Go Back to Where You Came From: Post Mortem

Sorry for the delay in posting this, have been preoccupied with other projects and writing assignments for the last two weeks. 

SBS screened the follow up Special Live Event to the 3-episode Go Back to Where You Came From mini-series on Tuesday 28/6.  The participants were assembled in front of a live audience of family members, the resettled refugees who appeared in the program, other cast and crew, and selected viewers. Each was asked to give their thoughts on the series itself and how their participation in it had affected them.


This is basically the journey of each participant in Go Back to Where You Came From:

Raye (lives opposite Inverbrackie detention centre, South Australia).

Raye started her journey with bitter hatred towards asylum seekers: “They get given everything; all they do is complain; we’re rolling out the red carpet with a glass of champagne at the end of it.”

By the end, she had bonded so deeply with the family of African refugees who had taken her in at the beginning of the series that one of their sons stayed as a guest in her home. Her entire journey, in fact, was punctuated with tears of sympathy, empathy and compassion for refugees.

Raye’s husband encouraged her to participate in the series, after becoming concerned about Raye’s level of anger and it’s effects on her health. A recent retiree, she had spent 22 years working with intellectually disabled children – work she believed in: “People don’t understand people with a disability. They fear them. Bringing them into a community and trying to get the community to accept them is rewarding”.  Part of her bitter resentment of asylum seekers was her perception that the plight of these people was being neglected, whilst the refugees were being cared for.

She now extends her compassion to refugees, and feels strongly that we should be helping refugees still languishing in other countries and camps. The inherent unfairness of the life most refugees face disturbed her enormously.

Racquel (Anglo Westie from Western Sydney).

At first glance, a living stereotype: 21 year-old Racquel is a high school drop out, uneducated, unemployed, breeding dogs in the backyard.  Living in a “working class” suburb (many newly arrived migrants are settled in former “working class” suburbs) and concerned at all the foreigners populating Western Sydney.

Racquel was aware she was kind of racist, expressed support for Pauline Hanson, and admitted to not liking Africans. In Malaysia, she was alarmed when she saw women with “tea-towels” on their heads.

Her journey was thus the most remarkable: despite dragging her feet most of the way, by the end of the series, she had learned to see the humanity in Africans, and in refugees. In the special live event, she distanced herself from the xenophobic statements she had made, regarding them with embarrassment. Her boyfriend, who encouraged her to go on the program, was pleased that she now appreciates how lucky she is, and has overcome some of her phobias about people and travelling. And a Muslim woman in the audience extended a hand of friendship to Racquel personally, so she could get to know “a woman in a tea-towel”.

Occasionally, reality TV gets it right.

Gleny (happy leftie, part-time teacher and singer).

Gleny’s “character arc” was expected to be the smallest, given she went into it with the view that Australia should be accepting more asylum seekers, and was even willing to take some people into her own home. Her experiences did affect her deeply, though, and deepened her appreciation of what she has here in Australia. Notably, Gleny also felt disgusted at the vitriol that was spewed about Racquel by supposedly enlightened “progressives”.

Adam (lifeguard from Sutherland Shire and participant in Cronulla protests/Riots).

Prior to this, Adam, 26, had lived in Cronulla his whole life and travelled through Asia and Europe, working in Greece as a lifeguard last winter. He was a zero tolerance kind of bloke: “Instead of harboring them, we should just put them straight on a plane and send them back. Don’t worry about giving them a feed or shower.”

By the end of the series, his views had changed significantly – he openly admitted that he would “get on a boat” without much hesitation if it offered him a glimmer of hope for a better life. His trip to a detention centre in episode 1 offered him the first real insight into the psychology of being the Other, the asylum seeker – he got to see up close the psychological desperation that sometimes follows indefinite detention.

Interesting to note, too, that his own brother, a firefighter, was on call the night of the Villawood Detention Centre fire in April this year, and that Adam had predicted the tumult beforehand, after his experience.

Darren (Adelaide man with military background, member of the Liberal Party, practicing Christian).

42 year-old Darren’s surname, Hassan, can be attributed to the fact that his ancestors were in the first group of Muslim families to arrive in Australia in the late 1800s. He is married to and raising a family with a Taiwanese woman, with whom he is also running an import/export business. Darren also believes multiculturalism is generally not working.

At the beginning of his journey, Darren was staunchly against “boat people”, arguing that they are not refugees, but economic migrants.

