Stories – the place where we meet

Author and human rights advocate Dr Arnold Zable used stories to give a human face to Australia’s marginalised in the 2016 UNESCO Chair Oration.

A tapestry of interwoven stories powerfully illustrated the shared humanity of all Australians at the 2016 Oration for the UNESCO Chair for Cultural Diversity and Social Justice, delivered by award-winning author and human rights advocate Dr Arnold Zable.

From his own parents’ experience as Holocaust survivors, to the story of Joy Murphy Wandin and her grandparents Robert and Jemima Wandoon – Indigenous people who were cast out from the former Coranderrk mission at Healesville – to two Sudanese refugees, both coincidentally called Abraham, who have settled with their families in Gippsland and been embraced by their communities, Dr Zable evocatively shared the stories of a handful of the many people with different backgrounds who make up multicultural Australia.

“Here is Where We Meet: The Humanising Power of Story” was the title of the Oration, which was hosted by the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADI).

As well as authoring novels, plays and essays, Dr Zable has worked on many cross-cultural projects, conducting workshops for refugees, immigrants and other groups – using story as a means of self-understanding.

He was awarded the Voltaire prize for human rights advocacy in 2013 and is immediate past president of PEN International’s Melbourne Centre, an ambassador of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, a patron of Sanctuary, and recently completed a term as Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Melbourne, amongst many achievements.

In introducing Dr Zable, ADI Director and UNESCO Chair-holder Professor Fethi Mansouri said the timing of the Oration couldn’t be more fitting – given the growing number of people being displaced around the world, yet “many nations in the North are seeking to retreat from progressive ideas”.

“The numbers are not as high as at the end of World War Two, when around 40 million people were displaced and in search of refuge, yet reactions then were not as draconian as we are seeing right now,” Professor Mansouri said.

Dr Zable noted that it was “by listening to stories that we can break down the barriers between ourselves and people from different ethnic backgrounds and combat the tendency to blame all ills on the ‘other’ – the scapegoat.”

He began by a reference to the Tampa incident, where, in August 2001, a boatload of 438 asylum seekers rescued from sinking fishing boats by the Norwegian “MV Tampa” was refused entry to Australian waters and denied permission to unload at Christmas Island.

“The icon of the red hull of the ship was seen through a long lens,” said Dr Zable. “No human face was seen by the public and no lawyers or cameramen were allowed nearby. The area was declared a no-go zone, so the perspective of the victims was viewed through a long lens. They were seen as faceless people – a horde. Here is where we don’t meet.

[testimonial_text]A horde is a threat, where people can be easily demonised. Story is about the human, not the horde.[/testimonial_text]
[testimonial_picture name=”Dr Arnold Zable,” details=”Author and human rights advocate”]

In reference to Australia’s Indigenous people, Dr Zable said, as an adult wondering why he “did not once hear” the stories of the Wurundjeri while he was growing up, he decided to visit Wurundjeri elder Joy Murphy Wandin in Healesville, a descendent of William Barack, and learnt about her story and that of her grandparents, Robert and Jemima Wandoon, who lived at the former Coranderrk mission.

A highly respected elder, Joy Murphy joined with explorer and writer Alistair Brooks to retrace the traditional Wurundjeri boundaries during a 20-month journey, which “extended from the mountains of the Great Divide, south to the bay, via the Yarra and Maribyrnong, west as far as the Werribee River, eastwards beyond Dandenong, and south-east to the banks of Mordialloc Creek.”

Once spanning 12,000 hectares of prime farmland, Coranderrk was the subject of a landmark court case in 1881, where the Indigenous inhabitants won the right to retain the mission. Their legal victory was short-lived, however, with the 1886 ‘Half-Caste Act’ tearing the mission families apart.

“By 1924 the station was closed, down to its last half acre, and the remaining Indigenous people sent to Lake Tyers.”

Zable’s own “house of ghosts, or absences” was the aftermath of his parents’ experience as Polish Holocaust survivors.
The story of two Sudanese refugees, Abraham Maluk and Abraham Malual, provided a moving account of individuals finding happiness after extreme hardship. Having lost all their families, they travelled across the Sudan as teenagers, finding safety in Kenya, where they spent 16 years in refugee camps before coming to Australia – both graduating from university.

Eventually settling in Gippsland, they have worked with their communities and local schools, producing books such as “Donkeys can’t die on planes” and setting up the Bor orphanage and community education project in South Sudan, with Gippsland community volunteers.

Finally, in describing his observations of refugees in detention, Dr Zable said the sense of “loss of liberty compounds the original loss, which is the hallmark of depression.”

On Manus Island, an Iranian Kurdish journalist, Behrouz Boochani, who fled Iran in 2013, is bearing witness to the suffering, reporting that at least 90 per cent of those in detention on Manus Island are suffering from anxiety as a result of being there.

Another detainee, Mehdi Savari, formerly a respected stage actor and host of children’s TV programs in Iran, sometimes performs magic tricks to help lift the spirits of the detainees.

“These are two of 900 people in detention,” said Dr Zable. “Each one has a life, each one has a story… As Carl Jung said, ‘we all have a story. Denial of our story can lead to depression.’ First we must express our own story, to create sense out of chaos and allow self-expression. Then we need to listen to others.

“Story is the art of the specific, yet in remaining true, we reflect the universal. We act as mirrors.

“In many ways Australia is an amazing country and there are many examples and models of where people are meeting, such as in Traralgon. The way forward is to meet, to cross boundaries, eye to eye and see the reflection.”

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