This art exhibition is called The View from Here. The artists, refugees and asylum seekers, have a point of view, and they have something to say. This is often forgotten. Some have fled places of horrendous violence; most have left situations of profound instability and uncertainty. They have tried to tell us something of those places and situations, and also something of the journey to a place of safety.
That place of safety, in the current political climate in Australia, has become a place of peril. In many ways asylum seekers and refugees are being told, “Go back to where you once belonged. You are not welcome here.” For some Australians, the “view from here” is of unwanted people trying to take advantage of Australia’s wealth and of its opportunities. We send them away, to other countries; we lock them up in remote detention centres; some even want to tow their boats back into the ocean.
We are inhospitable to the refugee, to the asylum seeker, at our peril. Our faith traditions warn us again and again that we must welcome the alien, the stranger. The Hebrew Bible says in many places, “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew identifies himself with the stranger, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me…truly I say to you, whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
The Quran, in Qur’an al-Nisa’ 4.36-37, enjoins Muslims to “Be kind to parents, and the near kinsman, and to orphans, and to the needy, and to the neighbour who is of kin, and to the neighbour who is a stranger, and to the companion at your side, and to the traveller, and to [slaves] that your right hands own.”
We are inhospitable only when we believe that we will never need another person’s hospitality. It is a great temptation to think that we will always be rich, or secure, or safe, or healthy. Any one of us, however high the office we hold, however wealthy, could find our fortunes reversed, our lives turned upside down. Refugees are people like us who for reasons beyond their control have had to abandon their homes, families, friends, countries to start their lives anew. Where they are, we could be one day.
Let us remember that there were once 6 million people who could not flee, who found no refuge, and whose only destination were the cattle cars that took them to the extermination camps of Nazi Europe. One of that number, Anne Frank, wrote in her Diary, “No one has ever become poor by giving.” Let us remember that in our security and our comfort: that in giving what we can to the asylum seekers and refugees, we become not poorer, but richer.
On behalf of Jesuit Refugee Service, JRS, I wish to thank Waverley Council, and in particular the officers from Waverley Library, and Recreation and Community Planning, as well as the Multicultural Advisory Committee, for hosting this exhibition and the launch this morning. The Refugee Council of Australia has also supported this project, and we are grateful for the partnership and for the powerful advocacy that the Refugee Council does for refugees and asylum seekers. The JRS staff at our offices in Marsfield and Elizabeth Bay have also put a lot of love and passion into this project. You worked hard, I know, to pull this off; it may be some consolation to you that yesterday our JRS colleagues in Aleppo in Syria had to prepare 17,000 hot meals for the displaced Syrians trapped in that city. But above all, the artists whose works are exhibited: thank you, for sharing your lives with us, and for welcoming us, and allowing us to walk with you.