This column, the reflections of a GP in north Queensland, was first published in Australian Rural Doctor magazine, and deserves to be widely read. Amongst other things, it raises the question of whether we might have more humane attitudes and policies for asylum seekers and refugees if we could hear their stories via social media.
Dr Vlad Matic writes:
Civilised people jump around waving flags, ecstatic at the death of another human being. Winds kill hundreds. The sea rises up and drowns many thousands more, and a bomb worn by a 12-year-old kills a dozen and injures scores.
Meanwhile, I’m at work tossing up the difference between two types of ACE inhibitors and worrying whether I have made the right choice. Stalin was right when he said one death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.
How do you balance the trajectory of the individual with what is going on just outside your window yet out of your control?
The patient, a woman in her eighties, recounts the story of her life. Taken from her family at the age of six, she has only seen one of her brothers since and has never found the other three boys and all four girls.
She tells of horrors like it were a story about someone else: the endless days of domestic and farm work followed by physical punishments and the nights spent teaching herself to read.
She was happy in her twenties but her true love died, crushed by a cane train at work, leaving her a widow at 35. No payout, as there was no worker’s compensation.
When her husband departed, so did her accommodation. No social security so she went to work. She couldn’t vote because she is Indigenous and Australia was still in the grip of the ’60s, very much White.
She went on to raise her three children, and is proud that all have a trade, all are married, and don’t drink and don’t smoke. She credits God with the blessed nature of her life.
As we talk, she says I look a little down today: “Is there anything bothering you, Doctor?”
I explain that Medicare is usually payable if I solve her problems, not payable to her for listening to mine.
She smiles and says her life has already rewarded her with love, joy, sadness, family, food, friends and hope.
I say I don’t understand how she can be happy when so much has happened that would make a lesser person weep.
“I am alive, loved, respected and listened to,” she replies. “And you obviously value me, because you have thought so much about my medication.”
Then I begin to understand why people with hope as their sole companion will board a leaky boat and traverse shark infested waters for a chance at a new life.
And I begin to understand why people losing hope will set fire to their world – a cry for help or maybe just a cry of anguish.
I begin to understand that not listening equates to not valuing and that disrespect will release anger from deep inside, opening up the scar tissue of evils perpetrated upon them.
I ask her opinion of boat people and she laughs as she says: “You’re all boat people as far as I am concerned”.
She waves a delicate hand across the room that manages to describe the vastness of Queensland, and asks me whether I really think we are so crowded we couldn’t take a few thousand more?
She then asks whether we would lock up Americans, Brits or Canadians if they came to our coastlines, or would we welcome them ashore and give them a pie and a beer?
I then realise what we all need to do.
Each person in detention should start a page on Facebook and start Tweeting.
Person to person and eye to eye they should tell us their story.
Blow-by-blow accounts of daily existence in these camps should wake us up to the reality of lives wasting away while politics runs its course.
I, for one, cannot ignore the pleas for help from one other but, put in front of the TV, I am as numb to the suffering of millions as the next person.
Let us not forget the lessons of the Stolen Generation while allowing the thefts of several more.
Let us not make decisions based on colour but deal with people as individuals. We should listen to them, show them they are valued and then allow them to have what we all want: love, joy, sadness, family, food, friends and hope.
• Dr Vlad Matic works at Wuchopperan Health Service in Cairns and Atherton
PostScript from Croakey: On a similar theme, I recently saw the film Oranges and Sunshine, which tells how tens of thousands of poor British children were deported to Australia between the end of the second world war and up to the 1970s.
One of the interesting issues it raised was the impact of secondary trauma – the terrible stories took a toll on the social worker, Margaret Humphreys, who brought the deportations to light.
The story is also a powerful example of government policies causing psychological damage reaching across generations (as the former PM Kevin Rudd acknowledged in his 2009 apology to the “forgotten Australians and former child migrants”).
And yet governments continue to add to the traumas of vulnerable people …
Update, 21 June:
Here is an interview by Crikey’s Luke Buckmaster with the director of Oranges and Sunshine, Jim Loach.