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.