He is still against “boat people”, but has more compassion now for “genuine” refugees stuck in countries like Malaysia – like those he met during the series. Darren believed that getting on a boat was an incredibly irresponsible thing to do, and that in order to get on that boat, the “boat people” would first have to travel through other countries – any of which they might be “safe” in. He still holds this view.

Roderick (Vice President of the Australian Young Liberals and a former president of the Young Liberal Nationals in Queensland).

Roderick, 29, had never been overseas before this series. His biggest fear was being perceived as a giant lefty, which I guess is why he wore those “Keep Right” and creepy Tony Abbott fanboy t-shirts. His concern about asylum seekers arriving by boat and the ensuing debate was that the focus should be on the issues that drive them here in the first place.

His views had not significantly altered by the end of the series, although he did insist the experiences of the journey had affected him. I got the sense that as he sat in front of that live audience, he was still concerned about being perceived as a giant lefty, whilst simultaneously being concerned about being perceived as an insensitive right wing asshole. Probably why he wore the “Keep Right” t-shirt with the pants that were given to him as a gift in Africa.

I don’t think he is a lefty or an asshole. Just a centre-right financial planner.


Over the 3-night screening of the series, and afterwards, I did read/hear many viewers in forums and my own conversations express the opinion that “the people” who really needed to watch this series would not be watching it. Raquel’s transformation, however, indicates to me that we need to expand our understanding of who “the people” are. So many people rushed to judge Raquel from the get-go, understandably – she expressed vile, offensive opinions. But I always kind of viewed her as a product of her environment (given her level of education, her 21 years, her narrow life experience, her upbringing) rather than a hardcore, incurable racist ideologue, and was thus not surprised at her turnaround once given exposure to other places, other people, other eye-opening experiences.

If given an education, more life experience and human interaction with those they would otherwise have no contact with, some people who would otherwise wallow in the mental swamp of ignorance, smug judgement and fear could conceivably transcend their beginnings.

An enlightened society would try to facilitate this transcendence…. for ALL its members.

And if you’ve had the good fortune to have been born into a fairly comfortable family with enlightened parents who could afford to give you a broad education, be thankful (for your accident of birth), but also, ask yourself: if you had been born into Raquel’s situation, had the same family, level of life experience, education, socialisation… would you really be drastically different to her? I doubt it. People can change, but they need to be supported and educated to be better. Inside and outside the classroom.

With that in mind, it’s worth remembering who else changed their attitudes towards asylum seekers during this journey: Adam, who was at least self-aware enough to admit to being “sheltered” in the first episode, and Raye, who in the final episode admitted that she had previously had “tunnel vision”.


Participant Darren complained at one point during the series that he did not appreciate being forced to feel empathy for boat people. I found it odd that he said this, given the premise of the entire program was to retrace the steps of a former boat person or refugee all the way back to their country of origin. To walk in their shoes…. i.e. to EMPATHISE.

Something that Paul Sheehan objected to strongly in this article  (friend shared this on FB with preamble too rude to reprint here). But Sheehan should note that Darren, having apparently been forced to empathise through participation in a television program he willingly signed up for, still holds the view that boat people are not legitimate refugees (despite the fact that the majority are found to be legitimate refugees).

How could this be? How could someone take an empathic journey and not be brainwashed, as Sheehan might say, with a bleeding heart progressive “let them all in” mindset?

Because what all the moronic knee-jerk empathy haters fail to understand is that there is a difference between empathy and sympathy (although the two are not mutually exclusive).

Empathy doesn’t necessarily mean you eschew your own thinking or analysis. Empathy is about seeing the humanity in others. It’s about seeing yourself in others – including in others who, on the surface, are not like you. Empathy is about understanding where other people are coming from. It doesn’t necessarily mean you condone what they do or agree with the decisions they make. It means you understand the reasons behind those decisions, and, hopefully, it means that you stop branding those people with unnecessary and de-humanising labels.

A reasonable person, having seen the kind of things a refugee has to go through in order to find a life in another country, would probably think twice before assigning a group of people they really know nothing about a crude, derogatory name. And they might think twice before making a statement like this:

“Instead of harboring them, we should just put them straight on a plane and send them back. Don’t worry about giving them a feed or shower.”


The level of debate about asylum seekers and “boat people” would be greatly improved upon the exclusion of this kind of rhetoric. Empathy and sound policy analysis… and an appreciation for the fact that the refugee and asylum seeker issue is immensely complicated, affecting real, desperate people, is what’s needed in this debate.

And that is essentially what host Dr David Corlett said in his final words to the participants in episode 3 – that this issue is extremely complicated and multifaceted. Each of the participants, some of whom had very black & white views prior to the journey, have a greater appreciation for this fact now.

