July 2011

Seeing our neighbours with humanity

SBS TV recently invited viewers to see asylum seekers through the eyes of six Australians. Over half-a-million did each night. In retrospect, can we also look at this series through the prism of the parable of the Good Samaritan, asks Sister Verna Holyhead.

BY Verna Holyhead SGS

In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, ‘seeing’ was a problem. The Pharisee sees the wounded man and crosses onto the other side to avoid a closer look; the Levite comes a bit closer, but not liking what he sees also passes by on the other side. It is the Samaritan, who comes near enough to the half-dead man to see his wounds and recognise their shared humanity, who does compassion.

The incident with the wounded man happens “by chance”, an important reminder that doing compassion isn’t always planned; it’s an expression of an already learned, deep orientation of one’s life that readily surfaces when there is a need for it, especially in the unexpected.

For four hours, SBS TV recently and commendably invited viewers to see asylum seekers through the eyes of six Australians. Over half-a-million did each night. In retrospect, can we also look at this series through the prism of the parable?

Of course, the TV program had to be planned, and it was easy to forget the ever-present camera crew. The group was invited to make a dangerous and longer ‘Jerusalem to Jericho’ journey; to come and have a close look at the refugee experience by travelling in reverse: from Australian safety to Malaysia, Jordan and Africa where war, persecution, the desperate hope for human survival and dignity have forced hundreds of thousands of men, women and children to flee their homelands.

SBS told me that the producers scouted at meetings related to refugee and asylum seeker issues, and also had random street interviews, then from these, they eventually chose what was considered an ‘average’ and fairly stereotypical group. It ranged from Glenys, the only one originally with a very positive attitude, to Raquel, who admitted she was racist, and with the others stretching somewhere between.

One of their first experiences while still on Australian soil was to be stripped of what most of us probably regard as essentials to our identity: passports, money, mobile phones, transistors, excess luggage and clothes (although Adam managed to hold on to an interesting array of T shirts with slogans!).

Then they visited two groups of much more seriously stripped people. Firstly, in Villawood Detention Centre they met desperate asylum seekers left as ‘half-dead’, and where, during the last 18 months, three have committed suicide and 18 have self-harmed as they wait to be ‘processed’. (Interesting word… What else do we ‘process’?)

Like the lawyer who stood up to Jesus, the need to ‘justify’ themselves was still strong in the group, and expressed in their conversation about ‘bad’ refugees, possible terrorists, yobbos, bludgers and disease carriers who have jumped mythical queues and should “go back to where they came from”.

The group then visited some Africans resettled in Australia whom it was easier to regard as ‘good’ refugees because they had paid airlines rather than boat people smugglers for their passage. But it was being close enough to hear their personal stories that hooked (as parables do) the group into at least “thinking about” their actual experience – a first step on the way to discernment.

Reflecting on the three hours of television, whether in Malaysia, Jordan or Africa, I found it was images that stayed with me. The gentle hospitality and joyful hugs of those the participants visited to tell them that they had met their relatives in Australia; the gratitude, the handshakes and kisses; the unavoidable attentiveness to humble story-telling of years of suffering, torture, miscarriages and rape; the children in detention who were never allowed out to play, who sat patiently, large-eyed and hungry in make-do classrooms of 100 or more, and who were delighted with a song, a dance, a mimed introduction to a kangaroo or a sheep; the tears on Rae’s face as her heart began to weep for these asylum seekers to whom she was coming close enough to recognise as her neighbours with a shared humanity.

One incident that most powerfully smashed many stereotypes was the search-and-find night when the Australians were observers of the vicious police attack on a shanty hiding place for asylum seekers, and the glimpses of terrified faces, and smashed hopes as well as walls.

There were also other recurring images that I found ironic and disturbing, not in themselves, but in the juxtaposition with the asylum seekers’ deprivation: the commercial advertisements for beautiful clothes, food outlets, private health care possibilities, great childcare facilities, bargain shopping… How much are our moral imaginations and basic values shaped by unexamined assumptions received from the media, politics, business, family and friends, rather than the Gospels? When one of the asylum seekers was asked what he hoped for, he replied: “Every night I just say to God, ‘Give me tomorrow’.”

The Samaritan was probably very unpopular when he arrived at the inn with a half-dead man slung across his animal, stayed the night, and the next morning involved the inn keeper in ‘two denarii’ compassion. Are we ready to do anything unpopular with our politicians, our friends, our ‘two denarii’, to improve the situation of asylum seekers? Do we inform ourselves about facts? For example, in 2010 Australia had just over 5,000 asylum seekers from war-torn countries, ‘illegals’, as they are often called, yet in that same period there were 53,900 people who had overstayed their travel and work permits, and who are also ‘illegals’, but about whom little popular fuss is made.

The United Nations currently ranks us 47th in national hospitality, currently taking about 0.21% of the world’s refugees – surely an antidote to our national paranoia.

Back home, in the final panel discussion with the participants, their families, and some of the refugees, the focus had changed from ‘me’ to ‘the wounded’, and self-justification, even for Raquel, had been reversed, although the ongoing challenge to “Go and do likewise” as merciful and just neighbours still remained in varying degrees for the travellers – and, hopefully, for the viewers.

If you missed SBS TV’s documentary “Go back to where you came from”, you can watch all four episodes online. The “Go back” website also has a range of education resources that enable teachers and students to interact with the content of the series.

Verna Holyhead

Verna Holyhead is a Melbourne-based Sister of the Good Samaritan. She leads retreats, lectures and is a published writer with an emphasis on biblical scholarship, liturgical insight, and pastoral challenge.

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