Every time I hear “Silent Night” I think of her. The young girl I met a few months ago who was born in Syria and moved to Sydney two years ago.
She told me that it took her months to adjust to sleeping in this country. The silence kept her awake.
In Syria, she had become so accustomed to drifting off to sleep with the sound of a whirring war in the background, that silence was unnerving. She isn’t the only refugee on my mind this Christmas.
At this moment, it is estimated that there are 43 million refugees worldwide. That is two times the population of Australia, all of whom have nowhere safe to live.
We live in the only country in the world that keeps asylum-seekers in detention. We give them labels like “illegal” and “boat people” to dehumanise their plight. And despite a change of Prime Minister, who employs different language and has shifted the political energy, the policy of turning back the boats remains. We are still running a campaign in Indonesia that warns “No way: you will not make Australia home”.
Just last month the Treasurer and former Immigration minister Scott Morrison said, “We don’t just let them walk across the border and pitch a tent”. (I think the fact people aren’t walking across the border to Australia has less to do with policy and more to do with the fact we are an island.)
Only a few months ago, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said “Let me be absolutely clear, there will be no resettlement of the people on Manus Island and Nauru in Australia. I know that’s tough…you could say it’s a harsh policy…but it has worked”.
For who? Who is this policy meant to have worked for? The innocent human beings who fled their home countries and are now suffering from PTSD and have been re-traumatised during the process of detention? Those who are suffering with mental illness and self-harming? Those who have been sexually and/or physically assaulted? Surely, detention centres haven’t “worked” for displaced people who fled in search of hope and were met with absolute despair?
I won’t pretend to have the answer to one of the most complex issues our world currently faces. But I know history. And I know that there is a reason why we have told the same story every year for over two thousand years.
Watch the University of Western Sydney’s ad featuring Deng Thiak Adut, a refugee from war-torn Sudan:
I remember first learning the story in primary school from picture books, where all the characters were far whiter than they should have been. Mary, who was pregnant at the time, travelled with Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Once they got there, various innkeepers turned them away because they had no more room. Eventually, they found a stable and it was there that Jesus was born. King Herod then ordered the massacre of all boys less than two years old, so the family fled to Egypt and then later settled in Nazareth.
Most people know this story. Whether they believe it or not, it is a familiar tale. The story of people being displaced through no fault of their own and being turned away by innkeepers because they are “too full” has become awfully familiar in recent years. Even for those who aren’t religious. Who don’t believe in Jesus. Whether you are religious or not, Jesus’ birth can be about the crappy presents, the gorgeous trees, indulging in all manner of food and rituals that we associate with Christmas.
But can it also be about the story of a baby who was born into dire circumstances? About the mothers and fathers all over the world who, through no fault of their own, are on a journey to escape conflict? A time where we remember that all children, all human beings, deserve safety and hope? When we look at the houses adorned in fairy lights this Christmas, covered in out of place snow, with a red-suited old man half stuck in the chimney, can we take a moment to reflect?
Can we look at the little doll in the manger in the nativity scene and remember this. That there are millions of babies, children and adults in the world right now, with no home and no sense of safety.
And can we please do what we can to ensure Australia is the inn that is blessed enough to have them?