A Nostalgia For Injustice

This week a scandal erupted in Australia.  Reported in part from my home town, the exposé has rippled across the globe, making front page headlines as far away as Canada and Europe.  The developed world has been affronted by images of a boy shackled to a mechanical restraint chair that our elected representatives approved the use of, his head covered in a hood tied to the head rest like a dog leash.  CCTV footage shows the same boy stripped naked by two guards and pinned to the ground by the full weight of one of his assailants.  A core group of these guards are highly trained in professional fighting.  Out of hours they train and perform in a boxing ring on a stage to an uproarious audience.  They kick, box and wrestle each other, umpired by the Assistant General Manager of the Juvenile Detention Centre which employs them.

In one incident at Don Dale in Darwin a guard tries to cover the CCTV camera before boys sitting in tiny isolation cells are tear gassed, causing them to cower under a blanket in obvious distress.  These same guards then made false claims of a prison riot to justify the tear gassing.   The violence and abuse occurred repeatedly and we only know of those occasions which the media obtained knowledge of. Not only were both boys and guards aware of the CCTV cameras watching them, but at times the guards used their own video cameras to film events which have since showed them up as verbally degrading and physically abusive towards boys they were employed to care for.

The news was troublesome to me personally as I tried to calculate if these events occurred while Mathew was in the same Juvenile facility here in Alice Springs where some of the events reported took place.  I wondered if he too, had suffered at the hands of these officers during the months when I was visiting him regularly, across a series of stretches he spent in Juvenile Detention.  Orphaned by the violent killings of both parents nine months apart, he was a troubled adolescent who introduced me to the world of police cells, court houses, lawyers, magistrates and detention centres, while I in turn tried to instil a positive self image into this kid with no idea of his own potential and worth.  We made a motley crew, bonding across generations, cultures and life experience.

When Mathew began turning up in Detention I was fostering “Weetbix”, six and seven years old during the two years that he lived with me.  WB attended psychology sessions weekly and his therapist taught me a lot about traumatised children and the best ways to address disturbed behaviours.  I learned that when WB was hurling abuse and throwing himself on the ground in hysteria, he was not being “naughty”, but displaying a state of high anxiety relating to experiences  he had endured during times of vital brain development.  I learned that it was my role to respond appropriately so that his brain could be optimally rewired.  The lessons served me not only in my role as WB’s carer, but also in understanding some of Mathew’s frustrating behaviours, as well as “Miss Eleven” who lived here for a time and announced this week that I’m <again> “going to be a grandmother”!

Last week when the Four Corners program aired, one of the first reactions I saw came from WB’s psychologist.  At the same time that I was learning the basics from her about how to respond to WB, she was also working with one of the children in Juvenile Detention who we now know was repeatedly assaulted by the officers employed to care for him.  She tried to guide the officers towards understanding the boy’s behaviours and the best way they could respond to him.  She is stunned at the abysmal treatment of her client, which she had no idea of until this week.

Mathew came for lunch today and has assured me that he did not witness any of the abuses reported.  For that I am relieved.  For my community and the society I belong to, I am less assured.  In the very same week of this maelstrom in the Northern Territory, the state of New South Wales announced it was scrapping one of the nation’s most effective rehabilitation programs as politicians choose to appear “tough on crime” over the economic and social benefits of helping offenders break the cycle of crime.

There is a wealth of evidence to show that the right responses from adults charged to care for troubled children and adolescents, can and do have positive consequences which in turn has a domino effect throughout communities and societies.  That officers in charge of juvenile offenders need appropriate training and supervision should surely be a no-brainer?  That the system should exist in order to protect children and offer rehabilitation, is surely a no-brainer?  Perhaps not in my society, where calling children as young as 10 “scum” is considered normal and acceptable.

I stand with Stan Grant in yet another of his powerful speeches, condemning the treatment of young indigenous people in detention.  I also stand with Amnesty International in their call for ALL juvenile detention centres to come under the same scrutiny that has shaken the NT system.  I hope that this shake will see changes that demonstrate our ability to be the developed, civilised, fair and upright society that we claim to be and that our young people deserve us to be.

Amnesty Don Dale
Part of Stan Grant’s speech at University of New South Wales a few days ago:

This week my people know what Australia looks like.
This week Australia is a boy in a hood in a cell.
This week Australia is Aboriginal boys tear gassed, locked down and beaten.

