Monday 17th June Day 3
Today – before I went to sit on the steps – I watched a movie by an Iranian director and visual artist, Shirin Neshat. It was set in 1953 when the British and the Americans backed a coup to remove the democratically elected government in Iran. In this movie one of the women says, ‘Standing among these hands and voices, I knew that the will that moves all things had come back to me. I was here not to watch, but to see. Not just to be, but to act’.
That moment gave me words to express some of what has led me to sit in vigil and solidarity with those seeking refuge.
So much of how the Australian Government and mainstream media depicts people who are seeking asylum, people who are refugees, serves to de-humanise them. This is not a new tactic – it has been used against the First Nations Peoples of Australia since invasion. One of the effects of this is that the wider public begin to see, in this case, refugees as less than human and so can watch or dismiss the lived reality of people being traumatised, brutalised, imprisoned and denied human rights in this country. I met an old man recently who would say with great concern and experience: ‘Nothing good can come of this’. Like the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act that enabled the ‘intervention’ in the Northern Territory, the suspension of a group’s human rights needs to be noticed, is of great concern.
While I was sitting at the vigil tonight I thought of Vassillio, the old man I met last week. He is 93. I met him when I was caring for a friend in St Vincents Hospital. Vassilio, also a patient in the hospital, presented himself with much dignity and was dressed in a 3 piece tweed suit with a matching hat, and a red handkerchief in his pocket that matched his red tie. ‘You see me? You see me? You see how I am dressed?’ he asked. ‘I am not only an old man in a hospital bed’!
Vassilio told me of how his ancestors had come from Russia centuries ago and that they had been ‘chased to Kosovo’, where he had lived much of his life until he was forced to flee – becoming a refugee, finally finding a place in Australia. Looking at me he said, ‘I am happy. I have a little flat, I have food, a small garden where I grow flowers, and each day I walk’. He told me of how each day he walks, (with his zimmer frame), along the streets and how he notices the kindness of people. And he notices too those who are sad – and those who have forgotten how to feel. Each day he carries a bag of flowers with him. And each day he gives these flowers to those he sees on trams, those he passes in the street, the shop keepers who look tired. And each day he brings some joy, a moment of kindness to the people he passes. ‘I do not do this so people will think “that’s a good man”. I do this because to give the kindness to another person fills me with love. I am happy’, he says, patting his chest.
Vassillio also tells me of how each night he watches parliament on the television and how he feels so disappointed as each day he sees how hurtful, unkind, and cruel the politicians are to each other – and that he know that no good can come from this. ‘Are you listening to me?’ he says. ‘Nothing good can come from this’.
Tonight, as I sit with the others who have joined me in this vigil I see clearly how his kindness, his want to give joy, share love, brings something good. And I think of how it is that he sees people, really sees people.
Sitting in vigil with these others I know that we all have choices. Like Vassillio we can choose to see, rather than watch, we can choose to recognise the humanity of each human being, and the effects of our actions on ourselves and others. We can choose to recognise each person seeking asylum, seeking safety, as a person, not dissimilar to us – a woman, child, man with a history, a family, hopes and fears, a person who is loved and loving. We can choose empathy, humanity, shared responsibility and love.
In this seeing, which allows us to feel, the will to love, to care, to connect – which is a part of each of us – can find a place.
For me it was in the moment when more women, men and children were drowning so close to land, their bodies left in the sea (not a priority according to Australian ‘authorities’) that I finally knew ‘that the will that moves all things had come back to me. I was here not to watch, but to see. Not just to be, but to act.’
And so this vigil is about the choice to see people. And in this seeing, feeling – allowing ourselves to be affected by the effects of violence, incarceration, of denial, destitution, and persecution on people. This vigil is about growing compassion. This vigil is about honouring those who are suffering at the hands of an uncaring government and peoples. And this vigil is about remembering. Remembering that many of us are not the First Australians. Remembering that many of us are visitors, newcomers to this country of the Jaara people – where we sit in vigil; remembering that there is a story much older than us. As Kim Scott writes in his book Benang(which means tomorrow in Nyoongar language) ‘Speaking from the heart, I tell you that I am part of a much older story, one of perpetual billowing from the sea, with its rhythm of return, return, remain’(p497). And remembering too, that we are not the first to sit back and watch.
To act takes many forms, and as I sat there tonight some people suggested I could do more, do things in a different way, with a more ‘political’ focus. Looking at the moon, sending my love to those who are not safe tonight, I thought of the full title of Kim Scott’s book, Benang: from the heart. And I thought about how this vigil is an action ‘from the heart’. It is an attempt to heal the sickness of this country; it is about restoring humanity, it is about knowing that it is really our own humanity we are giving up as we fail to see, feel, acknowledge and protect the humanity of others, of all. This vigil is ‘from the heart’, in the hope that tomorrow will be led by a politics of love rather than greed, denial and fear.
I will be sitting on the steps of the Castlemaine market Building from 5pm – 6.30pm tomorrow. Come sit with me should you wish – bring a cushion so your bum doesn’t freeze – or pop in to the sign the petition.