened to those that did not have the finances, and we were told that those who didn’t have enough to survive on for their time in Indonesia while their applications were being processed went to inadequate and under-resourced detention centres.

Most people we spoke to had been in Indonesia for three to four years and some had been given refugee status. It was hard to hear that some had been there for three years or more and had still not been given refugee status as the system can be so slow. No one knew how many more years it would be until they would be resettled, and it really dawned on us how hard life would be not knowing the future for yourself and your children.

We were told that refugees in Indonesia usually get resettled to the USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, but that in the last year resettlement to Australia had completely stopped. Interestingly, none of those that we met were planning to get on a boat to come to Australia and all had sought asylum through the legal channels. It was just so tough to see how long it takes to be resettled through the UNHCR. Their lives were in limbo.

I left inspired by the work the school was doing. It was helping to make sure that when children were finally resettled that they could slip into a new school and a new society without a huge gap in their education. We saw the great benefits of the children being able to continue their education, as well as giving the adults a daily purpose and focus. It had created a surprisingly joyful and positive environment for those who had all lost so much.

After having worked in the refugee sector for a while now, it was very insightful to see everything from a different perspective by spending time in Indonesia and meeting the people behind the news stories. I have been friends with former refugees who had also come to Australia and had also passed through Bogor for some time, but seeing it for myself gave me a new found respect and admiration for the people who have to go through this challenge. My friends are truly incredible humans; they are funny and kind, amazing bakers and artists, and doing degrees in science, law and business – as well as taking the time to speak up for children’s human rights!

I am so thankful that they can now call themselves Australian, and I’m grateful for their friendship. While in Bogor I couldn’t help but to dream of all of the amazing things the children at the school might be doing with their lives one day.

When reflecting on my time in Bogor while on my trip back in Australia, it was upsetting to think about the fact that there are only 14,000 refugees currently in Indonesia, and that Australia could resettle them all in one intake. The media and the government have created an “us” and “them” narrative, building fears of the “stranger”. But when you meet people who have been forced to become refugees you see they are really no different to who we are, it’s just that they were born in a different part of the world where unimaginable circumstances have made it necessary for them to flee their home country. One day it could be us in a similar situation.

I plan to go back to visit one day, and while I would dearly love to see again the people that so warmly welcomed us and looked after us while we were there, instead I hope that they are resettled and given the opportunity to start a new chapter of their lives. Who knows, with any luck someone I met could be resettled in your town in the next few years and they could end up becoming your child’s school teacher, your local store owner, your lawyer or your future son or daughter in law. Everyone deserves these sorts of opportunities.

* Zoe Grant is ChilOut’s Community Engagement Officer and a passionate human rights activist who is finishing her BA majoring in Applied Psychology.

Next article – Film Reviews – Three classic post-war films

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