I saw in those boys on my television screen, the broken bones, stab wounds, and dark ink tattoos scratched into the skin of my father on those long nights in jail lockdown.
I recalled the story of my mother’s father, dragged from his bed by police, accused of drinking.
That same man arrested and tied to a tree like a dog, so that his children would pass by as they went to school.
There are those who would rather I not speak of these things.
There are those who accuse me of having a nostalgia for injustice.

A nostalgia for injustice.

As if these wounds on the body and soul of my mother and father, are things of memory.
As if we choose to cling to suffering.
As if injustice is a thing recalled and not a thing lived.

A nostalgia for injustice.

Such a charge could be leveled only by someone certain of his place in his country.
A certainty denied to our people.  The first people still searching for our place.
Estranged in the land of our ancestors.
It could be leveled only by someone who sees injustice and brutality as something to be pondered and not endured.

It is a charge brought by people comfortable in their own history, while they tell us to forget ours, to get over it.
These are people who value their traditions, exalt their heroes, and deny us ours.
I wonder?
Would they dismiss the memories of the Jewish people so lightly?
Are the Jewish memories of suffering too, merely a nostalgia for injustice?

These are people who proclaim themselves conservatives, but their meanness debases the very traditions they claim to uphold.
These people who seize on difference – gay, Muslim, Asian, black – to vilify, divide and demonise.
All the while reserving for themselves, the right to define our country and set the price of inclusion.

Well they don’t define my country.
These are people who wrap their words in civility to mask the beating heart of their bigotry.
And they tell me I have a nostalgia for injustice.
No.
We have no nostalgia for injustice because we have not yet had the chance to forget.

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One Degree of Separation

Earlier this year on a trip to the city, I drove through inner-suburb tree-lined boulevards, marveling at the rows of sandstone and bluestone villas with their manicured gardens.  I once spent a happy few years living and working in this city.  At that time I did not consider that it was an especially opulent lifestyle.  Returning there after so much exposure to the “poor world”, my brain now perceives a universal opulence.  After visiting so many western cities last year, this acute and newfound sense accompanies me throughout the “rich world”, with the exception of my home town of Alice Springs.  Perhaps this is because the divide between rich and poor is conspicuous here.  Most of our best real estate sits near the edge of the same dry sand riverbed which accommodates our homeless and destitute.

The reality of my youth was one of oblivion to the fact that I was living an elite existence.  In this regard, the reality of my middle age has been turned on it’s head.  I have an acute gratitude now, for what I know is my extreme good fortune.  Life is not without it’s sadness and disappointments.  Thanks purely to the privileges I was born to, based solely on the place I happened to be born, all of my heartaches pale in comparison to the realities I have witnessed elsewhere.

As we drove through those shady boulevards, my companion was telling me about his regular travels both interstate and overseas, concluding that “you have to spend your money on something”.  Given my own penchant for travel I’m hardly in a position to judge, but this casual comment astonished me.  It highlighted the barefaced disparities between my rich-world and poor-world connections, isolated from each other as they are by one degree of separation.

That single degree is me.

When I blogged on 1 July about Kim, I thought that I had come to terms with his white lies and the reason for them, and that I had resolved to continue supporting him.  However, I then discovered that Samantha, whose problems are even more distressing and intolerable than Kim’s, had been sending private messages to Karen in New York.  Before I realised she would be involved in Paula’s journey to America, I told Samantha about my “friend with money” who was covering the out-of-hospital costs.  Had I known this friend’s identity would become known to Samantha as plans evolved, I would not have been so forthcoming with such information.  Samantha’s problems revolve around a terminally ill infant son not receiving the care and comfort he deserves.  The wretchedness causes Samantha intense anguish.  It is hardly surprising that she seeks comfort and solace beyond her own overcrowded and stressful world, with people who are not connected to the suffering.  Yet, after feeling burned by Kim’s manipulations, I was agitated to learn that she was fostering a relationship with my friend who she has never met.  I asked her to stop, and there was some friction between us because of it, which seems to have resolved now.

I regularly wish that I could somehow connect the two disparate factions in my life, and ponder on how to do so, convinced as I am that it would be enriching for us all.  On this occasion however, the connection which had come about through my own error in judgement felt like a violation.  Perhaps it wasn’t.  Hot on the tails of Kim’s transgression, maybe I was simply being overly paranoid?  Samantha said her reasons for talking to Karen were because they shared the experience of having had a sick son.  Who am I to refute her reasoning?  I frequently remind myself of the quote by Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, “of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor, by the well-housed, well-warmed and well-fed“.