Hopefully the audience does too.

More on Australia’s Humanitarian program, Mandatory Detention and the Malaysian Solution soon.  


5 Comments on “Go Back to Where You Came From: Post Mortem”

  1. Susan A. says:

    I was looking forward to your update on this program and I’m glad you did it. This matter is one that comes very close to home for me. My husband is a refugee to the United States. His family are refugees that went to Australia. He would have gone with them, but married me so the US awarded him refugee status to come here instead. I was still in the military back at this time, so it was more practical for him to come here. He and his family came the legal way, not through assylum. His father applied for refugee for their whole immediate family while living in Jordan. It took two years to get and most likely only happened because his father had been working for an Australian company as a contractor. They supported his application which helped strengthen the case, but I heard it is very hard to get refugee to Australia otherwise.

    For my husband, we did his paperwork about one year after his family had already submitted for Australia. It was about this time that the US finally caved to pressure and started letting more Iraqis in the country. Before this, it had been a tiny trickle of not more than a few hundred a year. Most of those being family related visas, even then the process was very slow. Needless to say, I got my husband in the country about a year after submitting his refugee paperwork (I had actually submitted for a spouse visa six months prior to that but it stalled on background checks). The total time from marriage to US entry was eighteen months.

    It was much harder on him coming here han his family gooing to Australia. The US provides very little monetary assistance. The refugees are given a place to live in the worst neighborhoods in most cases (unless a house is donated). Their monthly stipend is not enough to live on and it only lasts eight months. The same time period for healthcare. After that, they are totally on their own. My husband didn’t even get the money because he was married to me and I was still in the military where my income was just enough to disqualify him. Ironically, the first wave of refugees, including him, arrived the same year the US economy went to total crap. It took my husband eight months just to find a job at a restaurant and the hours were so bad that he only made a few hundred dollars a month. Later, he got a slightly better job that paid $500-600 a month, but that didn’t even cover our rent and by then I was in school and no longer working. It took two years after his arrival to get a job that paid $1600 a month. He works a second one as well since the first still isn’t enough. Meanwhile, his family in Australia all got decent checks each month to live on. Several of them are working now, though, and no longer receive them.

    While at his jobs, he is harrassed for being a foreigner and Arab. These idiots don’t even know it was a US soldier that got him here. Much of the reason he couldn’t get hired in the beginning was his ethnicity and lack of US work history. No one could understand he and his family had no choice but to leave Iraq. He and his father received death threats. Those are no joke and you will die if you don’t leave. Yet closed minded people don’t want to hear this. They were both threatened because they worked for our respective countries (in my husband’s case, he worked for a US company). The whole thing makes me mad when people bring it up. Of course, no one will say a thing in my presence because I served over there and know exactly what is going on. They dang well better not tell me I can’t have my Iraqi husband here after I risked my life over there while serving my country in what people eventually realized was a needless war.

    Ugh, I’m going to stop now. Sorry for the long comment. This subject is just too close for me to keep from speaking up.

    • pjvetuna says:

      THANKYOU so much for your comment and relating your story Susan, and sorry for the delay in responding… I’ve have trouble with wordpress posting comments.

      I am disgusted (but sadly not surprised) at how your husband was treated – absolute ignorance, considering most US citizens surely know US fought in Iraq?! And yet some people are surprised/disapproving that some of its former citizens would need to relocate for their own safety (particularly those who helped US interests)? Boggles the mind.

      Your description of the assistance (or lack of) he received is interesting too… after I get a good grasp of our policies on refugees over here I might do a cross country comparison, if/when I have time.

      What you and your family had to go through with death threats and the like is ABSOLUTELY inexcusable and disturbing. Which is why I am really interested in anything that promotes understanding and helps to civilise this ugly side of humanity. The show gave me a glimmer of hope that, yes, people can learn to be better.

  2. dreamzmedia says:

    As long as it may be[ 🙂 ], Susan, your comment is revealing of the current climate we are living in and the results of stereotypes and typecasting people on the the mere basis of skin colour and looks. I wish you and your husband well and hopefully things can get better.

    Pauline’s article, like the programme upon which the commentary is based upon actually helped me to empathise with Racquel and the likes of her, much like what the programme was supposed to do to the viewers with regard to refugees and ‘boat people’. Mi wanbel.

    N. I. Piakal

  3. […] Pauline Vetuna breaks it down quite nicely here for those of us who did not view this program, and especially for those of us from outside […]

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