Without a home, without a future

There is nothing like real life to make you
think twice. When I first set foot in a refugee camp, I saw myself as a practical
person bringing practical help to people in need. I had no idea how quixotic my
outlook was.

I thought that if I took the literal
meaning of compassion – from the Latin meaning to suffer with – that I would
understand. I thought that I could put myself in another person’s shoes, not
just mentally but physically too, by eating the same food, by living in the
same conditions. However, we cannot experience what someone else experiences;
we cannot shed who we are. My attempt to live the life of a refugee was
woefully inadequate.

Trite as it may sound, there are some
things you can only really understand if you have experienced them yourself,
and what it is like to be a refugee is one of them. However much you improve
the physical conditions of refugee life, you cannot alter the essential
experience of having lost your home, not only the house and all of your
material belongings, but also that sense of being in a place where you are
welcome and where you belong. My attempt at solidarity, however well-meaning,
was a pretence, because ultimately I could not alter the fact of my birth, and
I had not lost everything. Nothing could change the fact that I had an
Australian passport, and when I had had enough I could go home.

Life in a refugee camp certainly isn’t luxurious,
but the UNHCR does a remarkably good job in ensuring that the necessities of
life are met. What saps refugees of their will to live isn’t poor living
conditions. Nor is it even the trauma of having lost everything and had their
lives shattered into tiny shards that seem impossible to put back together. Most
of the refugees I’ve met possess a grim determination to defy those who tried
to destroy them, an inspiring tenacity that equips them to live in spite of all
that has happened.

It’s the suspense. It’s not knowing what is
going to happen next. Time is frozen inside the refugee camp. It’s like being
stuck in the airport without your luggage waiting for an aeroplane that has
been delayed indefinitely, but the difference is that the aeroplane never comes
and you have no idea where it might take you even if it did. The one place you
know it won’t be going to is home. Ten years later you are still in the
airport, living in borrowed clothes, and there is no end in sight to the days
of monotonous waiting for a miracle.

We often speak as if the resettlement of
refugees is an alternative to fixing things in their home countries, but it
isn’t.  Resettlement is for people who can’t envisage a future, people who
cannot go home.  We don’t offer them a new home because they need material
assistance, otherwise we could simply give them money.  We offer them a
life with prospects, an end to the uncertainty, a life that is released from
the insecurity of having no home.

So, it is true that we must stop the boats,
because drowning on a rocky shoreline or languishing in a detention centre is
no solution for the limbo in which refugees live. We must also stop the boats
because they divert sympathy and resources to the unscrupulous instead of those
who have waited patiently and hopefully for years on end. However, if we allow
breaches of border security to influence our policy on refugees and
immigration, we are not only fools but heartless fools. We harden our hearts to
tens of millions of innocent people, merely to oblige a few thousand who have
broken the rules. We punish the innocent… and quite possibly thereby taint our
own souls.

Mishka Gora
is a writer and photographer based in Tasmania. She has worked as a
humanitarian aid worker, resettlement assistant, and English tutor with
refugees and displaced persons in the former Yugoslavia, the United States, and


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