|Image via: Pixabay|
Comparing my own life experience and reflecting upon my own cultural and social upbringing, I started to understand deeply the injustices, inequalities, and the cavernous gaps that exist for disadvantaged people. In particular, women and children, people of colour but especially First Nations people, those from non-English speaking backgrounds, poor families and those who were not only being victimised physically, emotionally and psychologically, (I soon learned ALL women and children are, in some ways, within a patriarchal society), but also those that had endeavoured to resist and escape, making the very difficult and dangerous choice to change their lives and demand their safety and prosperity.
The refuge housed four families at a time in the main house, for a period of up to eight weeks. In the adjoining house, another four families could be accommodated for a longer period of time, for up to three months. Women and their children from all walks of life lived together communally, where the differences between them soon became irrelevant and were stripped away, leaving only the commonalities - their health, well-being and security, their day-to-day routines, their goals to become self-reliant and self-determining and their resolve to heal. It didn't matter what language they spoke, what food they preferred to eat, who or what they worshiped, what government they voted for, how much money they made, what suburb they'd come from, what clothes they wore, where they sent their kids to school and what their past experiences had been. They were all suddenly in the same boat, equalised by the paths that had led them to the large house in the suburbs that would be their in-between home, their sanctuary until they could get back on their feet.
It was the 90s. The Bosnian war was raging and we once welcomed two families in the same week; one Serbian, one Bosnian. We knew we had to tread carefully. We discussed the issues with each woman separately during their intake interviews and it was instantly clear that in the state they were both in, due to their very separate and crisis-filled circumstances, it was wise to create some space between them. We took both families in and decided to house them separately, which was an exception to our policy rules. On initial intake we were required to house new families in the main house for eight weeks, until they could move on to permanent housing or get the necessary protection to be able to go back home. The second house was reserved for families who needed more time, giving them three months to establish long-term security. In that instance, we bent the rules and let one of the families stay in the second house on intake, to separate the families and given them the distance they needed to settle in.
As time passed, the women were inevitably introduced and crossed-paths. There were workers on-site 24/7 at the time, but residents lived independent, adult lives and went about their days as they saw fit without much interference from us workers. They had a roster to maintain the house, but were largely able to come and go as they pleased, using the communal facilities together and taking turns to cook or shower and bath their kids. It was for the most part very civilised. Women just get on with it.
Without anyone even realising when or how it happened, the two women connected. They spoke a common language, they found the things that united them and they became friends to some extent. We eventually moved them both into the main house and they got along, even supported each other, until they eventually moved on and went their separate ways.
Culture, religion, language and lifestyle are all constructs. Deeply ingrained and seemingly inherent "second nature", especially those lineages that go back longer than others, they are only however our experiences by luck of birth. Continuity of culture gives us stability and belonging and while it can only take a few generations to solidify and define our identities, the further our histories go back, the more entrenched they become - for better and/or worse. Once we understand that, we can look beyond these constructs and really understand each other as people, without diminishing our unique differences, because those differences are what enrich us. While the values and ideologies we inherit are what gives us our place in the world, our tribe, when we make comparisons we soon see that we simply have different definitions and understandings of the same universal human experience. I learned that very quickly and for the first time at school. My high school had something like 52 different countries represented. It was truly a melting pot. We celebrated our differences, but belonged to one community.
At the refuge it was sometimes difficult to accommodate everyone, but we did it, and that is when people find their common ground. When they are first given the space to be themselves. Like the two women from two different sides of a war who after being given the liberty to express their identities, came together by themselves.
We made sure every single family was allowed to feel acceptance and freedom to exist as they saw fit. We worked with translators and interpreters and communicated in ways other than speaking. We mimed when we had to and used very basic language to get sometimes very complex messages across. We allowed the provision of culturally diverse food. The western suburbs of Sydney are a global marketplace and we either shopped for the women ourselves as all food was provided and covered by the weekly rent they paid (an incremental fraction of their income or nothing if they had none), or reimbursed them if they bought food for themselves. We allowed them to create spaces for reflection, meditation and ritual as they saw fit, to facilitate the reclaiming of their sense of peace from the conflict they had endured. Altars and offerings of all denominations sprung up around the residence and it was inclusive. Adults and children alike knew to show reverence and respect for the trinkets and artifacts that people displayed around the house. Incense sticks, oranges, crosses, candles, flowers, statues, beads and the like would be placed in various corners of the house and yard. Each family had their own private bedroom but the communal areas were collectively used and taken care of whilst still providing an opportunity for individuals to contribute their own expression of identity. With each family passing through, the house reflected countless regions from all over the country and the globe. The cooking smells in the house were varied, cross cultural and always delicious! The office was in the front room and unless we had a meeting on, the door was always open. The backyard had a large childcare center and the children that weren't at school all played together. We held classes and activities including cooking, massage, art and play therapy and had both informal and formal counselling sessions. We celebrated together for birthdays, culturally significant days or just spontaneously over a cup of tea or a cake someone had baked. The women cooked for each other and us workers, they looked after each other's children, they helped each other get dressed and prepared for court or a job interview, they hugged each other when they sobbed and passed the tissues around. They broke up quarrels between the kids and danced when the radio was on. It was often a place of rage, fear and sadness, but mostly a house of hope, joy and fun. More than anything it was a house of kinship and particularly when a group of families ended up living together for the better part of the accommodation period, people got to know each other and became close. That's when the differences were stripped away and love and friendship was all that was left. Those weeks were truly something special and while there was always a service operating in the background: court dates had to be attended, AVOs applied for, instances of abuse and violence rehashed and recorded, mental health issues addressed, Child Protection policies adhered to; what kept everyone going was support, trust, unity, community - sameness, empathy, kindness. Also, courage, strength, resilience and the indomitable spirit of being a woman in this world.