During this conflict I realised I was not as comfortable about Kim’s behaviour as I initially thought.  I told him that for the time being I am not prepared to continue supporting him and wrote to Bob to let him know my decision.  Bob’s reply shows a balanced combination of kindness, generosity and common sense.
It is good you will continue to help the Khmer people and yes there are many in need of help.
It is a bit disheartening being misled and a feeling of being used. It is only the last 10 months I have not been paying the girls’ English fees, maybe Kim is meaning this period but I would not put it past Kim to stretch the truth with this also. I will continue helping  the Kim family and discuss more with Kim in person the importance of honesty, not just for my sake but for him to show his family and set a good example for his children.
I wrote after your last email and I have been waiting for a reply, I still have not heard from him.  I told him how upset you were when you talked to me. I told Kim it was not good to tell Helen you have no money for rent and food and not say that I pay rent and help every month too. I let him know I am sad with all of this also.
I will pull back a little until I talk in person with Kim. I don’t want his wife and kids to miss out because of Kim’s misleading antics to get more money.  I do not want his daughters to think this is an ok way to act also. It is hard and frustrating for me sometimes with all of this.

That final sentence speaks volumes to me.  In a million years I would not want the problems of someone born poverty-stricken in an impoverished nation, which cannot compare to the so-called FWPs that we in the rich world worry over.  Yet, for those of us who want to make a difference to the inequality we see, as well as the personal enrichment that we experience there are a unique set of issues we must learn to navigate.  Thankfully there are people such as Dr Cham, Win and Chom, with local insight and a lack of self interest, who can act as mediators and decoders in this confusing, imbalanced, unfamiliar and problematic territory.  With the potential for exploitation, there is a risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  I have often heard people lament that they do not give to charity “because you cannot trust what they will do with your money”.  But solutions do exist which are always unique and local, requiring the establishment of solid, trusting and respectful relationships.  There are many reputable organisations and individuals doing good work in places like Timor Leste and Cambodia, who are based in-country and have built relationships to ensure that what they do will have an impact.  With modern day communications we are all only one degree of separation from finding a way to contribute.

An Awkward Association

Mathew was nine when I met him and twelve when he became orphaned and homeless.  He arrived on my doorstep everyday in the summer of 2006, asking to “stay”.  My privileged eyes had no clue what was going on and I repeatedly sent him away, completely unaware that in modern day Australia a child could be left homeless and autonomous with no supports in place.  Oneday, amid confusion and sobs, I realised that his use of the word “stay” actually meant “live”, and between gasps for air he explained so that I could finally understand, that his only home was my home.  Under extreme and difficult circumstances, this funny, persistent, talented and strong young boy hoisted himself upon me and, against all of my life plans, I found myself playing foster carer to someone else’s child.  I then had to learn to navigate the world of governmental bureaucracy as well as the world of remote indigenous people whose world views are so vastly different to my own, as I entered the realm of belonging to a remote indigenous family.  With no children of my own, this newfound belonging has not only made me a mother, but I am also a sister, daughter and – most horrific of all – a grandmother!

One of the funniest examples of our cultural difference occurred one day when I was out with Mathew and his sister.  I told the children to meet me at a specific place at 2pm.  Mathew looked at me with a quizzical expression and asked “Well at 2 o’clock, where will the sun be?”.  Feeling very inferior I was forced to reply “just find someone with a watch and ask for the time”!  On another occasion a group of children from his extended family were visiting us.  As I piled washing from the machine into the basket, I noticed the children were all listening intently as Mathew spoke to them in language and I overheard the word “whitefella”.  I interrupted to ask “what are you telling them about whitefellas?”.  He replied “I’m telling them how whitefellas always clean their ‘ouse everyday, eh?”.  Looking down at the basket under my arm I figured it was futile to argue and headed outside to hang the washing!

Now 21, he came to see me at work this week.  When I appeared, the face of this hip young man lit up and my own heart did a little dance.  It never ceases to surprise me that I have this bond with a young man from one of Australia’s most remote and marginalised communities which I have never been to, whose first two languages I don’t understand, who knows how to hunt wild animals and has obligations and lores that I have absolutely no clue about.  There is a saying that life’s biggest disappointments come from the picture we build in our heads of how it is supposed to be.  I would adapt this to say that the biggest joys often come from connections with the most unexpected people in the most unlikely of circumstances.

