From Nagaland to Melbourne. From facing tigers in the jungle to Aboriginal smoking ceremonies, by way of the Refugee Healing Trail. Mike Lowe talks to Visier and Pari Sanyü.
Tall and dignified, Visier Sanyü has just returned from a week in Tasmania, Australia’s southernmost state, where he has been talking to churches, schools and a conference of Catholic priests, about refugees. It is the third time his work with the Victorian Council of Churches has taken him there in his role as education and advocacy officer on behalf of refugees and displaced persons. Any doubts about his effectiveness are dispelled when a church minister tells him ‘I use your stuff all the time’. The minister particularly likes Visier’s prediction that in 20–30 years’ time the Australian basketball team will largely consist of Sudanese – Australia’s latest wave of immigrants – because they are so tall and naturally athletic. In this sports obsessed nation, things like that count.
Visier first came to Australia in 1996 with his wife Pari and three small children as a visiting academic from violence-torn Nagaland in North-East India. Three months later, the person who had taken over Visier’s position back home as college dean was assassinated. Then a close friend was shot dead in his house. Fearing for their own safety, the Sanyüs felt compelled to apply to stay in Australia. Only in Melbourne’s quiet suburbs did the trauma of what they had lived through hit them. ‘I had nightmares for seven years,’ says Visier. He pulls out a photo of his older brothers’ children – two daughters and five sons. Only one of the boys is still alive. Pari comments, ‘the whole population is traumatized, but it is suppressed. The alcohol abuse and drug-taking is all part of that. So many nephews have died that way. In my mind they are victims of conflict just as much as those who are shot.’
As a child between the ages of six and nine, Visier spent three years in the jungle, along with thousands of others internally displaced from their villages. ‘We starved, living under trees, eating snakes and monkeys.’ He remembers a time when a tiger came and his father covered their faces telling them to keep very still. The tiger went away. In Nagaland when people recall such things they usually laugh, but when Visier retold the story recently to an Australian audience he broke down in tears as he re-lived the experience.
Such tears are a part of the healing process. In his work Visier has pioneered a ‘Refugee Healing Trail’ which takes recently arrived refugees to communities in rural Victoria. After an evening of performing songs and dances from their countries of origin and telling their stories, they are taken to stay in family homes. Friendships are formed – sometimes leading to resettlement. The surprising thing, says Visier, is that the hosts find it healing too. One, a teacher, said ‘I realize now that my problems are so small compared to these refugees’.
For refugee workers, resettlement is always a last resort. ‘If you were to ask people in the refugee camps, 99% would prefer to go back home.’ The churches and other agencies recognize that it is better to deal with the roots of the problem, which means diplomacy and conflict prevention.
For Pari this finds expression through her work with IofC’s Creators of Peace programme, and particularly through women’s peace circles, which she helped pilot. ‘I remember around the time of 9/11 becoming aware how isolated the Muslim community was. A Muslim lady I had met told how she was racially abused while driving to the hospital to give birth. So as a personal response I decided to run a peace circle in Melbourne.’ Over a period of weeks the women workshop through set material. ‘We share very deeply about things such as grief, loss, or struggle. Opportunities to do this across diversity are rare. In telling our stories and through deep inner listening, we are able to create an on-going new story.’ An important aspect of the Circles is preventive diplomacy: ‘building networks of trust and friendship which go deep enough so that if trouble erupts the relationships are sustained.’
What do they miss about Nagaland? Family and friends, naturally, but also the deep sense of connection between people which is so strong in their culture. For Pari this finds particular expression in the rituals of mourning. ‘When someone dies, even if it is the middle of the night, no effort is spared to inform friends, relatives and neighbours at once. Just as Christianity binds us to God through the suffering of Christ, so suffering is what allows us to enlarge our hearts through compassion. The rituals of mourning facilitate a sense of community and relationship in a way which is quite absent here.’
The Naga, like Australia’s Aborigines, are an indigenous people. In 1993, International Year for the World’s Indigenous Peoples, Visier spoke on behalf of the Asian delegation to the United Nations. He is also a co-founder and honorary president of the World Foundation for the Safeguard of Indigenous Cultures. So it was natural for the Sanyüs to have an Aboriginal Elder hold a traditional smoking ceremony in their new home. They also have a letter inviting them ‘to stay in Australia as long as they like’ from Auntie Joy Murphy, Elder of the Wurundjeri people, traditional owners of the land where the Sanyüs live. ‘It gives a sense of legitimacy to our being here, a real sense of welcome and belonging.’
‘We talk a lot about reconciliation between Aboriginal and white Australians, but reconciliation is needed at many levels,’ says Pari. ‘Every new migrant should understand what has gone on before.’ It is something she talks about on the Refugee Healing Trail. ‘Whenever I meet Aboriginal people I’m struck by their resilience and hospitality,’ she says. ‘It is something that moves me to tears.’
Pari works as a social worker and coordinator of volunteers for Camcare, providing services to underprivileged, mostly white, families. ‘Most people think of multiculturalism as white “Anglos” reaching out to people with brown skins. But what I am doing is just as much multicultural work,’ she says.
When the Sanyüs moved into their present home they were welcomed by Barbara, a friendly neighbour bringing them food and helping to unload. Then on their first night a brick was thrown through their window by someone objecting to their race. ‘So which Australia do I choose?’ asks Visier, ‘Barbara or the brick thrower? We chose both because both are realities.’