From Under a Leaky Roof
Review by Bruce Elder
February 22, 2006
Stripping away the prejudice tainting attitudes towards Afghan refugees.
From Under a Leaky Roof: compassionate argument.
Author Phil Sparrow Genre Society/Politics Publisher Fremantle Arts Centre Press Pages 160 RRP $24.95
Phil Sparrow worked inAfghanistan from 1999 to 2001 and from 2003. He speaks Dari, the majority language in Afghanistan, and he has spent much of his time in the country understanding and unravelling the culture’s complex social, religious and political affiliations.In this excellent book he strips away the prejudices that have tainted Australia’s attitudes towards Afghan refugees. He attempts to explain that the Federal Government has been grossly misrepresenting the refugee situation and that, with very few exceptions, the Afghans who arrived in Australia only to end up on Nauru, Manus Island or in Woomera or Baxter were genuinely fleeing Taliban persecution.There is a cool, quiet logic about this book. Sparrow maintains a compassionate argument by demonstrating his deep knowledge of the Afghan culture and referring to statistics that make the Government’s claims absurd.
Here’s another review.. a longer one. From Journal of Politics and Culture, Issue 3, 2006
“Some Australian Others”
On Phil Sparrow’s “From Under a Leaky Roof: Afghan Refugees in Australia”
Phil Sparrow, From Under a Leaky Roof: Afghan Refugees in
Australia (Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2005)
By Peta Stephenson
Phil Sparrow’s From Under a Leaky Roof gives rare insight into the lives and experiences of some of the newest arrivals in Australia — Afghan refugees and asylum seekers. The title comes from an Afghan proverb telling of a man who runs out from under a leaky roof, only to find himself in the rain. Sparrow, a refugee advocate who lives and works in Afghanistan as a UN aid worker, likens the proverb to the experience awaiting Afghan asylum-seekers, particularly those from the Hazara ethnic group. Fleeing persecution in their homelands, the Shia Muslim minorities’ hopes of establishing a new, ‘free’ life in
Australia often prove illusory. Detention, discrimination, unemployment and a life lived in limbo on temporary protection visas are experiences that the vast majority of Hazara asylum seekers face. Many also find that the old tribal rivalries that existed in Afghanistan continue to feature in their dealings with the established Australian Afghan community.
Sparrow is very well qualified to write this story. He has spent years living in Afghanistan, immersed in the local politics, culture and society. Interspersed throughout his description of Afghanistan’s historical and political landscape are a number of his own diary entries. These invite the reader to share his firsthand account of life there in a very personal and intimate way. Sparrow is painfully aware that this important context is largely missing from Australian government and media representations of Afghan asylum seekers. But without a fuller understanding of the intolerable situations that many Hazaras, in particular, are fleeing, the general public will be less inclined to treat them with the humanity and dignity they deserve.
From Under a Leaky Roof argues that the out-pouring of public support and sympathy for Kosovar refugees in the late 1990s was largely the result of media attention to the conflict in the region, helping people understand why the Kosovars were fleeing their country. Sparrow seeks to redress the imbalance in contemporary media representations which focus disproportionately on the ways in which Afghan asylum seekers have arrived in Australia, at the expense of acknowledging what they are trying to escape from. Another difficulty compounding the lack of public awareness of the particular circumstances facing Afghan asylum seekers concerns their detention in remote camps, far away from human contact with other Australians. As Sparrow laments, this lack of ‘relationships, absence of cultural learning, exchange and understanding have left a public vulnerable to propaganda and cynical manipulation’. The government’s willingness to exploit this weakness was perhaps most spectacularly displayed during the so-called ‘ Tampa crisis’ and even more devastatingly during the ‘children overboard’ affair.
Sparrow’s account not only draws our attention to the conditions those seeking asylum are desperate to escape, he also gives the reader a glimpse into the lives of Hazara arrivals following their release from detention. The personal testimonies of his interviewees recount the heartache of separation from their families, the difficulty of finding work and accommodation and the hostility they often encounter in their relationships with Australian Afghans. The majority of Afghan refugees arriving here in 1998 were Sunni Muslims, predominantly Tajiks and Pushtuns. By contrast, over ninety percent of refugees arriving since that time have been Shi’ite Hazaras. But traditional inter-ethnic rivalries can only partly explain why long-settled Afghans have sought to distance themselves from these new ‘boat people’. According to Sparrow, many Afghan-Australians have sought to distance themselves from the negative stereotypes applied to Hazara Afghans because ‘the presence of these new asylum seekers somehow jeopardises their own standing and position.’ As one interviewee put it, established Afghans do not want to be considered ‘an illegal, a queue-jumper or a terrorist … a person who might throw children overboard’.
