Stranger No More, by Annahita Parsan

It wasn’t what I expected.
The flood of Moslem refugees across Europe was constantly in the news two or three years ago, and most books I’ve recently seen about refugees have been about those escaping from Syria.

I thought this would be the same, but instead the story dates back to the late 1970s, early 80s and the Iranian Revolution.

Annahita Parsan’s abusive husband Asghar found himself on the wrong side of the new Islamic government in Iran after the Ayatollah Khomeini deposed the Shah of Iran. Together they escaped Iran via Turkey, where they were imprisoned and brutally treated. Eventually they were freed and allowed to move on to Denmark as refugees.

Despite the potential for a new life, Asghar’s violence against his wife increased in frequency and intensity and there seemed to be no escape for her.

But a seed was sown when visitors to her door gave Annahita a bible in Farsi.

Ever since I had been given the Farsi Bible, I had picked it up and prayed from time to time. The worse Asghar’s attacks had gotten, the more I had prayed. I found that it helped, much like drinking a glass of cool water took away the dryness in my mouth on a hot night.

She started to become aware of ideas about God that were different to what she had “learned in a mosque”.

There it was all about fear and rules and the difficulty of earning a route to paradise. I had never thought of God being interested in helping me, let alone being with me all the time. I liked the idea. It gave me courage.

 

In time that courage helped her to take steps towards freedom for herself and her children. Freedom from the violence of her husband and towards the freedom of a new life of faith.

Annahita Parsan now works within churches in Sweden, ministering to former Muslim refugees.

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Between Us, by Clare Atkins

In my pre and early teens I was already reading adult books, both fiction and non-fiction, as well those actually targeted towards my age group. But those books, both adult and children’s, were very tame compared to some things published today for a teen readership.

Between Us is an example of that contrast, with occasional coarse language and references to drug use and sexual desire. Is this change in publishing an acknowledgement of changing lived realities? Or is it merely reflecting realties that were also present in my own teen years (as they were), but within a society that preferred not to acknowledge it?

In this novel, Clare Atkins can’t afford to shy away from realities that, like it or not, do reflect a commonly lived teen experience; because the book deals with some issues far darker than potentially offensive language or teen drug use. Sanitising the depiction of common experience could potentially lessen the authenticity of those darker aspects of the story.

Even in normal circumstances teenage relationships have difficulties, complicated by the uncertainties and insecurities associated with pubescent change. Ana and Jono have the additional complications of significant cultural differences, widely different personal experience, as well as being on opposite sides of Government policy.

Ana is a teenage refugee imprisoned in an Australian “detention centre”, after escaping with her family from persecution in their homeland of Iran. Her only regular time away from the prison camp is to attend the local High School. On her first day she meets Jono, the son of one of the camp’s guards, Kenny, a man of Vietnamese heritage, and once a refugee himself. But that was during very different times when the Government didn’t whip up suspicion and fear of those seeking asylum, or use them as political pawns.

Jono’s aunt, Kenny’s sister, describes her own arrival in Australian waters on a refugee boat:

“The boat come into Darwin. Near Nightcliff beach. It early morning. Foggy. All white. Then we see a small boat. It come towards us, two men dressed in singlet and shorts. White stripes here”. She touches the bridge of her nose. “Zinc, you know? Sun hat too. And they stand up with beer in their hand and wave. And they come up close, very close and fast to our boat. And one of them hold up his beer and say, ‘G’day, mate! Welcome to Australia'”

It was a very different welcome to that given to Ana, her mother and small brother. After arriving as “illegals” by boat, they are transferred from one detention centre to another, from Christmas Island to Nauru, until Ana’s mum’s pregnancy develops problems and they are moved to a mainland camp in Darwin. They are separated from Ana’s mum’s  boyfriend Abdul, the father of Ana’s brother and the expected baby. He is left behind on Nauru*.

 

…the Nauruan immigration officials asking us question after question.

It goes for hours, until we’re so tired we can barely see.

Maman tells them we’ve already been through this twice on Christmas Island, but they insist on hearing everything again. She tells them about the whipping, and they request to see my back. I lift my T-shirt to show them the scars.

The Farsi interpreter seems to struggle to translate, as Maman explains about the morality police and the government and our constant fear ever since Baba was killed and left by the side of the road.

They ask how long Maman has been with Abdul.

Abdul says, “Many years. Our son is already three”

But the officials aren’t convinced. Maman and Abdul aren’t married…

 

… Abdul argues and justifies and rants, until he loses his temper and slams his fist into the wall. The impact of it is so strong that it leaves a hole in the plaster. Abdul backs away, saying “Sorry…sorry…” But it’s as if no-one hears.

