Culture //

Faces behind the rhetoric

Astha Rajvanshi had a poignant meeting with two refugees

There are few occasions when we are confronted by the realisation of just how large and fragmented the world is, and how we form a tiny flicker in its bizarre conjoinment. We live in realities, where the security, comfort and freedom we take for granted is so directly parallel to someone else’s suffering and helplessness.

Last week I met an Iranian refugee couple that had been released from detention a while ago. After a short stay in STUCCO, they were invited back by fellow residents to share their story with the student community.

My interest in attending the talk, put bluntly, was at best a feel-good act in the superficial face of humanity. I am not an activist, nor have I actively taken part in the ongoing conversations on human rights and refugee politics.

I’d heard about the couple from a friend who was helping them find accommodation. They had, in a nutshell, fled Iran out of fear of persecution, and arrived at Christmas Island by boat from Indonesia, after which they were transferred to Darwin, Adelaide and finally, Sydney.

On the day of our visit, my friend carried some books in his bag to give to the woman – copies of Sylvia Plath and Agatha Christie – which she accepted almost emphatically. That she would be interested in reading western literature surprised me – a symptom of the discourse surrounding refugees and asylum seekers as uneducated, unaccustomed and illegal that pervades the narratives cobbled together by the Australian media.

And yet, when I shook their hand and introduced myself, it was maybe the most anticlimactic, median exchange of greetings, because they appeared to be no different to me. They were both young – in their early 30s maybe, well educated and quite good-looking. He is a civil engineer, she a lecturer and academic. Both were dressed casually: a rough pair of jeans with a sporty tee and running shoes.

Perhaps the one thing that stood out between them and us was something my friend described to me perfectly – a kind of misery, etched into their faces. They were composed, polite and welcoming, but they were worn out from exhaustion.

Throughout our meeting, I remained silent. I didn’t want to be patronising or voyeuristic, but mostly, I didn’t really know what to say. As my friend conversed with them in Persian, he would occasionally turn to me and translate what was being said, largely for my benefit.

Even so, my silence was eroded with the realisation of just how scarce and vulnerable human dignity was for them, as they stood in front of their crowd, ready to relive their moments of pain with the determination to tell their story.

In between YouTube videos that brusquely exposed the chaos and calamity in the streets of Iran’s cities with the killing and beating of unarmed protestors, he described his fight for the injustices of child labour and stifled speech.

In his solemn and sombre state, he reflected, “You don’t know how lucky you are to have the freedom to do and say what you want in this county.”

She spoke of her pursuit for education and her passion for teaching – stories about her childhood dream to become a university professor, her curiosity to learn about every religion, gender and sexuality, and her desire to impart independent thought and reasoning on her students.

“I didn’t want them to end up like sheep in a herd.”

She described the inexplicable pain she felt in her legs from squatting for eight hours as they hid in a truck full of people in Indonesia, waiting to flea the fear, waiting to get on the boat.

In her eloquent yet emotionally distraught state, she made a single plea that night: “Please don’t call us criminals. We were just like you – we lived a comfortable life back home, but we didn’t have any freedom. That’s why we had to do this.”

To risk one’s life and livelihood, to leave behind all loved ones indefinitely, and to embark on a journey no less fraught with danger – these are not decisions that one makes lightly or willingly.

But fear serves no place for those people for whom the ‘rule of law’ presents a very real threat to the fundamental idea of freedom. In their devotion to human rights and human dignity, they point out the differences between acts of decency and barbarism in our world.

And yet, there is no light at the end of the tunnel: the couple are haunted by their past, and continue to be treated with contempt. They yearn for their family back home, but have given up comfort for conscience. And when the government or the media frames the discourse around refugees with terms like “illegals”, “detainees” or even “transferees,” their helplessness falls deaf on the ears of many and turns into a distorted myth.

But sending them back to their country is not an option – it should never be, because people are not herds of sheep, and they deserve not to be treated as so.