Friday, October 4, 2013

Every Asylum Seeker has a name

What do you think of the term 'boat people'? Note I didn't ask what you think of refugees, but the term itself. When you see or hear the term 'boat people', what immediately comes to mind?

For me, it's boats. Makes sense really. That's the first word. People, used almost as an afterthought.

So I think of boats - not people, not faces, not names and not stories. Boats.

I don't stop with boats. The people, the faces, the names and the stories follow afterwards. But my guess is I'm not the only person whose initial thought when faced with the term 'boat people' is boats.

And I don't think that's an accident.

The Guy Sebastian song, 'Get Along' contains the lyrics, 'And it's easy when they're faceless, to hate the other side.'

It's not only easy to hate people when they're faceless, it's harder to show compassion. We humans may not seem like it at times, but we really do care about other humans - that is when we see their faces, learn their names and hear their stories. Some may show more empathy than others. But the person who can look into someone's eyes and hear their story of suffering or pain or loss and not be moved in any way is rare.

But if we generally care about individuals we're not so good about caring about strangers - particularly groups of strangers - whose names we don't know, whose faces we haven't seen and whose stories we haven't heard.

It's like the natural inclination to care about other humans stops - perhaps because in some way we stop seeing them as humans - or at least as humans the same as us. We've been doing it for hundreds of years. We say they're not like us - not civilised like us or not Christian like us or not intelligent like us or not feeling like us. We turn them into groups with labels, rather than seeing them as individuals. We refuse to hear their stories. We refuse to learn their names. We refuse to look into their faces.

And the more removed we are from those names and those faces and those stories, the easier it is not to care.

So how much easier is it to turn away from the plight of refugees when we see 'boats' rather than people? A boat is a thing, a mode of transport, a problem, a threat. A boat deserves no compassion, no empathy.

Those boats are filled with people - but it's so hard to care about those people when their names and their faces and their stories remain hidden from us.

The Gosford Anglican Church has had some very good signs up recently. But this one I think is my favourite:

Every Asylum Seeker has a name.

We may not ever learn their names. We may bundle them altogether in one group called 'boat people' and replace images of their faces with images of boats in our head. But their names don't disappear just because we give them a number and turn them into a statistic. Their faces don't become blurry just because we label them 'boat people'. And their stories aren't erased just because we haven't heard them.

And chances are - human nature being what it is - if we learnt their names and saw their faces and heard their stories, we would care.

So let's care anyway - as if we had learnt their names and seen their faces and heard those stories. Because those names and those faces and those stories still exist - even if we do try and hide them behind the term 'boat people'.


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