It's a little thing that's called citizenship

Arnold Zable
January 26, 2008

Being a citizen brings security, and loyalty, from asylum seekers.

LAST week I attended a party to celebrate the granting of Australian citizenship to an Iraqi refugee, Faris Shohani, at a Masonic centre in Oak Park. The wall above the stage featured a portrait of the Queen flanked by an Australian flag and the Union Jack. It could have been an old-style shire hall in any one of countless towns and suburbs throughout Australia. The guests included refugee advocates who had come to love this modest and courageous man who had spent years in search of that sense of belonging many of us take for granted as a birthright.

On Australia Day, my thoughts turn to Faris Shohani and to the thousands of asylum seekers who have sought refuge in this country in recent times. It turns to the estimated 30 million people who remain asylum seekers, refugees and displaced people worldwide. My thoughts are with those who continue to be driven to despair in refugee camps and detention centres, or remain in limbo on temporary visas. It is a time to reflect on what it means to be stateless or displaced, in contrast to possessing secure citizenship, and all that it confers: a passport that allows one to move freely without fear of living at the whim and mercy of others.

Faris Shohani was ecstatic when he received his citizenship. "Thank God, it is over," he exclaimed. It brought an end to a desperate search for refuge that began in 1980 when, aged 13, he was deported with his family from Saddam Hussein's Iraq. It almost ended on October 19, 2001, when a 19-metre wooden boat sank on its way to Australia with the loss of 353 lives. The victims, in what became known as the SIEV-X tragedy, included his wife, Leyla, and seven- year-old daughter, Zahra.

Faris Shohani was one of 45 survivors. Those who were accepted by Canada, New Zealand and various Scandinavian countries were immediately granted permanent visas in recognition of their extreme loss and trauma. In a cruel twist, the seven Australian-based survivors remained on temporary visas. Instead of the certainty they urgently required after the tragedy, they remained, in effect, stateless.

A stateless person is someone not recognised as a citizen of any country. But no dictionary definition can convey the sense of vulnerability that statelessness represents. One refugee on temporary protection echoed the thoughts of many when he said: "I am a no one, a nothing. Some I have come to know in recent years have spoken of awakening at night with a feeling of panic."

They dread their recurring dreams of uncertainty and of loved ones from whom they remain separated. They prefer to walk the streets all night to tame their restlessness and anxiety.

Others cannot abide staying at home during the day. Home is a hostile place that reminds asylum seekers of the absence of family. A house, a flat or a boarding room with its sense of enclosure, remind them of their years of confinement in camps and detention centres. Walking the streets allows them to keep disturbing thoughts at bay, to feel the firm ground beneath their feet.

Preferred locations include busy shopping strips and the inner city, where people gather in numbers and where, for a time, the displaced can feel a sense of connectedness.

Yet with just one stroke of a bureaucrat's pen, the agony can be brought to an end. In recent years I have been privileged, several times, to be present when an asylum seeker has received news of being granted a permanent visa or citizenship. Like Faris Shohani, Melbourne-based SIEV-X survivor Amal Basry was ecstatic when she was granted permanent residency. "I am a free woman in a free country," she declared.

Like many refugees, as soon as she received her permanent visa Amal Basry felt a deep commitment to her new country. The visa enabled her to travel to the Middle East where was reunited with her ageing father, elder son and daughter and four grandchildren. She was delighted to hear the Australian accent at airports during the journey. Whereas months earlier this had represented the deep gulf between herself and those who belonged, this now reinforced a renewed sense of security. Sadly, Amal Basry died of cancer before she was able to gain full citizenship and was buried, as was her wish, in Melbourne.

Australia Day holds little meaning if we neglect to think of those who, because of an arbitrary roll of the dice, do not possess a secure homeland. It means nothing when many indigenous people continue to feel uprooted and dispossessed in their own land. It means little if we persist with the cruel policy of long-term mandatory detention, and the traumatic uncertainty of temporary visas. It means little if we do not heed the predicament of those who continue to make the perilous journey towards a new life, and if we do not honour those who have been the custodians of the land for millenniums. Australia Day must become a day of national inclusion.

Arnold Zable is a Melbourne writer. His most recent novel, Scraps of Heaven, depicts a neighbourhood of postwar immigrants in Melbourne. He is president of the Melbourne centre of International PEN.


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