Inside an archetypal suburban brick veneer house on Melbourne’s outskirts, a sadly familiar story was unfolding. Over a black coffee and Tim Tams, Abbas* was slowly retracing the painful steps of an uncertain life as an asylum seeker in Australia.
The minutes ticked by. Outside the window a magpie flexed its wings, marvelling at its own reflection. I was there in my capacity as ‘story gather’, the rather poetic addendum to my role as Communications and Public Relations Coordinator for the St Vincent de Paul Society Victoria. We were sitting at the dining table at the invitation of a Vincentian who had graciously invited me into this safe space to speak to Abbas.
Abbas was trying hard to remember how he came to Australia, but his memory had too many holes. ‘Like Swiss cheese,’ he joked sadly. This much he knew: he was born in Iran and lived there with his wife and four children. He loved working as a teacher, but it was his profession and his progressive views (he encouraged girls to attend class) that drew the ire of the conservative government.
The day his teenage son was shot at and wounded by police was the day that Abbas knew that he and his family’s numbers were up.
There were other fragments of memory too—years spent in exile in Pakistan, torture, illness and statelessness. There was the stress of having to come up with the money to pay faceless traffickers in the hope that a tiny boat would somehow ferry them to a distant, mythical, yet secure land. But even worse, perhaps, were the suspicion and wariness shown by those employed to keep him from our shores.
Abbas’s story is not the kind you can shake off easily. Especially as the sad pantomime of the government’s ‘lodge the 30-page Form 866 application for a protection visa or leave’ ‘solution’ was being played out in the media. It sticks to you, and over the next few days it coloured everything I did. But this story wasn’t the only tale that week that sat with me long after it was told.
The day before I had sat with Suzanna* as she told a reporter how she and her teenage son had lived out of their car after her husband threw them out. As a survivor of an abusive marriage, Suzanna had many tales of woe, but instead of focussing on them, she was determined to claim back her and her children’s lives.
Suzanna was quick to laugh and incredibly warm, but a steely look in her eye betrayed something more—her determination to do what she could to try and change laws so that other women would be spared what she went through.
In some ways my week ended the way it began—chatting over instant coffee and delicious sweets—but the story I heard this time was a very different one to those of Abbas and Suzanna.
This time I was there to hear about the dynamic life of Dawn, who recently retired as manager of a regional Vinnies Shop. For more than 30 years Dawn ran the place with an iron fist and a soft heart. Again and again I heard stories of Dawn approaching people who were clearly doing it tough with an extra food voucher or two, and always, always, a word of kindness or encouragement.
Why am I writing about all this? I guess there’s an element of needing to get these stories down before the details get lost in the everyday busyness; but it’s also about the importance of taking stock and realising that when moments of such clarity and undeniable mutuality rise up in the maelstrom, they need to be acknowledged and celebrated.
In one week I sat down with three very different people with very different experiences. I didn’t just leave with their stories (which, by the way, they entrusted to me without question), I left with an obligation—to do their stories justice, of course, that goes without saying; but I also felt a duty to acknowledge that something special had transpired that week.
There is no doubt in my mind that something positive, life-affirming and even life-changing took place over the course of that week—for while Abbas’s and Suzanna’s stories were undeniably heart-wrenching, there is an inherent validation in the telling of one’s story.
US author and journalist Joan Didion, who spent a lifetime exploring individual and social fragmentation and isolation, wrote: ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live’. Surely then it follows that we listen to the stories of others in order to remember our humanity?
* Names have been changed to protect privacy.
Jen Vuk is Communications and Public Relations Coordinator for the St Vincent de Paul Society Victoria.