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Rescuing refugees by recovering humanity

By Stuart Rees - posted Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Two languages carry the means of recovering humanity and rescuing refugees. The first is expressed with words, the second in non-verbal symbolism found in music, art and dance.

Each language expresses personal fulfilment in actions concerned with beauty, love and non-violence. In writing and painting, composing and dancing, an emphasis on the interdependence of all people is a common theme.

From poets & philosophers


The 16th century English poet John Donne wrote, ‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.’

In similar vein, but in the 1960’s, the Australian Aboriginal poet Kath Walker finished her poem All One Race,’ I’m international, never mind place; I’m for humanity, all one race.’

In his book No Future without Forgiveness, Desmond Tutu highlighted the Zulu word ‘ubuntu’- ‘I am because you are.’ This quality, said Tutu, captures the chemistry of relationships which builds identity and expresses a crucial humanness.  

In the 18th century, the philosopher Immanuel Kant crafted a universal basis for ethics which derived from the principle that human beings should never be treated as means to an end but should be regarded always as an end in themselves. If such a value held in Australia’s policy towards refugees, politicians in Canberra who wanted to appear strong, would not do so by imprisoning asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru.

From composers & musicians

Musical expressions of people’s interdependence have crossed countries and cultures. In my Colorado university days, a colleague from Colombia taught a course called ‘the sociology of dance.’ She traced a history of dance to show how people across South America had danced to experience solidarity and oppose dictatorships.


Composers of symphonies have known how to use their genius to dramatize the plight of the vulnerable and to challenge oppressive regimes. In his fifth Symphony and with poetic subtlety, Dmitri Shostakovich challenged the oppression of the Stalin regime. His listeners got the message.     

Through his foundation ‘pianos for peace’, and in his composition, Syrian Symphony, the Syrian concert pianist Malek Jindali remembers his country’s half a million civil war dead, including fifty-five thousand children. Malek’s beautiful, empathic works show how music remembers the slaughtered and surviving refugees. His language also speaks opposition to the Syrian dictator Bassar al-Assad and to those who carry out his orders. ‘Nothing else seems to work’, says Malek.

One of the most remembered composers said he wanted his final symphony to be a victory for humanity, inside and outside the concert hall. Beethoven’s ninth symphony is often referred to as the peace symphony because the words in the last movement, sung by the chorus and by soloists,  came from the German poet Schiller’s work, Ode to Joy. To express peace through an interdependence of peoples, Schiller wrote that he wanted his words to be a kiss for the whole earth.

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This is a shortened version of an address given in the NSW parliament on World Refugee Day, Tuesday June 20th, 2017.

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About the Author

Stuart Rees is Professor Emeritus of the University of Sydney and Founder of the Sydney Peace Foundation. He is the former Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation (1998-2011) and of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (1988-2008), and a Professor of Social Work (1978-2000) at the University of Sydney.

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