Security rushes to restrain him, as Maman screams in protest…

Each chapter of the book is told from a different character’s perspective, alternating between the points of view of Ana, Jono and Kenny.

Each has their fears and hopes, but the ratio of each differs depending on the character’s situation.

Nightmares and nightmarish memories converge in Ana’s daily reality as an inmate within the detention centre. Fear of being returned to Nauru and the lack of hope for eventual freedom. Inmates are treated as criminals with regular room searches, denied basic dignities, always fearful of retribution for minor perceived misdemeanours. Treated as less than human, little better than they were by the repressive and violent regime they tried to flee.

Jono struggles to understand Ana’s situation and what she has been through. And he is unknowingly caught up in the conflict between his growing feelings for Ana and his dad’s suspicions, fears and regrets.

Kenny’s fears for his son; wanting to provide for Jono and yet seeing the gap between them widen.  Led to believe camp inmates will manipulate and take advantage of the vulnerable he takes a dark view of Jono’s friendship with Ana. His experience shows how the camps dehumanize the staff as well as the inmates.

At a time when the mandatory detention of refugees continues, the book couldn’t lead up to a traditional happy ending, however it doesn’t leave the reader in despair, but culminates with the hope of new beginnings…

 

[And then comes the author’s postscript in which she tells of the Australian government withdrawing support from asylum seekers allowed to live in the community (up to August 2017 ) so they would be required to return to camps in Nauru or Manus Island, or have six months to return to the countries from which they had fled.]

 

The author’s personal web site is here : http://clareatkins.com.au/

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Another book covering similar ground is The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon, briefly mentioned here:
https://outshadows.wordpress.com/2017/01/27/opposite-ends-of-the-reading-spectrum/

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*https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/girl-at-extreme-risk-flown-to-australia-from-nauru-detention-centre-20180209-h0vv9t.html

Blood on my Hands, a Surgeon at War by Craig Jurisevic


This is another book related to military medicine, but this one has a slight difference. Jurisevic was an Australian volunteer doctor who chose to help refugees who were fleeing from Kosovo to get away from a murderous campaign waged by Serbia under the government of Slobodan Milosevic.

What started out as a “simple” aim to serve in a surgical capacity for a volunteer organisation became complicated when Jurisevic exposed corruption at the main hospital in the town he was stationed, where severely wounded and sick refugees were being forced to pay for treatment or left to die.

He became a likely target for the organised crime group behind the extortion, so was encouraged by the Kosovan resistance to join them at their front line camp where they offered protection. He then found himself in situations far outside of his intended surgical role; seeing the need to train eager but woefully unprepared fighters from around the world in the essential basics of military competency.
Serving previously in a medical capacity under combat conditions in Gaza was helpful to him in ways he couldn’t have anticipated.

 

_________________

 

“They killed fourteen from my village. Three were children. They shot the children first so that their fathers and mothers could see. They shot the parents of these children with some others of my village”
( from a survivor of Sapuzane, Serbia, as told to Craig Jurisevic after fleeing across the border to Albania).

Hope and Persistence

These two books show humanity at its worst.

Firstly through the evils of the war in Syria that has made so much of that country impossible to live in.
Secondly through the treatment of those trying to flee the horrors inflicted upon their homeland by both governments and terror groups.
And lastly by the western nations that again close their doors to people in desperate need.

But despite all of that, many of those who have needed to flee from everything they’ve known, worked for and loved, have somehow drawn on those rare human virtues that can lie dormant until adversity of the worst kind is experienced.

hopenujeen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part of the story of A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea by Melissa Fleming is perhaps better told by the author herself in this video.

And the story of Nujeen Mustafa:

 

Opposite Ends of the Reading Spectrum

These are two very different books that I read at the beginning of my Christmas/New Year break.

The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon

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Subhi is a refugee who has never known life outside of the detention centre where he was born. His only experience of anything beyond the fences is in the stories he’s heard and the hope they give of the return of the father he’s never known. Until Jimmie, a young local girl living nearby finds a way into the camp and befriends him, bringing new stories and a glimpse of life outside.

Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow is fiction, but based on true reports of Australian refugee detention centres. It doesn’t hide the despair and brutality, but unlike the ongoing experience of those currently interred in the camps, Fraillon’s story maintains the potential of hope while avoiding the glibness of an unlikely happy ending.

 

How UFOs Conquered the World by David Clark

9781781313039I was once a sucker for some of the worst, most manipulative writings on the subject of flying saucers and other “unexplained” phenomena. Now I find the majority of that kind of thing unreadable.

