What it means to be a refugee in Australia

By Samaya Borom
Yousefi_03 002
Younis Yousefi, My House, 2004.

Pictures in my Heart: Seeking Refuge – Afghanistan to Australia
Fiona Hamilton
Wakefield Press

Noted French novelist Marcel Proust once claimed that “only through art can we emerge from ourselves and know what another person sees”. In Fiona Hamilton’s book Pictures in my Heart, Seeking Refuge – Afghanistan to Australia, the reader is treated to artworks created by refugees from Afghanistan living in Murray Bridge, a small town outside of Adelaide, South Australia. The pieces explore what it means to be refugees in Australia. Linocuts – prints cut into a sheet of linoleum – are used as the medium through which the artists’ depict their separation from their families and their harrowing experiences as asylum seekers.

Between 1999 and 2001, many Hazara male refugees came to Australia by boat and were placed on Temporary Protection Visas (TPV) while the Australian government assessed their asylum claims. Living on a TPV meant that this particular group of men was able to live in the Murray Bridge community, rather than in detention as is the case now for those seeking asylum on Australian shores. However, the TPV also meant that the Australian government would reconsider their petition for asylum after 30 months. If circumstances changed, there could be every chance that their review would be unfavourable and that they would be sent back to Afghanistan – a potential death sentence for those fleeing the Taliban.

Familial themes pervade the artwork, while the stories further reinforce how dangerous Afghanistan has been for those caught in the Taliban’s warfare.

Alongside longtime friend and artist Miranda Harris, Hamilton saw the opportunity to run a series of art workshops as a way of mitigating the intense periods of loneliness and separation that accompany the refugee experience. The book is a collection of stories, linocuts, photos and clay art made by the men who attended the workshops. Their contributions featured in a 2003 exhibition at the local town hall.

Whilst significant as artworks in their own right, the series of works highlights the collective plight of many refugees; caught between wanting to honour their own socio-cultural backgrounds while trying to become valued members of Australian society. Familial themes pervade the artwork, while the stories further reinforce how dangerous Afghanistan has been for those caught in the Taliban’s warfare.

Broken up into chapters such as “Home”, “War”, “Journey” and “Boat”, Pictures in my Heart, Seeking Refuge – Afghanistan to Australia is a collection of memories and hopes representative of the initial shared refugee experience – from the decision to embark on a dangerous journey to freedom to the challenges faced as a result of governmental intervention.

Unfortunately, the ability of refugees to access artistic programs such as the Murray Bridge program is not a shared experience, and we are poorer because of it.

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