Against a Scott Morrison-led punitive backdrop encapsulated in the phrase Sovereign Borders, a concomitant escalation of fear and racial hatred in our community unwaveringly cultivated by the tabloid press, as tensions polarise around seen (Islamist jihadist) and perhaps unseen (right-wing Christian) religious fundamentalisms, and as we slide again into war in Iraq and Syria, it is heartening to discover, tucked in the backwaters, eddies of common humanity. Good to know that others are treading a different path, quietly, unreported and perhaps ignored.
In our cities there are numerous such individuals and institutions that demonstrate an alternative of care for refugees. And for asylum seekers on bridging visas, a group of around thirty thousand men, women and children who fled terror seeking a safer life on our shores, and now survive on reduced benefits without privileges of work, study or Medicare, a seed of hope is germinating.
Out in Dandenong, where many asylum seekers now reside, one woman has devoted her life to helping improve their quality of life in a unique way. Her name is Elaine and she runs Home Among the Gum Trees, a home-hospitality respite program. With the assistance of coordinators from rural communities and a raft of case workers, she organises groups of asylum seekers to have a much needed break in the country. It's a novel idea and one that provides rural Australians with a chance to participate.
As I write this Elaine's in Stawell, accompanying a group of Tamils, for she even travels with the asylum seekers to ensure them a safe and stress-free journey. And as I write this, another group, this time from Iran, are coming to the end of their holiday in the Bega Valley.
Like many regions in Australia, the Bega Valley was declared by its council a Refugee Welcome Zone in 2013 under the auspices of the Refugee Council of Australia, prior to Bega being a Welcome Town for Refugees in 2002, an initiative brought about by Bega RAR, and thisis the third time the area has hosted a group of asylum seekers from Dandenong.
Home hosting is fast capturing the imagination of many in the region with offers of hosting, helping, free trips and special offers abounding, fostered in response perhaps to Morrison's oppressive policies those with goodwill in their hearts so decry.
The effort hosts make for their guests is exceptional; an itinerary of outings, picnics, lunches, scenic walks in the bush or on the beach, sight-seeing, then at home laughing, talking, cooking, learning from each other.
English language skills improve dramatically.
And what is most significant of all is the bonding of hosts with their guests. Hosts are not simply performing a function out of a sense of duty; they pour their hearts into the experience. Life-long friendships are formed. Repeat visits pledged. It's a very special experience. Rapport seems at times instant as guests and hosts discover their shared likes and interests. There's Janine, who told me a few days into the holiday that her guest already felt part of her family.
During the last holiday back in May, host Peter said, 'people can learn a lot from the experience of getting to know an asylum seeker. Everything you read in terms of statistics and so on doesn't mean anything when it comes down to a human life, and what they're trying to escape from and go towards.'
And during that visit, when Gulzar told me his story, I knew I would be devoting many more hours to organising future holidays. We were sitting together when he sketched the mountains surrounding his village in Afghanistan. We talked about the mountains, the valley, the village and then he said, 'the Taliban came and bombed the village. My father, gone. My brother gone. My leg gone.' He showed me his wrist, pinching the flesh and inviting me to touch his skin. Shrapnel. I took in his comments and, not knowing if it were an appropriate thing to do and not caring, I placed a hand on his shoulder.
His story has resonated with me ever since; upwelling in me a great sadness for what asylum seekers have endured, what they might face; their fates in the cold hard hands of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.
With the mayhem created by a seemingly insane government that flouts our nation's commitment to human rights, a government and press bent on stinging our eyes with the dust of hatred and fear, exacerbating racial divisions while promoting what seems to me a white supremacist Team Australia, there can't have been a more apt time to be home-hosting those who have fled terror.
This is why emerging in the forefront of my mind is our society's need for more bridges. Bridges that link disparate communities. Bridges that foster cohesion, tolerance and awareness. Bridges to both demonstrate what humanity is capable of, and offer opportunities to broaden and deepen understanding.
Elaine is fostering bridges all over the country. I stand alongside her in solidarity. Before the last asylum seekers returned to Dandenong, Rasa said, 'this is a holiday I will never forget. Not ever. This is the best time of my life.' He meant it.