Hope & Love: through the eyes of refugees

You know what’s great about Australia’s handling of our refugee ‘crisis’? It’s that no matter how long you take to write about it, it never gets old. I’ve been faffing around since April last year trying to write about refugees and, rather than being out of date, it’s still current. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s even more current now than it was then. That never happens. It’s like journalistic manna from heaven!

The issue of asylum seekers is hard to write about without sounding like a massive bleeding heart. Thirteen years ago, with the images of September 11 so vivid in our minds, and the words Al-Qaeda, sleeper cell and Bin Laden having entered our daily vernacular, we were all too willing to believe that ‘boat person’ was code for ‘terrorist’ and that we were being invaded by boatloads of fundamentalists hell-bent on world domination. Of course they’d throw their kids overboard; they’d do anything in the name of Islam.

But that is changing, thank goodness. As a nation we’re becoming less fearful, and trying not to be so ignorant. If anything good came out of September 11, it was that it made many of us confront our prejudices and fear of ‘the other’. I like to think it has made a growing number of us wiser, less ignorant and more compassionate towards the plight of asylum seekers fleeing tyranny, war and famine. These are people as keen on living in a country at war as we are, and we want to see them treated with empathy and respect.

Unfortunately we’ve hit a frustrating era where Canberra’s policies are proving to be increasingly out of step with the thinking of the electorate. I think it’s fair to say the majority of voters are more compassionate on a whole range of human rights issues and keen to see an end to strong arm politics where a bit of humanity should prevail. I don’t want to go into the politics of it too much because that’s not what this blog is about, but I would like to show you work from a little art exhibition currently hanging at Mercy Heritage Centre that I think deserves a bit of attention.

Hope & Love: Through the Eyes of Refugees is a joint project between Mercy Heritage Centre and Romero Centre, an interfaith community drop-in centre committed to social justice that was set up by the Brisbane Sisters of Mercy in 2000. A place of welcome and support for displaced people suffering the legacy of mandatory, indefinite detention and Temporary Protection Visas, Romero Centre acts as both advocate for asylum seekers, and educator of the wider community about the experiences of refugees. It also, luckily for the rest of us, is committed to showcasing the culture, creativity and artistic practices that asylum seekers bring with them. They hold high profile events such as fashion shows, festivals and an annual Refugee Film Festival.

Hope & Love: Through the Eyes of Refugees is not a big exhibition, and not all of the work hanging in it is good, but the potential for shows such as this one to extend our understanding of the subject is great. The stories behind the artworks (which range from the very didactic, to ethereal and abstract) and the artists themselves are the potent force of Hope & Love. Some of the artists were well known painters before fleeing their homelands, others discovered their creativity through the art therapy provided by Romero Centre. Some of them exhibit under pseudonyms to protect themselves from retribution by their respective governments. In all cases they are showing how much beauty and soul they bring to any country willing to offer them protection.

I’ve written about Mercy Heritage and my issues with all things Sisters of Mercy before, but this time I have nothing but praise for them. Where the Oxford dictionary’s definition of ‘mercy’ may have escaped previous generations of the Sisters of Mercy in this country, the current sisters would appear to be very clear on its meaning. I never thought I’d say it, but we could all learn a great deal from the work they are doing.


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