Elly McDonald

Writer


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Good in the world

Featured image: Screaming Freedom, and Freedom, both by Sina Pourhorayad

This week British MP Jo Cox was murdered by a man who in court justified his actions by yelling “Death to traitors! Freedom for Britain!”

Jo Cox was a champion for Yorkshire. She also championed, across her career, children’s health and safety, worldwide, and multicultural immigration to Britain. She campaigned for Britain to stay in the EU and she campaigned for just treatment of asylum seekers. She believed in humanity and a shared planet. She believed “We have far more in common than that which divides us.”

She died for her beliefs. More particularly, she died in consequence of acting on her beliefs.

The tragic death of Jo Cox, at age 41, elected to the Mother of Parliaments just one year ago, idealist and career activist, a wife and mother of two young children, has me thinking about good in the world.

It’s a truism to quote Edmund Burke in this context: “All it takes for Evil to prevail in this world is for enough good men to do nothing. The only thing necessary for the Triumph of Evil is for good men to do nothing.”

A partner to which might be the verse I quoted to some friends last night, from Julian of Norwich, the famed C14th English anchoress:

And all shall be well
And all shall be well
And all manner of thing shall be exceedingly well.
He said not ‘Thou shalt not be tempested, thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be diseased’; but he said ‘Thou shalt not be overcome’.

Usually that line is left out. I think that last line is where truth lives.

In a church today I heard the challenge activism presents expressed another way. The question was asked, “If this church closed tomorrow, how would that affect this town’s community? Would this church be missed? How would it be remembered?”

Last night I observed community activism in support of asylum seekers in detention in Melbourne. Richmond Uniting Church made its gallery space, Gallery 314, available for Over The Fence, an exhibition of art by asylum seekers, curated by Uniting Church minister Lisa Stewart. The exhibition is open for two evenings only, as an event within Refugee Week.

At the opening last night, a former detainee, Mohammad, spoke movingly about the experience of being a young man in indefinite detention. He spoke of the corrosive effects of being confined, restricted in his interactions with the broader community, unable to participate and contribute in the ways he wished. He spoke of the extraordinary moment it was for him the first time an Australian citizen with Anglo heritage spoke that simple word to him: “Welcome!”

Welcome. Well come. How can it be I’ve never heard the “Well come!” in “Welcome”?

An advocate on behalf of asylum seekers, representing the Melbourne detention centre visitor program, spoke about her frustration at the questions sometimes put to her by Australians with Anglo heritage who are well-intended and educated and whom she would presume are well-informed.

She asked, “How can it be these people need to ask these questions? How can it be they don’t know the facts about asylum seekers? How can it be they don’t know we have a detention centre here in Melbourne?”

I cringed when she voiced this. I consider myself well-intended and in terms of academic qualifications, I had the best education Australia can offer.

Yet despite a strong sense that detaining people indefinitely is morally – and surely legally? – wrong, I have questions I hesitate to ask, for fear of sounding stupid, for fear of sounding callous. Out of fear I am both ignorant and not nearly as kind as I’d like to believe I can be.

My questions include, “But if asylum seekers who arrive without papers are not detained, what are the alternatives? How can we verify who these people are? If we can’t verify who they are, how can we determine whether individuals among these arrivals without documentation might pose a threat to our community?”

Without realizing it, I have to some extent bought into a perception of asylum seekers as to varying degrees sinister.

There were past and a few present asylum seekers at the art exhibition launch last night.

This morning when I was telling my brother-in-law about my experience of the exhibition launch, he interrupted me and said, “I get it. Good looking. They were good looking. You’ve used the word ‘good looking’ five times so far.”

Without realizing it, I have to a large extent bought into the equation ‘good looking=good’. How very shallow of me.

Yes, the asylum seekers present last night were conspicuously good looking. Also conspicuously ‘normal’, in the sense they looked as eager to please, as motivated, as intelligent, smart, as delightful and frankly delicious as young people generally do to my middle-aged eyes. They looked nervous, too.

I spoke briefly to one artist, whom I will call Ayesha.

I said, “I hope you’re proud of yourself. You should be.”

In response, a flicker of what I can only describe as panic crossed Ayesha’s lovely face. Then she smiled, nervously, tentatively, and lowered her face slightly.

What did she hear? Did she hear an older Anglo lady say, “I hope you’re proud of yourself. You freeloader. You fraud.”

God, I hope not.

‘Ayesha’ is not ‘just’ a lovely face, and not ‘just’ a refugee. She is not a freeloader and not a fraud. ‘Ayesha’ is a talented and intelligent young woman, a young wife and mother – as Jo Cox was.

‘Ayesha’ and her fellow artists exhibiting in Over The Fence want to live. They want to live free in a community that accepts them and allows them opportunity.

They want to be “well come”.

I am grateful for the opportunity to meet Ayesha and to see Mohammad and others who have been – or are still – in the detention centre in Melbourne. (What is its name? I heard the acronyms but I don’t know what they stand for. I would ask but I hate disclosing my ignorance.)

I am grateful to the volunteer detention centre visitors who attended the exhibition opening.

I am grateful to the activists who spoke and to those who organized this event.

I am grateful to the young woman employed by the detention centre security company who chose to spend her Saturday evening at this exhibition launch.

I am grateful for having my eyes opened, even if it took “good looking” young people and heart-rending artwork to clear away some cataracts.

Most of all, I am grateful to be reminded of goodness in the world. Jo Cox died and unjust detentions continue, but Good (with an uppercase) acts in this world, and I do believe good can prevail.

 


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Practice Talk (1986)

He is learning English.

He likes to practice.

 

– So tell me what your life is like

here

asks the passenger.

He practices talking.

 

– My life is very filled

he says

his life is full.

 

He drives this cab: all days

most hours.

He studies.

He works hard and he

is learning.

Family?

 

No family.

There is no

since he was 15.

 

His passenger asks

– Was it hard?

 

– getting out?

he waded down

a river he swam

at night: smell

 

bodies

bits of bodies

like bouillabaisse

and mines

and he

did not know how

or where

to turn or which direction

and the delta was a swamp

clogged with flesh and he trod

and wished

 

for moonlight and the sea and

for his uncle:

who was dead

among bodies somewhere

 

else

and now

he is here.

He is learning.

Not so hard.

 


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Remembering Snow (1986)

Rosa says

I remember snow

When I was a girl I lived

in Siberia

There was so much snow so

much

we skated on a river of ice

Mrs Cameron

born Roth

40,916: tattooed in blue

teaches art

forgets

she remembers.

Don’t ask.

But

Mrs Zabukovec

gypsy eyes

teaches German

born Bulgarian

she remembers

being 18

in Berlin

being 18

Russians

she remembers.

Don’t.

She remembers

long rows of blossoms, white-clustered blossoms

so white so

much breaks

down

 

remembering snow