David Clark’s work is one of the few exceptions in UFO publications. Avoiding unfounded sensationalism, Clarke addresses the topic with rationality, not as a  believer in alien visitation or as  a debunker resorting to snide quips to ridicule those who do believe,  but as a genuine sceptic interested in what the facts actually reveal.

His interest in UFOs began in childhood (as did mine) and he started out with a naively undiscerning sense of wonder (as did I) that put beyond doubt the fact that earth was being regularly visited by visitors from space.

 

Clarke now sees UFOs as part of a modern day folklore that is heavily influence by the media, and his argument and the evidence presented are far more convincing than most of the alternatives others have promoted.

The Morning They Came For Us, by Janine Di Giovanni

the-morning-they-came-for-usIf I wasn’t already aware of it, Janine Di Giovanni would make me realise how little I’ve managed to fit into my life.

A journalist reporting in depth on more than two decades of wars and conflict in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, Di Giovanni has also written several books, contributed political analysis on TV shows in Europe and the USA – and more.

Not only living an active and productive life, the importance of the work she’s done contrasts significantly with the weightless trivia at the heart of so many comfortable lives (such as my own).

In The Morning They Came for Us, she gives a brutal, confronting and uncompromising look at the Syrian conflict where torture, rape and murder are no less weapons of war than bombs and guns.

Accounts are given of the ongoing cost to women suffering sexual abuse.

“…for a Muslim woman, who is meant to be a virgin upon marriage, it is the end of life, or the life she was meant to live. If she was single before, she will probably never marry. She will not have children, a family. In other cultures, this might be fine; but in the Middle East, where large families are a given, it means isolation form the rest of society”.

Many victims resorted to suicide to escape their perceived shame.

Di Giovanni also reports the experience of a man consistently tortured in the worst possible ways while being held prisoner by Government authorities. What he describes stretches the willingness to believe – that such things can be done by one human being to another: surgical procedures conducted without anaesthetic, not to relieve suffering, but to cause it, both physically and mentally.

But in the war zone day to day the struggle to stay alive involves much more than avoiding the constant presence of snipers and the threat of barrel bombs dropped from government helicopters. She describes a mother preparing to take her young daughter to buy bread in Aleppo in December 2012:

“She stuffed her miniature hands into socks instead of gloves to keep them warm. She was taking her to queue outside the bakery… There was no one to leave the girl with, she said unapologetically, so she was bringing her to stand in line with her. They might be waiting all day she told us.

‘If we get there early we might be lucky’, she whispered to the little girl.
If she were lucky, she would not be living in Aleppo. If she were lucky, she would not have to cook on a wooden stove. If she were lucky, her children could play outside, or not be afraid of the balcony, where people shot at you when you stuck your head out. If she were lucky, her husband would not have been jobless for the past four months. If she were lucky, there would be no war.”

This is the background to the millions of refugees who try to escape to safety, the refugees who many in the west are intent to demonise.

When Michael Met Mina, by Randa Abdel-Fattah

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Humour, poignancy, foreboding, joy.

Just a few relevant words that come to mind to describe this book.

I could also add complex, but I wouldn’t want to give the wrong impression that its a difficult, confusing reading experience. The complexity relates to the issues explored, where face-value judgements are never helpful and people don’t always live up to stereotypes.

It is highly entertaining but is much more than mere entertainment; hopefully testing the reader’s preconceptions and biases.

There is a tiny hint of Romeo and Juliet in the story of Michael and Mina. They come from opposite sides of a political/racial divide. One is an Afghan refugee, a “boat person”; the other is the son of politically active parents who established the Aussie Values party devoted to “stopping the boats” and keeping Australia free of the taint of multiculturalism.

Michael first sees Mina on the opposing side during a confrontation between “Aussie Values” and an anti-racist group at a protest gathering. The kind of protest that is becoming increasingly familiar on Australian news programs. There’s no way he can realise how that brief glimpse of a Muslim girl will change his life.

Chapters alternate between the viewpoints of the title characters, starting with Michael, then moving on to Mina. Each chapter helps build up their stories to show us what has shaped their lives and current situations, and also how their developing relationship brings change.

I found the book very relevant in an Australia obsessed with “border control” where election results can be turned upon glib, three word slogans of exclusion. It has relevance when fear and racism can win votes.

It was one of those un-put-downable novels that  was a pleasure to read.

 

Author’s website: http://www.randaabdelfattah.com/

Publisher’s website: http://www.panmacmillan.com.au/9781743534977