Contributed Stories

Living in Paradise:
A reflection from a story workshop with refugees in Australia.
by Donna Jacobs Sife ©

When working with personal stories, it is the moment that I search for. Not a chronology of life experience which so easily becomes ‘and then…and then.. and then’ which doesn’t grip the heart, or even truly tell a story. The ‘moment’ can hold the entire story within it, the micro becoming the macro. Everything that needs to be told is held in that small moment in time.

This story has served me many times, not only to humanize the refugee, but to remind us that our nation, despite its terrible errors of judgment, its injustices and cruelties, is in the global context, not doing too bad.

There were about 20 of us. All colours, shapes and sizes. All with stories that would break your heart. I was running a workshop for refugees on how to tell your own story. I asked them to think of a time when someone helped them, showed some kindness in an unexpected way.

Tom is Karen (Kayin), an indigenous guy from Burma. A large man, and so shy he found it hard to raise his eyes to see us. And there tucked into his chin, was the most endearing smile.

He told us that he was lost one day in the streets of Parramatta. He had somewhere to go, and no idea of how to get there.

Walking towards him was a Policeman.

Tom froze. He knew he was in danger. He looked at the ground and made himself small so that the policeman wouldn’t notice him. “You OK, Mate?” Tom heard these words and could see by the shoes that it was the policeman. Tom said to us, “I heard the word mate, and I know that ‘mate’ means ‘friend’. I couldn’t believe that a policeman had just called me friend.” He told us how in Burma, a Policeman could lock you up, even kill you with impunity if you were Karen.

Tom and the policeman walked together to the station. When Tom finally arrived at his appointment, the policeman smiled and shook his hand. And then Tom raised his eyes and looked at each one of us and said, “That was when I knew. That was when I knew that I hadn’t come to Australia, I had arrived in paradise.”

I didn’t know that I lived in paradise until then.

I drove home feeling soft and humbled. The sun was setting. I saw the people waiting for the lights to turn green, holding hands, smiling. I saw the darkening silhouettes of chimneys and trees. Heard the bird songs, as they nested for the evening. This city of mine, with kind policemen and good people who truly want to welcome the weary and the wounded.

I got home, to its sturdy walls and fresh breeze through the window. A home that sits not far from children, friends and family. And I settled down with a deep sigh, so grateful to be living in paradise.

Donna Jacobs Sife is a writer, award-winning storyteller and peace-worker. Her considerable international reputation is built on her capacity to bridge difference – be it within our societies, our communities or ourselves. For nearly two decades she has traveled widely throughout the world teaching and telling stories. She uses her talents to enlighten and enhance acceptance and understanding within and between the people she touches. In 2012 she was awarded Ambassador for Peace through UN, and received the Living for Others Award. Her CD Living in Harmony won the World Storytelling Award 2010.

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