Life Beyond Rent-a-Crowd

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The sun is slowly climbing over Villawood train station, to its hottest point in a clear, clear sky. I have just taken the three-hour ride south from Newcastle and my stomach is rumbling and mouth dry. I step stiffly from the platform and head toward the growing crowd.

It is early 2000, and I am at a rally for refugee rights. Grassroots support for this cause is only just beginning to blossom. It’s before the Baktiyaris and the media storm. Before detention centre breakouts became the latest stud in the activist belt.
The rally has not been widely publicised, and I’m wondering who will turn up.

Slowly, a diverse mix of Middle Eastern men, women and children begins to emerge at the advertised departure point. As a white person, I am by far outnumbered. The harsh intonations of foreign language and anger make me feel alone and unsure of exactly who and what I have come to support.
A speaker tells us loudly through a megaphone that "we do not support a policy that locks up people when they need help the most". And I stand and nod in agreement; but of what ‘help’ actually means I have no real concept.

I’m angry when I find myself contemplating my empty stomach and wishing I had remembered to bring water. It is nothing, compared to anything, I reprimand myself, and force my way between sweaty bodies to the front of the group.

At midday we begin the walk along the highway to the detention centre, winding past roadworks, construction sites and low-fenced brick veneer housing. Our procession is long, drawn-out and discordant. A chant will take off and then quickly be hijacked by another from the front of the crowd, which in turn will be drowned out by a mass chorus of foreign song.
I fumble to join in with their calls for freedom and am embarrassed when I can’t. Like a teenager not knowing the words to the latest pop song, I feel foolish, for feeling foolish.

As a young activist of student politic-type fame, I am not used to feeling out of place at a rally. The usual crowd isn’t here. It isn’t a chance to "catch up". There is no safety among peers.

Do I feel threatened by this sea of people, with their long black dress and covered faces? Being surrounded by difference and singled out as minority? Yes, in a small space inside me I do. I am here because I recognise the need to overcome fear of difference; but that does not mean I do not feel it. I admit that I am afraid of what the common activist catchcry "No Borders" would actually mean for "my culture"; the way that I live.

I used to wonder why Australians are such a greedy, hypocritical bunch. How could we turn away refugees when there is one square kilometre of this stolen country for each person that lives here?
But on that hot day at Villawood I realized that it is not greed that allows the Australian government to lock people in the desert and turn back boats. It is absolute fear of change.

I will admire the first Australian prime minister who has the guts to confront the issue of Australia’s reception of refugees head on. Who acknowledges the grey areas and works to placate the deeply rooted fears of most – if not all – white Australians, while at the same time employing a humane, generous and discriminating (not discriminatory) immigration policy.

Because I know that for all my opinions and good intentions, I couldn’t handle that job.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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