By HANNAH MOORE;
“The biggest challenge if you are in [a detention camp]… you lose your mind, stay in camp, it [is] difficult, very difficult. We lose our mind and then we lose our hope to stay in camp. For you are in the black hole, how to come out. This is the problem, this is the big problem.” –Fathi Shouma
More than 300 Sudanese refugees were living in Orange, New South Wales by late 2013, after the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees helped them escape the trauma that still grips their country.
They tie in with a broader picture, whereby refugee arrival numbers have shot up – between 2012 and 2013, 25,000 refugees arrived.
Australia’s political orthodoxy has responded by bringing back an offshore refugee processing regime, which has been condemned by the United Nations as a violation of human rights.
But the lives and stories of Orange’s Sudanese refugee community suggest processing and settling asylum seekers in country areas is a legitimate option, in the near future.
It’s an idea Queens Counsel Julian Burnside is convinced is “both possible and desirable”.
At present, the Australian government spends approximately $5billion a year on offshore processing.
Mr Burnside says regional onshore processing would cost only one tenth of that, and is a more humane way to deal with the situation.
“If you assume that the arrival rate of 2012-2013, which was an exceptional year, much higher than it ever has been before… becomes the new normal, and you assume all of them stayed on full Centrelink benefits, that would cost the economy about $500 million a year,” he says.
“But it would all be spent in the economies of regional towns and cities – and those regional economies are currently suffering because people are drifting towards coastal capitals.”
The idea behind regional onshore processing is simple.
People arriving in Australia without a visa and claiming asylum would be held in detention for one month for preliminary health and security checks.
Then they would be released into community on an entry visa with four conditions:
1) They must stay in touch with the department, so that they are unable to ‘disappear’ into the community
2) They are entitled to work
3) They are entitled to full Medicare and Centrelink benefits
4) Until their refugee status is determined, they must live in a specified town or city.
Orange Migrant Support Officer Anni Gallagher works closely with the refugees upon their initial arrival in Orange.
She said changes made when Orange’s first Sudanese family became part of the community were difficult, but very positive.
“A whole lot of service providers had to learn how to give service in that area, which perhaps they weren’t used to,” she said.
“The Sudanese have had the experience of being refugees, which is an amazing journey for anybody. But they’re mostly Australian citizens and they feel, they do identify with Orange.
“Orange is home for a lot of them.”
Ms Gallagher says learning English was been a key to both working and education, both very important things to the refugees.
“Everyone’s really hungry to work. They want to work; they’re passionate to be able to find work,” she said.
“Some have had more success than others. Electrolux has employed a lot of people, sometimes on a permanent basis and some more casual, but it’s certainly given a lot of employment. As has the orchard industry and those areas.
“[The idea of the] ‘Australian fair go’ really has been seen in Orange, or so I believe.
Ms Gallagher said Sudan’s less structured, aural based curriculum works by educating young and old in the same space – she puts it simply, stating, “if you need to learn something, no matter how old you are, you go there and learn it.”
But this creates problems when entering the Australian school system, with Sudanese children being more advanced in some areas and far behind in others.
“We’ve got a few families here in Orange where the children have gone to university – and when you consider that a lot of them come speaking little to no English, it’s a huge, huge step,” she says.
When speaking to the refugees, the desire for education and employment is palpable.
I recently met Dut Akok, who claimed asylum in Australia ten years ago.
Dut spent four years in Sydney before moving to Orange, where he now lives with five of his children and two grandchildren.
His son is studying at university in Melbourne.
“Sydney is very busy and not [a lot] of people are going [to] help me. I have my friend [who is] Sudanese here, his name is Amin, his cousin is my wife, Asito,” Dut says.
“In Orange there are people who will help my children. I talk to you now in English, I could not get English in Sydney. I came to Orange here, people help me. Now my son, he go to university in Melbourne.
“You need to help people who came from another country. Sydney very busy, children go to away, not listen to you, go to train. Here, no train. [The train only] comes one day.
“In Orange, if you’ve got a job, you can go to your job. If you don’t have a job, you can go to school. If you need help they can help.”
Dut says he has made many friends who have helped him, but he still struggles with occasional racism.
“I have a lot of friend here who are white… I have a man named John, and John help me with job. He got job and came to me and said ‘I got a decent job, you want it? Here it’s yours.’
“Sometimes people say what are you doing here in Australia, why aren’t you in your country. My country before, people fighting, me and my father, somebody kill my father in Sudan. That’s why I came here. Is very good, happy together.”
