Woomera

By Donna Jacobs Sife

About twelve years ago we had the painters in. Four Chinese men, arrived, slipping over themselves, unable to handle the ladder properly, disorganised. They couldn’t speak much English. Whatever we said they nodded and continued doing it the wrong way. They were so irritating. Why were we so unfortunate to be sent such bumbling oafs.

On the second day, my then husband talked to them. Despite their limited English their stories emerged. They were all doctors. They had left China after Tianemmen Square, hoping for a better life, where free speech and equal opportunity was valued. They were cultured, thoughtful and very apologetic, aware of the fact that they were not particularly good painters. They were being paid well below the basic wage.

What a salutary lesson that was. I think of them often, particularly when I hear the comments made about the asylum seekers being ‘not the kind of people we want in this country’, and ‘not worthy of our compassion’. I can hardly be too shocked, I know how easy it is to pass judgement, to put all ‘such people’ in the same camp. Its Haman-esque, an archetypal response to racism.

It's the stories that make the difference. As Sister Susan Connelly said the other day at the protest against detention centres, “where are the stories? They (the Government) don’t want us to hear them, because then we will know how courageous and admirable so many of these people are.”

Inside those bleak walls of Villawood and Woomera are doctors and lawyers, scientists. Mothers and children. Each one has a story to tell. One such story appeared in a paper this week about a Dr. Amir, an expert in the field of genetic engineering who left Afghanistan under the Taliban and went to Iran. There he was required to be involved in work that he found abhorrent, and so applied to immigrate to Australia. It would take five years, and in the meantime, he was still being pressured to take part in this work. So he decided to buy tickets for himself and his family on a boat, that promised safe passage to Australia. He has been in Woomera now for just under a year.

We hear in horror of the stitching of mouths and the incidents of self harm. I wonder what I would do, caged indefinitely, with no structure, no schooling for my children, no-one to hear my plight, no end in sight. Ever seen a caged bird, plucking out its own feathers until it is raw and diseased? Its what we do when under extreme stress. Its a natural response.

The tossing of children from a boat in to the sea, whether it occurred or not, it wouldn’t be the first time. Didn’t Moses’ mother do the very same thing, for the very same reason? What about the kinder trains, filled with children whose parents saw it as their only chance. Its what parents do in desperate circumstances.

This is a Jewish issue. In Deuteronomy 23.16 it says “You shall not return a runaway slave to his master......Let him stay with you anywhere he chooses in one of your settlements, whatever suits him best: you shall not wrong him.”

Or in Exodus 22:20 “ You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Our voices should be loudly heard in protest against the ill-treatment of these strangers. They should be Jewish voices, speaking out for humanity, for our ancestors, for our lost families, for our country Australia, for the stranger, the widow and the orphan.

What indeed is a widow or an orphan if not those robbed of a home, bereft of a motherland. “How are we to conduct ourselves towards them?” asks Maimonides. “ because their souls are depressed and their spirits low....one must speak to them tenderly. One must show them unwavering courtesy, not hurt them physically with hard toil, or wound their feelings with harsh speech. One must take greater care of their property and money than of one’s own. Whoever irritates them, provokes them to anger, pains them, tyrannises over them... is guilty of a transgression.”

These are the lepers of our society. Socially outcast, demonised and dispossessed. And while I am all warmed up, let me leave you

with one last story from the Talmud.

Rabbi Joshua Ben Levi put this question to no less an authority that the prophet Elijah himself.

“Where” the Rabbi asked, “ shall I find the Messiah?”

“At the gate of the city” Elijah replied.

“How shall I recognise him?”

“He sits among the lepers.”

“Among the lepers?” cried Rabbi Joshua. “What is he doing there?”

“He changes their bandages,” Elijah answered. “He changes them one by one.”

That may not seem like much for a Messiah to be doing. But apparently in the eyes of God, it is a mighty thing indeed.