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get involved: walk towards equality

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Picture an open sea. Dark, angry waves. Tightly-packed passengers on a rickety vessel – people who are hopeful for a new life, whose present danger is surpassed by the torture and death that is behind them.

The raging ocean proved too much for a boat containing asylum seekers last week; it capsized and at least 55 occupants drowned. Customs officials said they will not retrieve the bodies, taking the government’s attitude towards refugees to a new level of callousness.

‘It breaks my heart,’ says Kate Leaney, State Director of Welcome to Australia, an organisation that seeks to change the conversation about all new arrivals.

‘Those attitudes aren’t just reflected by our media and politicians; they’re reflected by everyday people who think that human beings shouldn’t be recovered from the ocean simply because they’re seeking asylum here, because they’re not Australian citizens.

‘But that’s what human rights is all about! It doesn’t matter about your background, religion, where you come from – you should be treated with dignity and respect.’

To support an Australia that gives human rights to all, Welcome to Australia is organising Walk Together, a march at 1pm this Saturday June 22 in cities all over the country (watch the TV ad here).

‘Walk Together is a celebration of diversity,’ says Kate, ‘Rather than a protest march.’

‘We’re actually walking for the Australia we want to be part of: compassionate, inclusive, that treats people as human beings, no matter where they come from or how they got here. It’s not a walk for refugees or a walk for asylum seekers, it’s a walk for every member of Australia.

‘We’re calling for people to leave the fear and rhetoric behind and tell the world we expect more than that.’

The Adelaide event will feature Fork on the Road (a collaboration of street food vendors), as well as Afghan, Kurdish and Rwandan dancers, and Persian singers – because food and music is a beautiful way of celebrating the richness that migrants bring to Australia. (Go here to find out what’s happening in your city.)

Kate’s journey towards facilitating Walk Together and working for Welcome to Australia began when she volunteered on Christmas Island. She remembers the impact of her experience:

‘I ran programs for four weeks, and I was lucky enough to spend time with the people you don’t see on the news. You only see asylum seekers or refugees when something has gone wrong; you don’t see the courage and bravery and resilience of the people behind the story.

‘Christmas Island is so isolated and ridiculously hard and expensive to even get there, it’s a big responsibility to use what I had the opportunity to witness and then bring that to other people.

‘When I came back, it was when the Inverbrackie detention centre was opening in the Adelaide Hills, and there was that horrible backlash from media and the community and horrible protests – people just didn’t understand and were responding in fear and ignorance towards people they’d never met and knew nothing about.’

In her search for an organisation working for change, Kate met up with Welcome to Australia Director Brad Chilcott to see how she could get on board.

Now, her job consists of organising Walk Together, supporting mentoring programs, informal English lessons and a whole heap of other exciting things. She also spends time with local families she’s met in her work, and says any cultural barrier can be easily beaten by genuine friendship.

‘You can say a lot by a smile, a touch on the arm, silly little hand gestures. This big, bustling Kurdish family have kind of adopted me, and they speak Arabic, Persian and Kurdish with each other. While the youngest siblings speak English, the Mum barely knows any.

‘We have this beautiful connection where she will attempt some English words and I will attempt to speak back in Kurdish or Arabic and we connect on the fact that we’re both trying hard to understand each other. She respects the relationship we have and that our connection is based purely out of compassion. You can get that across without using words.’

Kate met a close friend while volunteering on Christmas Island, and has a huge amount of respect for his courage and resilience for enduring the detention system. He was imprisoned for 14 months.

‘Christmas Island is surrounded by ten-foot tall barbed wire fences, with people living in tents.  There was an Amnesty reporta few years ago that found the centre was actually built for a capacity of 400 with an overflow capacity of 800, and I think at the moment it’s at 3000.

‘The actual capacity of the centre doesn’t allow for that many people – the structures that are in place there are meant to be temporary but people are living in there for ages.’

Australia’s offshore detention centres in Naura and Manus Island are much worse; the living conditions were described as ‘primitive’ and ‘oppressive’’ by Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young.

While Inverbrackie is an alternative place of detention – made from old army barracks, the place has a low security level, and children go to the local primary school – Kate still believes detaining asylum seekers is inhumane.

‘In a way it seems less physically imposing and more relaxed, but I noticed that the removal of freedom is still what’s affecting them the most.’

Many detention centres have been built in rural or remote areas, where it’s easy for Australians to ignore the injustice of imprisoning people fleeing persecution and their children indefinitely.

‘It’s interesting to think about where we are with apologising to the Stolen Generation,’ says Kate. ‘I think in 50 years time we will be apologising for what we are doing to kids on Manus Island. It’s so much better to deal with these issues now.’

And how do we deal with these issues – with immoral detention of asylum seekers, with public distrust of new arrivals, with the government’s apathy towards bodies floating in our oceans?

Educate yourself: Kate recommends Road to Refuge to empathise with the plight of an asylum seeker, and this to learn about what really happens in detention centres. Amnesty is always a good bet, too.

Go to Walk Together in your city this Saturday. Show the media and political leaders that you believe everyone should be treated with dignity and respect.

Extend a hand of welcome to your new neighbours.

You can find out more about Welcome to Australia and Walk Together here and here.

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