Beyond these substantial difficulties, perhaps the most trying aspect of the Hazaras’ predicament is living with the uncertainty of the future. Will they be allowed to remain in Australia, or will they be sent home where they could face the real possibility of violence and death? Sparrow’s interviewees are desperate to contribute to Australia, but ‘without any sense of permanency or security, there is little incentive to settle down and stabilise’. Faced with the possibility of deportation, many Hazaras live in limbo, in a state of overwhelming stress and anxiety. In providing the space in which the Hazara asylum seekers can speak of their experiences in their own words, Sparrow brings their voices into the public arena, perhaps for the first time.
Not content merely to decry the government’s poor treatment of Afghan asylum seekers, Sparrow proposes a counter-model, an alternative action plan that, unlike the present practice of detention and temporary protection, is not short sighted, costly, or lacking in humanitarian values. Acknowledging that the number of displaced peoples seeking refuge in Australia is only going to increase in the future, Sparrow’s pragmatic and sustainable vision involves a number of recommendations including a series of public education campaigns ‘to illustrate both the conditions from which refugees are coming and contextualise the numbers and natures of refugees in comparison with other ethnic groups, religious affiliations and so on’; the government’s assiduous avoidance of pejorative terms such as ‘illegals’ or ‘queue jumpers’; its reference to ‘the economic benefits immigrants and refugees have been consistently shown to bring’; ‘work on identifying and dismantling people-smuggling operations’; and giving aid to supporting refugees in the counties neighbouring the places of origin. Sparrow argues convincingly that this approach of focusing on maintaining people closer to their homes, and disabling the smuggling structure would ‘be a more economical and politically astute course of action than the development, management and maintenance of detention centres in either Australian or offshore locations’.
One hundred years after the introduction of the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act (or so-called ‘White Australia’ policy), in which Australia led the Western world in the development of policies of racial exclusivity, in 2001 with the passing of the Border Protection Act it had the dubious honour of providing the lead in harsh policies to deter asylum seekers. In following some of Sparrow’s recommendations we could see Australia leading the world in terms of the humanity and dignity with which it treated those seeking refuge. But in order to do this, non-Indigenous Australia must face squarely our own illegitimate arrival as ‘boat people’. While Sparrow makes very brief mention of white Australia’s ongoing fear of an ‘Asian invasion’, he might have considered this border disorder in terms of what could be labelled Australia’s ‘colonial complex’, that is, the invader who fears invasion in turn. To my mind this is at the core of white Australia’s obsession with maintaining territorial integrity and is of the utmost importance in seeking to understand Australia’s ungenerous response to outsiders.
Sparrow offers another reason for white Australia’s lack of understanding or regard for asylum seekers. Unaccustomed to civil unrest or inter-ethnic rivalries in Australia, he suggests, `we are not attuned to observing, expecting or addressing this in others’. Sparrow maintains that while white Australia remains ‘blithely unaware of, and chronically unexposed to, racial and ethnic tension’, the same cannot be said for Indigenous Australians. It is a shame then that nowhere in his analysis does he consider how Aboriginal people have responded to Afghan asylum seekers. Many, including the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry (ACM) in Adelaide have a long history of support for Afghan asylum seekers. This support extended to the ACM’s establishment of a makeshift mosque for South Australia’s Hazara asylum seekers to pray (given the absence of a Shi’ite Mosque in Adelaide).
Other Indigenous people including Wadjularbinna Nulyarimma and former ATSIC chair Lowitja O’Donoghue have also worked tirelessly to support Afghani asylum seekers. O’Donoghue regularly gives support, advice and encouragement to those on temporary protection visas in the ‘Afghan room’, a room in a close friend’s Adelaide terrace that has been converted for the purpose. The pair now assist more than a dozen adolescents and a few men in their 20s with finding jobs, getting cars, dealing with immigration issues and contacting their families.
O’Donoghue has stated publicly that she has a special affinity with Afghan refugees because she grew up in theFlinders Ranges among the descendants of the original ‘Afghan’ cameleers. Unfortunately Sparrow makes no mention of the early Afghan pioneers to Australia. We are not told if recent arrivals know of the long history of Afghan migration to this country, or how this knowledge might impact upon them. It would have been interesting to see whether or not white Australia’s reception of Afghans has changed much over time. It would also have been enlightening to learn that, unlike their white counterparts, Aboriginal communities in the past were relatively welcoming of the ‘Afghan’ camel men. I agree with Sparrow that we as a nation are diminished by our treatment of Afghan asylum seekers, but a more nuanced analysis would have revealed that Indigenous people have long adopted a model of meeting across difference that we can all learn from.
Peta Stephenson is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at The University of Queensland.Peta