Bright rays lit their solemn faces as they gathered outside the State Library of Victoria on a mission. When the speeches had been delivered and the crowd was fired up and ready to go, they began their march down Swanston Street towards the Yarra River. “Say it loud! Say it clear! Refugees are welcome here” their voices rang in unison as they made their way past the flashing cameras of news reporters and curious tourists. Each one clad in clothes of purple, they waved clenched fists and posters, and kept their banners high. Grandmothers against Detention of Refugee Children (GADRC) were once again making their voices heard.
“There’s nothing more frightening than a group of angry grandmothers” said Clare Forbes. Clare co-founded GADRC in 2014, which advocates to end the detention of refugee children and their families in Australia.
GADRC were among an estimated 10,000 at the Palm Sunday Walk for Justice for Refugees on 14 April 2019. They were calling for the detention camps on Manus Island and Nauru to be closed and for the 915 people who remain there to be brought safely to Australia. In the run up to the Australian federal election on 18 May 2019, people from community groups, unions, faith groups and political organisations came together to send a message to politicians: Australians want a fair society that welcomes refugees.
In the sea of protesters, GADRC stood out from the crowd. Wearing sun hats and matching purple shirts, this group of grandmothers was setting a golden example for the younger generations around them. The blazing sun and two kilometre distance to the end point were no match for the determination of these passionate activists.
Clare wore a large magenta hat on her soft grey curls, a purple chiffon scarf that trailed down to her knees, and two big violet GADRC button pins. She kept her nokia mobile phone in her purse and peered at me with kind eyes over her purple spectacle frames. She explained how she created a movement uniting hundreds of grandmothers around Australia to fight for the freedom of refugee children.
“It started with three of us in April 2014. We were outraged at the reports that were coming out about the terrible damage that was being done to children in detention. Children harming themselves, children who were suicidal,” Clare said. “Just dreadful things. We couldn’t just be silent and let this be done in our name.”
Clare and her two friends, Gwenda Davey and Alex Butler, began by sending out emails to their friends, ex-colleagues, book groups and gym groups. They called a meeting for those interested to work as grandmothers against the detention of refugee children.
“We put out 20 chairs and 70 people came,” Clare said.
GADRC has since grown to involve over 600 grandmothers in Melbourne, Sydney, regional New South Wales and Victoria, Tasmania, and the Northern Territory. Together, these grandmothers have held walks and demonstrations through cities, planted 1000 paper dolls in the grounds of Parliament House in Canberra, and knitted scarves to be put into backpacks for every single child that was in Nauru. Together, they created change.
“We won. We got the kids off Nauru,” Clare said. “But there are still about five children in locked detention at the MITA here in Broadmeadows. One of them, a little Vietnamese girl, was actually born in detention. Imagine a very young mother and her 12 month old child in detention.”
MITA stands for Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation and it is an onshore detention facility. MITA has been reported by Australian Human Rights Commission to have harmful treatment of people in detention and poor living conditions. In January 2019, a few hundred people in MITA went on a hunger strike, protesting the harsh conditions and calling for improvements in facilities and more freedom given to people in detention.
Similarly, the conditions of the offshore detention centres on Manus Island were reported by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to put people detained there at risk of physical and psychological harm. Medical experts and UNHCR protection staff observed a deterioration in the mental health of people in detention from December 2017 to June 2018. They also found a lack of adequate facilities to ensure the safety and wellbeing of people detained there.
Chris Breen, long-term activist and spokesperson with the Refugee Action Collective (RAC), reported meeting a person in detention on Manus Island who received brain damage after being hit on the head during a riot.
“He had a son about the same age as my son. Seeing him, it’ll tear at your heartstrings,” Chris said.
According to Chris, that was just one of many similar stories he has encountered during his time supporting people in detention. Chris has been working with the RAC since 2010 to organise rallies such as the Palm Sunday Walk, host public forums, and create fact sheets on refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia and the onshore and offshore detention centres. Their ultimate goal is to change government policy through collective action.
“Rallies bring like-minded people together. You’re always stronger together,” Chris said. “They help people see that they’re not alone. There’s an awful lot of people who think ‘I’m the only one who cares about this,’ but when you get all those people together, you can get a breakthrough. That’s when revolutions can happen, and change can happen.”
When asked what her advice was for the next generation of changemakers, Clare also highlighted the importance of bringing like-minded people together and having conversations.
“You might think it’s boring if everyone agrees with one another, but it’s not,” Clare said. “It reinforces people’s beliefs and gives them a bit of power and courage.”
Besides rallies in the streets, university campuses are also sites for many important conversations. Among a series of anti-racism workshops organised by the People of Colour Department through the University of Melbourne Student Union, first year student Sobur Dhieu gave a compelling presentation on racist media rhetoric affecting the Australian-South Sudanese community.
“I am part of the South Sudanese community and I see all these issues happening. I see the way that my people are being portrayed and it’s a misrepresentation. And we’re suffering for it,” Sobur said. “I had a lot of anger inside of me and I had a lot of frustration inside of me. I thought this would be a good way to educate people and to set the record straight.”
According to Sobur, the Australian-South Sudanese community has been subjected to harmful stereotypes and discrimination after being inaccurately portrayed and overrepresented in the media as violent gang members. She also expressed her concern of the lack of media coverage when they are victims of violence, such as the murder of Natalina Angkok.
“Imagine if a white Australian was murdered by a South Sudanese in the middle of the city. We wouldn’t hear the end of it. Where is the outrage about Natalina’s murder?” Sobur asked.
Sharing some of her personal experiences with racism, Sobur described being told not to steal by a white Australian woman while shopping for lollies with her cousins and being singled out for a bag check at a grocery store while only carrying a small bag.
Despite her frustrations, Sobur hopes to set an example for more young people to be socially active. She would like to create more balance in what she described as the “adult-dominated” Australian political landscape.
“Youths should know that their voices are powerful at the end of the day. No matter what they say, no matter how they say it, their voices matter,” Sobur said. “Just start small. Find a group of people who you trust and start having conversations. I’m not naturally confident in speaking but I had a lot of passionate conversations with my parents, then my siblings, then my friends. And every time I talk about it, the crowd gets bigger.”
As time progresses and new issues spark anger in the Australian society, one thing appears to remain a constant beacon: hope.
“In my lifetime, I’ve seen Australia become a lot less equal than it used to be. And that’s sad,” Clare said. “But let’s hope. I always feel encouraged by the number of young people at the Palm Sunday rally. There are many young people. And I believe that there’s a lot of good in nearly all human beings, if we can just tap it. Let’s hope.”