Death of compassion; birth of hope

October 31, 2013

Rod Lewis (right) with Ali.

Rod Lewis (right) with Ali.

COMMENT | This week marks what I believe is a first for South Australia: an ayslum seeker, who arrived here by boat as an unaccompanied minor, has graduated from high school.

After fleeing Afghanistan and making it to our shores, Ali has excelled in his studies despite all language barriers.

Yesterday, he finished high school and now awaits news of his acceptance to university.

This lad has become part of my family. He is my son. Over the past few years, I have helped and watched him grow from a lost soul to a productive and enthusiastic member of our society – one who is not only studying hard in a new language to better his own future, but one who has dedicated his life to helping Australians understand the global issue of asylum seekers. He is a public speaker, and dedicates his time and energy to help his fellow Hazara peers to improve their life too. He’s an amazing individual. And he’s only 18.

A few years ago, the federal government started a community detention program for unaccompanied minors – asylum seekers (“boat people”) who were teenagers who had made the voyage without any parents or family. The program took these teenagers out of the harsh regime of Christmas Island and other adult detention centres and put them into staffed detention houses in the community where they could get 24-hour support and supervision, start attending school and begin to normalise their life. There has NEVER been an unaccompanied minor asylum seeker who has not been accepted as a refugee.

Through Baptist Care SA, I was asked to join the program and was in the first wave of volunteer mentors to be matched with one of the teenagers in community detention. It was one of those rare matches that was perfect. Ali is now living independently, but he and I have become a father/son team. He’s accepted as my son by both family and friends.

Of all the unaccompanied minors who have been through the system so far,  I believe Ali was the first in the State (and, I believe, nationally, but I can’t confirm that) to graduate from English language school to attend regular high school, and he’s now the first in the State to complete high school. He’s applied to do IT at university next year, and considering that he’s maintained an A/B average, I’m sure he’ll be accepted.

While this is a positive story, I believe that, as a country, we are creating the very world that we fear.

Instead of compassion and neighbourly love, we are building a world of bigotry, hatred and racial unrest. I can’t understand why we want that future for our children. The only way to give our kids a better life is to teach them to embrace the tapestry of life and show compassion to those who need it most. As Buddha said, we are the heir to our actions. If we hate people, they’ll learn to hate us back. If we welcome them and help them adjust to our culture, they’ll embrace us and contribute to our society.

I have a relative who recently posted on Facebook that we should “sink the boats”. He hates asylum seekers, almost obsessively, yet he donates furniture to refugees, spends his weekends helping mates, and absolutely does not condone mass murder. The fact that he has completely de-humanised “boat people” is an indictment on just how much our politicians and media have managed to destroy Australia’s compassion. Asylum seekers are no more than broken toys to be discarded in the hard rubbish. He does not associate “sinking the boats” with the mass death of women, children and displaced men.

As a country, we need to change the conversation. If “boat people” are criminals, like our politicians want us to believe, then why aren’t they facing our criminal courts like every other criminal in the country? They don’t face the courts because they’ve committed no crime. The language is a misleading technicality because international laws state that anyone can seek asylum by any means necessary. There is no “queue” to jump and they’re not “country hopping”: countries that are not a signatory to the Refugee Convention will just deport them right back to danger, so they have to keep moving.

I used to believe that only the rich were asylum seekers because they could afford to pay people smugglers, but since educating myself I’ve realised how many families sell their home and their livelihoods just to get one child to safety. They destroy their own future for the sake of their child. If that isn’t love, what is it?

One of my Afghan friends recently attended his sister’s wedding in Quetta City in Pakistan, where Hazara people are killed weekly (a fact that our media fails to acknowledge). In his first week there, within three blocks of his family home there was a suicide bombing, a rocket launch and a bus blown up. Thank God he survived, but if it was my family living there, I’d do all that I could to get them out.

Australians are a compassionate people who have lost their way. We are one of the richest countries in the world and have more space and capacity than most other countries. The number of “boat people” we received annually during the Labor government was less than the number received monthly by many other countries. We were something like 49th on the list of countries receiving asylum seekers. A quick Google search would dispel most myths, but sadly those who hate are not interested in educating themselves. It’s only those who love who seek to understand both sides of the argument so they can present a logical defence.

Ali is a shining example of how much asylum seekers and refugees can contribute to our society – just like founder of Westfield, Frank Lowy, and Hieu Van Le, the Lieutenant Governor of South Australia.

For the sake of our children and the future of this country, we need to reject media sound bites and political fear-mongering.

It doesn’t take much research to find out the truth.

Until we, as a society, change our attitude, our politicians will continue to blame the victim and build an Australia full of hatred and racial unrest. Personally, I don’t want that for Ali. I want him and future generations to live in a harmonious world.

Yesterday was a wonderful day because an unaccompanied minor asylum seeker has motivated himself to take on a part time job so he can pay rent and afford to go to school, do homework, and study in a foreign language without any parental pressure or guidance.

He completed his schooling without the kind of support and luxuries that so many Australian kids take for granted. His success is entirely his own. And if you think that’s the trait of a bad person, then you need to question your own definition of morality.

Rod Lewis is a volunteer mentor with the Baptist Care SA Refugee Services. He is an SA finalist in the Australian Local Hero Award – part of the 2014 Australian of the Year awards.



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Filed under Life after detention, Public Reaction/Perception Towards Asylum Seekers

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