The Salesian activities of extraordinary mission’s month* continued on Wednesday 9th of October with a panel discussion tackling the growing refugee crisis around the world, hosted by Romina Martiniello, in Clifton Hill, Melbourne.

Flora Chol, a writer, poet, activist and self-confessed tea fanatic who escaped South Sudan 17 years ago was the guest of honour and was also accompanied by Giam D’amico and Nick Mueller, who are both mental health clinicians that work with the Cabrini Asylum seeker and Refugee Health Hub in Brunswick.

Around 30 people gathered to listen to them speak as they tackled tough issues and sensitive topics, speaking of their own personal experiences. The experience for the group was quite an intimate one, as the smaller group size allowed for the audience to ask questions and make comments throughout the night.

Flora spoke with an unabashed passion and unrepentant fury when she spoke of some of her own experiences as a refugee in Australia and what she sees in the current political climate. The panel agreed that the continual politicization of refugees, castigated them as ‘others’, labelling them as queue jumpers and so on has led to a system that is increasingly intentionally cruelly punitive, but the point especially hit home when Flora stated that “Australia is criminalizing people who are just trying to survive”.

She also further iterated that everyone single refugee has their own story to tell and that nobody should just assume that they are all the same, or that they want all the same things. Giam agreed with this, saying that one of the most common things he hears in his work with asylum seekers is them asking “how come nobody can just see me as a human being?

There was shock and anger in the air when some of the statistics about the refugee’s crisis were brought to light. 67% of the world’s refugees come from just 5 countries (Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and Somalia) and the 5 countries that have hosted the most refugees are Turkey, Pakistan, Uganda, Sudan and Germany.

Nick further highlighted this point by talking about how little Australia is doing compared to many places around the world when he brought up that Norway, comparable to Australia in GDP has taken in around triple the amount of refugees, despite being a much tinier country by area.

Giam also added that he believes there is something in the Australian psyche, that is based on fear. Perhaps due to its status as an island, or that it is so far from the rest of the world, he believes that Australians see themselves as somewhat disconnected from the rest of the world, leading to a fear of ‘the other’ and a fear of invasion by this unknown. Flora was very quick to add that this was obviously a white Australian psyche, and given the land’s history, to be fearful of invasion is extremely ironic!

Everyone who attended the night learnt something new, and gained fresh insight into how extreme the harship of a Refugee or Asylum Seeker's life will be even after they flee coutnry of origin.

For the last half-hour, the panel was opened to questions from the crowd. “What can we do to be made aware of our blind spots, our privileges?” was one of the most poignant, which led to an extensive discussion. They suggested that we must cultivate curiosity in what we do not know about ourselves, so we may improve ourselves. We should be open to be challenged, to have difficult conversations and to be able to be humbled.

The discussion also branched out into the education area, where it was suggested that schools who cater for mostly ‘monochromatic” areas should ensure that excursions and other activities within the school take place. Education is a key tool in stopping the spread of racism, and students who do come into contact with foreign cultures benefit a lot more than those who don’t.

Flora added that racism affects every single person that is participating in Australian society, whether they like it or not, know it or not. The difference is though, that for the majority of Australians, they benefit from racism and so the issue is not seriously considered nor dismantled. This must change if we are to grow as a society, and to be inclusive of all people she said.

The night ended with a powerful recital by Flora, who delivered one of her poems with a raw intensity. It followed her personal story of leaving home to come to Australia, whilst being aware that her origins and identity are still firmly rooted in in South Sudan.

*Pope Francis called for the observance of an Extraordinary Missionary Month in October 2019 to further highlight the need for Catholic action in the world. The current world-wide focus of Salesian Missions is the growing refugee crisis in Africa and there is one more event in the Missions Speaker Series; Fr. Guillermo Basanes director of the world-wide Salesian mission effort! .