Silent journeys

Desh Balasubramaniam is a former asylum seeker and founder of arts movement Ondru.THE political debate in Australia about asylum seekers has focused on those arriving by boat. They have been demonised, rather than described as what they truly are – some of the most desperate and vulnerable people on the planet, usually fleeing persecution, violence and even torture.

It is disappointing that senior politicians fan the dog-whistle notion of ”queue jumpers”. In the overwhelming majority of cases, there is no queue or processing system accessible to asylum seekers in their home nations; indeed, only 0.5 per cent of the world’s more than 15 million asylum seekers have access to a queue.

Most asylum seekers are not ”boat people”, another dog-whistle term that sells Australians short; most Australians are kind and generous, and many celebrate that a key strength of our nation is a cultural diversity partly generated by refugees.

Of those who do arrive by sea, about 90 per cent are found to be genuine refugees. In the past 30 years, only about 30,000 asylum seekers have arrived in Australia by boat. The vast majority of people who ask for asylum here arrive by plane and seek refugee status while living in community housing.

Another disingenuous tactic to generate or inflame some voters’ antipathy is the use of the term ”illegal immigrants”. Asylum seekers are neither immigrants nor illegal. Immigrants leave their country by choice and can return at any time. There is no Australian law against arriving here without a valid visa to seek asylum. Further, as a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees, Australia is obliged to protect people escaping persecution.

One way to help stop these people from risking their lives at sea is to seek a regional solution; only a handful of countries in our region are signatories to the Refugee Convention. Another part of the solution is to significantly increase the number of asylum seekers officially permitted to come here. Australia takes a mere 13,500 asylum seekers a year, or about 0.2 per cent of the world’s refugees. We rank 69th in the world in terms of the number we take relative to our population. As many as eight in ten asylum seekers are in developing nations; the biggest numbers are in Pakistan, Iran, Syria, Germany and Jordan.

The issue of asylum seekers is a humanitarian one, not political. Today’s guest in The Zone is here to help put a human face on the debate. Not only is Desh Balasubramaniam a former Sri Lankan refugee, he is also the founder of a Melbourne-based arts and literature movement, Ondru, set up to help broaden minds and deepen understanding about people who are forced to flee their home nations. Ondru’s mission is to ”evoke, challenge and inspire positive social change through honest expressions of arts and literature”.

His personal story exemplifies the contribution asylum seekers can make to our economy and society, and Ondru’s existence shows the way creativity can be used to help promote a positive public conversation, rather than the often-toxic one that has sullied Australia.

”What we want to do is broaden people’s perspectives, to create dialogue, to question. Nobody leaves their country without actually considering the options, and they leave as a last resort. We don’t talk sufficiently about the journey they go through, all that uncertainty.

”And then they arrive here and there’s another struggle – whether you’re accepted to stay here. And then there is another struggle, and that is to adapt. So those are the matters that we should question and reflect upon, not just make uninformed statements that too many people are coming.”

Balasubramaniam was born and raised until the age of 13 in the war-ravaged northern and eastern provinces of Sri Lanka. His parents fled with their four children and accepted on humanitarian grounds by New Zealand, where they settled in a country town.

Balasubramaniam spoke little English, and says the hardest thing he has ever done is get through his schooling. One of his abiding memories is being told by his father to do his homework by looking up every single word in the dictionary. The struggling student declared this an impossible task. His father threw the dictionary across the room to him and retorted that ”impossible” was a term found only in a fool’s dictionary. Balasubramaniam subsequently crossed out the word in every dictionary in the household.

He completed secondary school and went to university, where he took degrees in law and business.

He then found himself struggling to find his identity, so he travelled on a limited budget though a number of countries, usually hitchhiking, and worked in a series of jobs as he sought to reconcile being Sri Lankan, a Tamil and a New Zealander. His voyage took him to Melbourne, and something clicked.

”I felt Melbourne had this beautiful essence where I was able to meet people from all walks of life. Initially I was washing dishes, I was driving forklifts.

”I felt that whatever I wanted to do could be done here in Melbourne. I didn’t feel that in other places before. There was this beautiful essence and I felt this is where I want to be.”

He’s still here. Having worked in law firms, he moved to his current employer, the Victorian Department of Education. His work has contributed to engaging various disadvantaged communities through education and jobs as well as supporting industry to fill skills gaps.

That’s his day job. He spends another 40 hours a week alongside the other volunteers who have created Ondru.

Ondru means ”one” in Tamil and was an idea that came to him during his travels. Ondru seeks to inspire and generate community dialogue through a range of projects.

Balasubramaniam and his partners, who come from various nations including Spain, Sudan, France and Australia, are also planning to create workshops for schools, and would be happy to hear from teachers or principals, who can contact them through the website ondru苏州美甲美睫培训.

”It’s not just about living beside the other person, it is about being able to understand each other. If we’re saying we are to inspire social change or evoke and challenge, that is the context that we must understand – the intentions and why people act in a certain manner. That’s what we’re trying to bring about through our expressions.”

Their projects and events are all detailed on the website. They include dance, poetry, other literature, a magazine, film and photography.

Projects under development include Tales of Exotic Stress, a photographic study of indigenous themes, and Carriage of the Unspoken Letters, which combines photography and dance to compare Eastern identity with Western modernity.

In coming weeks, Melburnians will witness one of the biggest and most ambitious things Ondru has attempted. In a project called Voiceless Journeys, the group has photographed and interviewed 101 people from diverse backgrounds who are making their lives here after leaving their countries as a result of internal problems or conflicts. The plan is to enlarge the images, in some cases to the size of a wall, and display them throughout the city.

”We focused on telling the silent stories of people who have left their countries as a result of conflict or internal problems to make their lives here. What we wanted to do was not only celebrate the cultural diversity of Melbourne and wider Australia, but also raise awareness about their journey, their struggle, their survival, and their achievements.”

Balasubramaniam’s journey, struggle, survival and achievements enrich our community. He and the many others who have been sufficiently resilient and resourceful to escape terrible circumstances and rebuild their lives, are, surely, the sort of people employers should fight to employ and neighbours and communities hasten to embrace.

As we head towards another election, we can only hope our political leaders cease seeking political mileage out of the plight of such people, and encourage acceptance and understanding of potentially outstanding contributors to the growth and continuing prosperity of one of the world’s richest and most diverse nations.

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