Sunday, July 28, 2013

Some thoughts now that I'm an Australian.


An island, ringed with golden beaches, and girt by beautiful blue seas. To the north east the great barrier reef, verdant with colour and life.

A continent, the desert in the centre flat and ochre, Uluru, warn smooth and rounded by the hands of time punching through the dusty plains.

And more than just this natural beauty, a land full of iconic imagery.

Possessor of bountiful mineral resources. And wealth, one of the best performing economies in the world during these troubled times.

Australia, truly the lucky country!

Not nearly as lucky, is the country that I grew up in, South Africa.

Also blessed with golden beaches, iconic imagery and bountiful mineral resources, South Africa seems to have continually made choices that brought nothing but misfortune.

I have so clearly etched in my mind, memories of searchlights, shining, ironically, from an old english fort on the apex of a hill, their probing beams of light slicing through the night, sweeping slowly across the face of the township on the other side of the valley to our family home.

Every night the search lights used to dance.

If we took out field glasses and looked at where the oval disks of their light fell, we could sometimes see the security police, heavily armoured, moving slowly from door to door, looking for people. It was rumoured that the people that they were looking for were destined for summary execution - without trial.

But we didn't know.

Information was tightly controlled. All we knew was that from time to time people seen as enemies of the apartheid regime just disappeared.

Some people, unable to withstand the uncertainty of being seen as an enemy of the regime, fearful that they would be the next to vanish, would flee. Their trip to escape doubly dangerous, for if they were caught their attempt to flee was obviously an admission of guilt.

Those that succeeded became refugees, living in countries far away from their homes, families and friends.

But this country, Australia, I've learnt, was founded not just on the sweat of criminals, but also by the sweat of refugees.

I've learned about Australia's roots because I, as one of the scatterlings of Africa, was swotting up for my Australian citizenship exam.

We don't know why the Aboriginal came here, but they may very well have been the first refugees. 

Following the first fleet of convicts, there have regular waves of refugees. The first recorded being Lutherans, arriving in 1839, fleeing from religious prosecution in Prussia. Between 1933 and 1939 more than 7 000 Jewish Germans found sanctuary in Australia. After the second world war, the largest wave of refugees ever to come to Australia. Over 170 000 people, mainly from central Europe: countries like the Ukraine, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Poland.


My father was a Polish refugee. That's how we landed up in South Africa.

He was a captain in the Polish army at the outbreak of the Second World War. Captured by the Russians, he somehow lost all sign of his rank.Which was really lucky, as the Russians took quite a lot of the Polish officers they captured to a forrest; Katyn, and shot them.

But my wily father not only managed to avoid the massacre by loosing his rank: he contrived to escape and made his way through occupied Europe, to England, where he joined, and fought for, the Free Polish Army.

At the end of the war, the British prevented him from marching in the victory celebrations and mandated that he was to be sent back to Poland.

Desperate not to return to a country under Russian control, he ran from embassy to embassy in London, looking for any country that would accept him as a refugee. The South African embassy franked his passport on the spot, and he was on the first ship he could find to Africa, a Polish refugee.

Had he been accepted on the spot by Australia, I would have been born here, and not in Africa. But I've made up for that now: I passed my citizenship test. I've got my letter from the minister, and attended the citizenship ceremony. I'm now a new minted a citizen of Australia!

I'm not the only person who wants to make this wonderful country their home.

I regularly hear terrible stories of Australian bound refugees on boats, drowning, because the overladen and unseaworthy rust buckets transporting them have foundered in the dangerous waters to the north.

I don't know why those “boat people” want to come to Australia.

Are they trying to come to Australia in order to build a better life for themselves and their children? If so, the risks they take are enormous.

Are they perhaps, like the enemies of apartheid, fleeing before the rough justice of their homeland state can be brought to bear?

Or is it because, like my father, they fear almost certain death for simply being who they are?

Whatever force is driving these refugees, it must be incredibly powerful.

Simply look at the risks they are taking with their families and themselves in order to try to get to a different place far on the other side of the world.

When I see these refugees being herded into detention centres, reminiscent of concentration camps, with children in tow, I feel deeply troubled.

For I learned during my citizenship studies that we Australians (I think I can say this now), we Australians hold a shared set of values.
  • Peacefulness
  • Respect for the dignity of the individual
  • Freedom of speech and association
  • Equality before the law
  • Equality of opportunity

And that we share a strong spirit of egalitarianism that embraces tolerance, mutual respect, and a compassion for those in need. And that no one should be disadvantaged on the basis of their country of birth.

I've thought about these shared values that we Australians hold dear. And compared them to the values that were in play in the country that I grew up in. And to the countries that my father both fought and fled from in the second world war. And even to those of the countries that the boat people currently are fleeing from.

And I'm sure that its these shared Australian values that make the difference. That make this the place where we all want to be.

Knowing that, the way we currently treat refugees seems somehow un-Australian to me.

We Australians are legally obliged to vote.

So in this coming election I'm not going to vote emotionally. I'm not going to vote for the party I identify most with. I'm going to my research and vote for the party that most espouses our shared Australian values.

For I believe these shared values are what have truly made this the lucky country.

“For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share;
With courage let us all combine
To Advance Australia Fair”

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