After speaking to Dut, Acingoth Cyier walks in.
She is full of life, using wild hand gestures and laughing freely.
Acingoth began her journey to Australia in Egypt.
While in Egypt with her children, her husband was killed in Sudan.
She was eventually settled in Blacktown, NSW. After a few years there, her landlord decided to knock down and rebuild the house she was living in, so Acingoth asked to move to Orange.
“When I apply to housing community I say ‘I’m coming here because I have my friends and cousin here’,” Acingoth says.
“I want to move my house to Orange and they move my house here, I think 3 weeks? And housing here called me and I so happy and I come and love the house, I think 4 bedrooms. Is so good for me.
“We come here, we live here, the community here is good.
“I pray in catholic church, the people help me, I have the two volunteer [from the Migrant Support Service], they teach me English and take me and my kids and [help with] homework for my kids and [help me] apply here to study at TAFE, English course.
“My English is better than before. Now, I talk with my friends and my neighbours. I go shopping, and I can go to the doctor and tell [them] what’s going on and what I feel. Now I am not worried about anything because I can go everywhere by myself, and [I have] help.
“Now I go to Sydney and my friends say ‘why are you so good at English?’ and I say ‘because the big city is busy and [there is] no time to learn how to talk with your friend’. In Orange I stay with the Aussie people and I have friend now.
“My beautiful neighbours; I have old people, my neighbours and they [are] beautiful people. I love it. And they help me.
“My neighbour’s close to me. His name is Sid and my children say “this is my grandfather” and he love me and love my kids. He is teaching me to drive.
“I don’t have any problem in my area, I’m the only black in my area [but] I’m not worried. When I go on holiday I leave my house because the neighbours look after my house. I go to Africa and I come back everything is all right in my house, I don’t have problem.
“My children love Orange. They say ‘mum, when we finish [university] we need to buy a house here’.”
Ms Cyier returns to Sudan with her oldest son to see family members, but has fears of her son’s continued attachment to the deadly environment.
“I’m worried about my son because when I come here, my son wants to see his country, he says ‘my country my country’ I say ‘Oh God’,” she says.
“Everyone is worried, everyone is scared, but now I think everything quiet. I don’t know what’s going on.”
Fathi Shouma, the father of the first Sudanese family to buy a home in Orange, enters with a much more reserved demeanour.
Fathi immigrated to Australia in 2004, before leaving Blacktown for Orange in 2007, to work as a fruit picker.
He picked up a second job at a service station, where he was employed for five years, before he lost his job through a change of management.
Fathi spend a period of time in a detention camp in Egypt, and spoke of the effects of this, mentioning the ‘black hole’ that consumed his mind during the experience.
When asked if the black hole was smaller since arriving in Australia, Fathi hesitated for a moment.
“If you accept a visa into any country, you look like you are free to leave this hole,
“We are happy to see the Australia land, we are happy the first time to see everything is good for us. We are happy when we enter a new land or a new home, we are happy.”
He speaks highly of Orange, his only concern being that he is currently struggling to find work.
Fathi places high importance on his children getting the best education they can – but the schooling fees can be crippling for someone who survives off seasonal work, such as fruit picking.
“I love Orange, maybe Orange is the beautiful town for me in the world, the people they are welcome, better than Sydney,” he said.
“Orange is a very welcome place for us, and then we have the people who come to our home, to spend time talking with us about and on Sunday we go to church and we have many friends. Yeah we are happy.
“Just difficult is to find the work.
“We like to work but sometimes is difficult. We apply here and there but hopeful about applying here, here and here. And when the season comes to picking fruit we go out to picking fruit.
“This is the good time, for me. Yeah, to be free on the field to be picking and around other people, but when the season finish we stay at home, is not good to be stuck at home… yeah.”
Mr Burnside was provided with these anecdotes.
He said it’s confirmation of what he’s ‘convinced’ of – that onshore processing works.
“It certainly provides evidence that it can work,” he said.
“My impression is that they do pretty well in those towns, because country towns are often much more welcoming. The pace isn’t as fast, people have more time to concentrate on the needs of other people.”
On May 26, the Labor Party will debate a motion to end Labor’s support for offshore processing, brought in by former United Nations lawyer and Member for Fremantle Melissa Parke, and senior Labor member Anna Burke.
With $4.5 million savings, the reinvestment of funds into regional towns, and the nation’s humanity – and international reputation – on the table, it’ll be a motion worth watching.