The bike route into Shepparton from Mooroopna, through the redgum forest of the Goulbourn River flats is very picturesque. It was the final five kilometres of our day, and we rode through in sunshine in mid afternoon, and the forest was sparkling, washed clean in the day’s rain showers. It was purely coincidental that we had pulled over and were under cover, waiting for a journalist when the thunderstorm hit. Massive rolls of thunder, lightning, and hail was a dramatic welcome to Shepparton. By the time the interview was completed, and we rode the remaining 10 minutes into town the sun was out again, and we cruised up High St, finding the Afghani Restaurant where we met Nasim, President of the local Hazara community.
As we chatted with Nasim more thunder and lightning and torrential rain played dramatically outside. We ate freshly baked bread, salad, the meat eaters ate kebabs, and drank tea. More tea. This ride has been fuelled by tea. Then off we pedalled to find our home for the next two nights.
An hour later we were back in town. No longer the half drowned bike rider, I was freshly showered, dressed as a Senator, ready for listening.
I walked in the hall and was amazed. Nasim hadn’t been exaggerating. There were 60 men ready to meet and talk with me. With Nasim interpreting we began. I talked a bit about me, about The Greens in general and then got onto the main act – Australia’s cruelty to them, to their compatriots, and The Greens alternative caring approach.
The stories from the room were as one. Most of these men were on bridging visas. They aren’t allowed to work or study. They don’t know if they will be allowed to stay. They worried for their families left behind in Pakistan and Iran. They eked out their days as best they could. I asked one man what he did each day. He said he got up and went for a long walk. Then he returned home to nothing. They want to work, to study, to contribute, to settle, to put down roots. They want to end the uncertainty. They struggle with depression, and are worried for their own health and that of their friends. They say if things don’t change Australia will need huge mental health hospitals to house them. One younger man told me of his worries for his older friend who he shares a bedroom with. He doesn’t sleep he says. He has anti-depressant medication and sleeping tablets but he still doesn’t sleep.
They have difficulty accessing English classes, and immigration legal advice also seems to be hard to come by.
This roomful of men personifies the impacts of the Abbott Government cruelty, even for those refugees here living in the community in Australia. The Government is deliberately being cruel to these men, destroying their mental health, to deter people getting on boats. Cruel to be kind they say. No, its not. These men can tell you it’s being cruel to be cruel.
I encouraged them to write in my Journey to Canberra book. One man wrote me a piece in Arabic which I will have properly translated. Nasim told me in it he says he doesn’t hate anyone, or hold grudges. He just wants to settle here, to end the uncertainty. He worked in community health in Afghanistan, on vaccination programs. He was targeted by the Taliban because he helped as an Advisor to NATO special forces. He’d be dead if he hadn’t fled. What an asset to Australia he’d be if he could study to add to his skills, and to work in community health here too. Instead, he is left to slowly drive himself insane.
“We want to put our knowledge and our skills to establish a better community in Australia”, wrote another.
And cheekily: “Please help us for our Permanent Residency Visa and a spot in the Australian Soccer team”.
Today I met with a dozen women. It was a sunny afternoon after the rain, once more torrential in the morning, cleared at midday. I rode into town again, in the cold crisp air.
Nasim had told me that it would be mostly men coming last night, so I’d said I really want to meet the women too. Their stories were different. They all had permanent residency, and were attending TAFE English classes. They’d all come through the UNHCR resettlement program and had been in Australia less than a year. They wanted to be able to bring their families to Australia to join them. They wanted immigration advice and help in applying for those visas, again help that didn’t seem to be readily available in Shepparton. They struggled with learning English, and thought the idea of having volunteer tutors in addition to their classes was a good one. They asked why our Government was making it so difficult for refugees? What could I say? To deter people from getting on boats is what they say, I say. But if they stay in Afghanistan they will be killed, was the blunt response, and Pakistan is not safe for Hazara either.
Sohaila, our interpreter was fantastic. She was quite young, and spoke excellent English, despite having only been in Australia since 2010 herself. Her father had arrived here by boat a few years prior, and then the family had been able to join him – her mother, two sisters and three brothers. Sohaila had studied a TAFE business studies course here, and now wants to go to Uni and do law. More strength to her arm.
I handed out business cards to everyone last night and today. I expect I’ll get lots of emails in the coming weeks and months, seeking my support, my help. I’ll put together a list of resources, of people who may be able to help them, and do my best, as inadequate as it will be in the face of our current government cruelty. The least I can do, to stand up for these brave men and women.
I had more in my day today too. I had started it with a ride to town in misty drizzle to a radio interview at the Shepparton ABC studios.
And the previous evening after meeting with the Afghani men, I'd popped in to have a chat with an young people's LGBTI support group.
I met with Neville Atkinson and Belinda Briggs from the Yorta Yorta Nation, and heard of their hopes, dreams, and strategic plans. Yorta Yorta really seem to have it together. I’m so keen to keep working with them too.
And I met with Greater Shepparton Council who lobbied me about how great High Speed Rail would be for Shep, how their train service needs to be improved, how getting freight on rail is critical. It was a beautiful thing, being lobbied in almost the same words as I could have used to them and others. Yes we can – I’ll be there for them, most absolutely too!
Finally dinner tonight at the GV Hotel with Greens and friends from the region. A great bunch. I shared some stories, talked of refugees of course, of renewable energy, of young people and jobs. I listened some more. They wrote in my book and wished me well on my journey from here. If it’s as rich as today was, then I’ve got a lot to look forward to.