‘I’m just a girl.’
In only 4 words, Abeba James has voiced the forgotten piece of the refugee debate in Australia- the stories of the refugees themselves.
Born in the Ifo refugee camp on the border of Kenya and Ethiopia, Ms. James is one of the many unheard voices of those who have sought safety in Australia. Having fled war in 1998 at the age of two, James now lives with her adoptive family in Sydney. However, the struggle to the maintain her identity under the modern day stereotype of a ‘refugee’ continues to confront her today.
‘When I tell someone that I am a refugee, they automatically see me as a different person, and this is only because of what they’ve heard and seen in the media’, Ms. James said.
This struggle with identity, fuelled by the Australian media, means words like ‘asylum-seeker’ become synonymous with the word ‘illegal’. While the policies and promises to those seeking refuge flood the televisions screens of households around Australia, the names and stories of those involved is plastered over by titles such as ‘foreigner’ and ‘displaced persons’.
‘It seems to be that the words you use are very important…because when you look at the words you use to describe someone coming here, you’re not talking about ‘refugees’, you’re talking about ‘illegal arrivals’’, University of Wollongong academic, Dr. Joakim Eidenfalk, said.
This dehumanisation through language is further contributing to the already prevalent stereotyping and prejudice attitudes towards refugees within Australian society. A study conducted by University of Wollongong academic, Natascha Klocker, found that 70% of participants associated asylum seekers with words such as ‘problematic’, ‘economic burden’ and ‘illegitimate’. It is these generalisations that fuel the lack of understanding and poses the question: ‘Would our perceptions change if we knew their stories?’
‘If people interacted with all the different stories I’m sure there would be a lot of sympathy, I have no doubt about that, but it’s when you can step away from it, then it becomes much easier to make strict government policy’, Dr. Eidenfalk said.
Interaction with stories like that of Ms. James, whose birth was seen as a religious wrongdoing in certain African cultures, not only promotes understanding, but shines a light on the dire circumstances that many refugees endure before arriving in Australia. Religious stoning as an application of Sharia Law still occurs all over the world, with 89% of Muslims in Pakistan, 85% in Afghanistan and 81% in Egypt still supporting stoning as an acceptable form on punishment. While James was lucky enough to survive the consequences of her ‘unlawful birth’, the unfortunate truth is that many individuals do not.
It is these stories and others like it that need to be voiced to generate policy change and create an atmosphere of understanding in the conversation around refugees. To put a history to a face promotes a sense of humanisation that is desperately lacking in current media attention towards refugees. Because identity is more than a name or a number, more than a statistic or percentage, more than a policy or promise. It is a story.
View tweets about the progress of the story here