According to a report released by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) last month, wars and persecution have driven more people from their homes than at any time since UNHCR records began more than 65 years ago. The report, entitled Global Trends, found a total 65.3 million people were displaced at the end of 2015, compared to 59.5 million just 12 months earlier.
Large numbers of people have fled Afghanistan and Somalia in recent decades and more recently, countries like Syria, South Sudan, Ukraine and Central America. Settlement solutions are becoming harder to find as countries close borders against an influx of distressed people and there is little sign of regional cooperation between countries that might receive refugees. Worldwide, Turkey is the biggest host country, with 2.5 million refugees. With nearly one refugee for every five citizens, Lebanon hosts more refugees compared to its population than any other country. In 2015 children made up 51 per cent of the world’s refugees. Many were separated from their parents or travelling alone.
All too often fear is the constant companion of refugees until they find respite. Now, with increasing frequency, fear has taken hold of people in countries that might offer protection – fear of terrorism, fear of losing jobs to refugees, fear of strained health, housing and education resources, a loss of law and order. Australia swings between cycles of fear and cycles of generosity. Our constitution for the founding of Australia as a federation of states in 1901 was influenced by fear of foreigners and totally ignored Aboriginal people. It still has the racist statement that the Commonwealth has the power “to regulate the affairs of the people of coloured or inferior races . . .” Two years later, the White Australia Policy was a direct outcome. By contrast, multiculturalism as a concept was introduced during the years of the Whitlam Government in the early 1970s. Under the following government of Malcolm Fraser, Australia opened its doors to Vietnamese refugees and asylum seekers, including those who arrived by boat. Associated stories appear in my book Passion Purpose Meaning – Arts Activism in Western Sydney and in this blog. They demonstrate repeatedly just how many migrants and refugees have gone on to become outstanding arts practitioners and community leaders. Research also shows that the economic costs of accepting migrants and refugees is far outweighed by the value of their ultimate contribution to society.
Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre (CPAC) is conducting a two day forum on Friday and Saturday, August 19 and 20 to explore the relationship between refugees and the arts. “Open to artists, performers, art therapists, educators, researchers, art workers and creative producers, the Arts and Refugees Forum also welcomes humanitarian and community development workers to share their experiences and discuss various aspects of artistic practice by, with and about refugees.” It is a free event that will provide a platform for greater networking and development opportunities. The forum will take place against a background of photo-media and video works made by local Sydney-based artists who are former refugees, current asylum seekers and first generation Australians whose families fled war to settle here.
Beyond Refuge: Citizens has been assembled by CuriousWorks, which describes it as “an exhibition that asserts the beautiful and fundamental rights of every human being to freedom and peace. It is also a cry to those who have lost their freedom, through the structures and exertions of power.” Image above: Soheil Ettehadolhagh, “the earth is but one country and mankind its citizens” – Báha’u’lláh universal peace, 2016. Photograph.
Both the forum and the exhibition take place in the context of a major exhibition, Refugees, which brings together works by 22 world-renowned artists who share a refugee background. Important works by these high profile artists have never before been seen in western Sydney. The artists are Khadim Ali, Frank Auerbach, Christian Boltanski, Yosl Bergner, Judy Cassab, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Lucian Freud, Mona Hatoum, Ludwig Hirschfeld Mack, Guo Jian, Anish Kapoor, Inge King, Dinh Q. Lê, Nalini Malani, Helmut Newton, Yoko Ono, Aida Tomescu, Danila Vassilieff, Ai Wei Wei, Ah Xian and Anne Zahalka.
CPAC is located in one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse areas in Australia, with 40% of the population born overseas and over 150 languages spoken. The arts centre sees the exhibition as an opportunity for advocacy and empowerment of refugees in the local area, as a key to creating social change.
In the meantime, a young woman who arrived as a displaced person from Ukraine in 1949 and later settled with her husband in Seven Hills, is about to launch her first commercially published book. Helen Boris had her university studies in Kiev interrupted by the Soviet occupation and the Second World War and was never able to complete them. Despite the upheavals of terror under dictatorship and the death of family and friends, Helen never lost her love for literature and writing and her interest in sharing it with others. From her earliest days in Australia, she wrote poetry in English and her native Ukrainian. She became active in local chapters of organisations like the Fellowship of Australian Writers, conducted workshops with others like Ann Stewart Galwey to support local writers and helped their community publication. Next Saturday, at the age of 96, in frail health, but of very clear mind and with the support of the Ukrainian ambassador, she will launch her book of poems Shards of Life. You are invited to join them at the Ukrainian Hall, 59 – 63 Joseph St, Lidcombe, at 1pm. Shards of Life is a selection of Helen’s English language verse, through which she shares some fragments of her story, the “shards of her life”.
And then there’s Sydney Sacred Music Festival, now in its sixth year under the leadership of founder and director, Richard Petkovic. This year it begins on Friday, September 2 and continues across locations from Mona Vale to Campbelltown, Sydney CBD to the Blue Mountains, until Sunday, September 18. In the course of two decades, Richard has identified and come to know an extraordinary range of highly professional musicians, from many different cultures and faiths. Many were living in western Sydney following their escape from war torn countries. They have been working together with wonderfully enriching results.
This year, they will present a live multimedia performance of contemporary world and electronic dance music at Wentworth Street carpark in Parramatta’s CBD, on Saturday night, September 3 – Worlds Collide – Eight Storeys High, Seven Cultures, One Amazing New Sound. The rooftop, they say, “will be transformed into an artistic wonderland, featuring art installations by Khaled Sabasabi, Marian Abood and Ghasan Saaid, video projections, interactive dance workshops and the world premiere of the Arts NSW funded, Worlds Collide ensemble. Worlds Collide brings together the best world musicians in Sydney, photo above, and fuses the South Asian Underground beats of Coco Varma’s ‘Sitar Funk’, the acoustic world fusion of the Shohrat Tursun Trio; Latin music legend Victor Valdes; soaring vocals of Blue Mary’s Maria Mitar and the hip hop rhymes of Mt Druitt’s Esky the Emcee, all under the direction of music producer and composer Richard Petkovic (Cultural Arts Collective).”