World Refugee Day is a time for remembering. We remember we live in a world of millions of refugees, and that many of our fellow citizens arrived as or are the children of refugees. We also remember what it is like to be a refugee, allowing ourselves to touch, hear, see, smell and taste the bitter stuff of their lives.
We may remember refugees, but in their own lives they are dismembered. The tiles that we take for granted as we shape the mosaic of our ordinary lives have been hacked out of refugees' lives. Many people lost parents, siblings and children in the persecution and the terrors of war they endured in their own lands. With each loss part of themselves also died.
Their ability to plan their own lives, to practice their religion, to meet with like-minded people in order to help shape their society, and to have their children educated were also cut away. Their losses are not just entries in a ledger. They tear at the heart of identity, stripping away the connections that breathe existence into life.
In their flight many were also cut off from their families, from the rhythms of work and rest, from connections with town and village, from communicating in a language that is shared, and from all the things that allow us to call house and nation a home.
When people come to the fences of other nations asking for protection they face further dismemberment. In Australia they have been deprived of what freedom remained to them to shape their lives, forced to live for years cut off from uncontrolled human contact, sometimes separated from family members living in Australia.
Time, the garden of remembering, is for them a desert of dismembering, further separating them from world from which they fled and from the life that they longed to find.
On Manus Island, Nauru and in detention centres they have their self-respect hacked away by a daily regime that takes away their privacy, the civility they had hoped to find from representatives of a democratic government and from the confidence that the canopy of law might shelter them.
They may also have their physical and mental health excised, leaving them prey to depression and anxiety. And when they read contemptuous words spoken about them they feel themselves stripped of all that remains to them — their self-respect as human beings.
"The Australian body politic also calls out for re-membering. Over many years it has been stripped of respect of people for their simple humanity, of hospitality to strangers and of compassion for the vulnerable. To re-member is to make whole, to return to integrity."
For refugees to remember is a challenge: to remember who they are and to wear their abused humanity as a flag of worth and not of shame.
For Australians, World Refugee Day is a time of remembering. It is a time to remember the human stories of those who have fled from their own nations to seek protection. It is a time to remember and treasure the little things that give shape to our lives — the smells, sounds and sights of our childhood world and their continuity with our lives today, and to remember that for refugees these things have been stripped away. It is a time to remember what has been done to refugees when they came to Australia — to hold in our memory the smell and texture of life on Manus Island and on Nauru, the casual brutality, the mud, the barbed wire borders of their world, the erosion of time, the lies and sneers of politicians who held them there, the slogans that trumped human connection. It is a time for shame and for compassion for a people who have come to this. To remember is first of all not to forget, not to move on. It is the beginning of conversion.
World Refugee Day is also a time for re-membering: for putting back what has been torn apart, for greening boughs that have been stripped of leaves, for fleshing what has withered, for welcoming back what has been rejected. That means demanding the dismembering stop — that people are taken off prison islands, are listened to and heard with justice and respect, that they are reunited with families and allowed to get on with their lives. It also means connecting with people who are isolated, encouraging and paying respect to people who have shown such resilience.
The Australian body politic also calls out for re-membering. Over many years it has been stripped of respect of people for their simple humanity, of hospitality to strangers and of compassion for the vulnerable. To re-member is to make whole, to return to integrity.
Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.
Tuesday 20 June is World Refugee Day.