Taking a break between law school and the launch of her career as a corporate solicitor, my god daughter was visiting from London this week.  Only two years older than Mathew I was keen for them to meet and so we organised to have lunch together, with some of his extended family.  Sitting in a food hall in Alice Springs, my London life met my Central Australian life, like ends of the earth coming face to face.  Trying to break the ice, I told Mathew, for whom family connections are paramount, “she is kind of like your sister”.  He flitted awkwardly between myself, Katie and the table of young indigenous family, who had erupted into giggles!

Culture clash does not necessarily have to describe conflict.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that most often, culture clash is just an ordinary human connection being made between people with different world views.

Imperfect Equals

In October I wrote about the elderly woman caring for her three orphaned grandchildren, who walks the streets scavenging for recyclables to sell in order to feed the family.  I will call her Belle.  Back then I shared this photograph of her at home with the children.

Belle and Kids

Since then a friend has been donating AU$35 per month to my account on behalf of his adult children, in lieu of sending them Christmas presents, which I send to Belle.  Last week I sent money to Chom, who today sent me this euphoric message and photograph of himself with Belle, reminding me of the allure of Cambodia.

Hello Helen Belle she laughing very much make me very funny too. she wish to the God bless you I gave 50$ to her. Please say thanks to your friend for me hope to see him in Cambodia one day thanks again Hellen take care see you.

Belle and Chom

Clearly Chom continues to get a thrill out of helping people, and I feel a pang of jealousy to see him enjoying the experience without me.  He recently made an impromptu visit to Paula to see the transformation he’d heard about, with his own eyes.  Again, I was envious to see the photograph of them together, with Paula standing straight and strong.  For the whole time I knew Paula, she spent her life lying flat, sitting up for short periods or walking with assistance for very short distances.  It will be an incredible day when I finally get to see her in good health.

Maintaining alliances with Cambodia is not always easy sailing, however.  Kim, the landmine victim, was in touch very soon after I mentioned him in my blog on June 4.  At that time he had written expressing concern about paying his rent.  A few days later he tagged me in a photograph on Facebook, apparently unaware that it would lead me to the connected Facebook page.  It came as a shock to see a page dedicated to raising funds for Kim, his family and their rural village!  Kim had never so much as implied that anyone else was involved in helping him on a regular basis so it took me some time reading through this page, to make sense of it.  I located the contact details of a guy who I’ll call Bob, an Australian tradesman who spends significant periods of time in Cambodia and has been involved with helping Kim since 2012.  We had a long telephone call together and among other things, I discovered that he has paid Kim’s rent through to October.  The message from Kim expressing concern about paying his rent, was a lie!  The majority of Bob’s help, however, has been building toilets and water wells, supplying bicycles for children to travel to school, and supplying school equipment, for families in Kim’s village.  He does it all with donations made from family and friends.

I asked Rav, our mutual tuk tuk friend/translator, did he know about Bob?  He replied “yes, he also help Kim”.  I then wrote to Kim that I knew his rent was paid and I was very disappointed to learn he had lied to me.  Instead of apologising, he denied the lie.  We had a brief to-and-fro about this before I told him I was not going to help him this month as I needed time to think.  For two years I have been sending him money each month with no strings attached and at no time did I link these payments to rent.  His message to me last month was merely a reminder that my monthly donation was due.  His life is challenging and impoverished and his English is very limited, particularly in written form.  I have been to his home, spent hours with the family, and I know their situation.  Still, he felt a need to deceive me, which I suppose is his perception that I may not understand, with my rich-world-eyes, if he told me someone else was also helping?  I spent a few weeks processing the situation and wondering if I would continue to help someone who thought it was okay to deceive me?  It’s also possible that his use of the word “rent” was his way of saying “expenses”.  I’ve spoken at length with Bob, who has also had problems with Kim, who at times resents that Bob helps his village instead of helping Kim and his family directly.  Bob and I have agreed to communicate regularly and to form a united front with Kim.  I have also decided to continue helping Kim despite this hiccup.  The fact remains, Kim’s life happened to Kim and not to me, through sheer fate.  Just because he’s poor, does not mean he has to also be perfect to earn the help he needs, anymore than I must be perfect to earn the life I was so thankfully born to.  Which is just as well because I am not.

Kim and I are equals, with the irrelevant exceptions of his disability and poverty which make him no less human than me.  As with all relationships, we are humans interacting with each other as the imperfect and contradictory beings that every one of us is.

Charity vs Solidarity