It wasn’t always like that, but now it is, and so well entrenched too. One hardly dares to put on the TV. Night after night we get these terrible pictures and images of war. Anxious faces of children not even knowing if the person taking the footage is friend or foe. And yet, Australia imprisons those victims of terrible wars. I know of no better way to describe of what Australia has turned into than to quote a foreword by well-known Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas on a book, “They cannot take to the Sky.” It is written by several authors concerned how Australia is treating refugees
The foreword was published by The Guardian.
“In Australia in 2017, They Cannot Take the Sky is also necessary. For nearly two decades now, Australian politics has been corrupted by a toxic and destructive national debate about asylum seekers and refugees. Unfortunately, fought out as much across media – traditional and digital – as it has in our parliament, the issue of asylum has become inexorably entwined with our security and existential fears arising from the threats of international terrorism.
Our leaders, across the political spectrum, have failed in the democratic imperative to ensure a cogent and humane approach to the issue. In fanning the hysteria of partisanship they have betrayed our trust. That great leveller, history, will ultimately judge us on what kind of country we created for ourselves at the beginning of the 21st century. This isn’t the place for political analysis. All I want to suggest is that in all the screaming across the parliament floor or on social media, we forget that the asylum seeker and the refugee is a real person, with a real body and a real consciousness, that they are as human as we are.
We know that the detention centres we have built on our continent, on Nauru and on Manus Island, are not places we would ever countenance imprisoning Australians. We know what we have done. We don’t need history to instruct us on that.
The stories in this book – these accounts, these testaments – they are all a form of witnessing to what occurred during our watch over the last twenty years. There are moments of brutality and incomprehension; how can it be else? But there are also moments of great humour, of inspiration and of almost heartbreaking generosity. Time and time again, a voice will offer thanks to the individual kindness of an Australian that dared to visit a refugee in prison, that offered assistance as the newcomer tried to navigate their way in a foreign and perplexing country.
These stories also act to break down the cumulative and dangerous stereotyping of refugees as having always the identical and same experience. These storytellers are not only Muslim or Afghani or Tamil; they are also, and just as importantly, mothers or fathers, brothers or sisters, artists or students, workers or scientists, lovers both straight and gay. Some of them embody the rawness and fury of youth and some the wisdom and caution of age. The cumulative effect is one of a great and powerful chorus that sings the possibility of a hope that Australia has been denying itself, the enrichment that comes from openness and charity.
Hani writes, “I realised that freedom is not walking free. It means to be free mentally and physically.” Chained to policies that we all know in our hearts to be destructive and inhuman, can it be said that we Australians are truly free?
Many years ago now, I was having a drink with a cousin in Athens. We were talking and drinking late into the night and as it will always be with a Greek, we were furiously discussing politics and history. She was reflecting on the White Australia Policy and arguing that if we had not had such a racist attitude to the immigrant in the late 1930s, there would have been a generation of Jewish artists, scientists and intellectuals who might have made Australia their home. “Think of it,” she said, grabbing my hand and holding it tight, “Think of what your country could be if you had not had such stupid laws.”
They Cannot Take the Sky is full of great writing. I hope that in the future that many of the narrators will be the writers of a great new wave of Australian literature. Their experiences as refugees cannot be forgotten, that will always inform the work that they do. But I can’t wait to hear their stories of Australia and their stories of the world. I wish my country were not beholden to stupid and wicked laws that gutless men and women created out of fear and ignorance; and yes, out of venality and the lust for power.”