I started off writing this piece with the desire to share two stories, anecdotes that sprung to mind recently, from that time in my life. Sometimes I remember an experience from those days and it takes me back and shows me how to deal with something in the present. I remember how much these events changed my perspective at the time. I was young, in my early 20s and was more naive and optimistic than the older women I worked with, most of whom were in their 50s and had been victims of family violence, racism and discrimination themselves. There were three generations of women working at the refuge at one stage. The first crop were the pioneers from the 1970s when refuges were first established, three women in their 60s and close to retirement who were generally from an Anglo-Australian background. The next group were a group of baby boomers from South American and Asian backgrounds - Uruguay, Argentina, Vietnam - all strongly represented demographics in the local area. Then there was myself and another young woman my age who was Lebanese.
Once there as a Vietnamese resident at the refuge who had a very swollen and black eye. The story goes that her husband had gambled a lot of their life savings away and they'd fought. He assaulted her, hitting her in the face and giving her a black eye. She left with her children and sought accommodation at our service. We knew she had limited English and our Vietnamese worker was working very closely with her as her caseworker. We also knew she was incredibly scared, depressed and sad, understandably and commonly so. She kept to herself, but was always friendly enough. Our Argentinian overnight worker started her shift in the afternoons as we were all leaving. She spent the night and went home as we were all arriving in the morning. She was becoming concerned about the resident as she had been waiting until everyone had gone to bed and then would sit alone outside on the patio and play with an egg. The overnight worker observed her each night and was becoming increasingly concerned about her mental state. When we spoke to the Vietnamese worker about her client, she proceeded to explain what the woman had been doing. She had taken a raw egg and was gently gliding the egg over her black eye, without touching the skin. The swelling and bruising was filled with inflammation and heat and this was being transferred into the egg, causing the swelling and inflammation to be reduced and the white of the egg to harden. At the end of the exercise, the once raw egg became semi-hard boiled. The overnight worker claimed she witnessed this. Over just a few days, the woman's eye was better and the egg was no longer completely raw. Studies have shown the relationship between the consumption of eggs (eating them) and their effects on inflammation. I found some information about hard boiled eggs being used to reduce bruising and swelling, but not a raw egg absorbing the heat of the inflammation and diminishing the swelling, becoming hard in the process. Whether or not what the overnight worker had claim to have witnessed was true, or whether or not the remedy actually works was irrelevant. There was no need to be concerned for her mental state, more than was ordinary given her experience. She knew what she was doing and while a cold pack or ointment is something we would have recommended, using an egg was a legitimate cultural practice that we gave her the space to express. It wasn't bothering or harming anyone and the freedom to do it was comforting and facilitated her healing. From memory the story was shared around with the other women and everyone took an interest. Traditional healing techniques like that opened up conversations among the women that lead to connection and had therapeutic benefits, and even the shyest women would offer up an old remedy that had been passed down among the women in their family. Sometimes it was the ice breaker needed to bring down barriers between them and encourage co-operative living. It also encouraged them to share their more recent experiences and empower each other through their commonalities.
The second story is similar. Again a Vietnamese family was involved. Our child support worker, another Argentinian woman, had noticed that one of the children was displaying some angry red marks up their arms. At first she thought the child may have been scratching themselves, either from an allergy or eczema, or at the very worst case scenario, which wasn't unusual, self-harming. We even considered the possibility that mum may have been harming her child. We were required to be aware and suspicious of child abuse and mistreatment when evidence of injury presented itself. We observed the family and again discussed it with the Vietnamese caseworker. Mum had taken a 2 cent piece (they were still in circulation at that time), and was gently scratching her child's arm, just until the red marks appeared. It wasn't painful, but it was visible. The practice we learned, is called Gua sha (Chinese) or cạo gió (Vietnamese), which is an ancient Chinese medicinal practice that "releases unhealthy bodily matter from blood stasis within sore, tired, stiff or injured muscle areas to stimulate new oxygenated blood flow to the areas, thus promot(ing) metabolic cell repair, regeneration, healing and recovery." Basically, scraping the skin helps with circulation and boosts immunity. It was flu season and the family had just moved into a communal space. Mum wanted to make sure her child didn't get sick. Thankfully we didn't jump to calling DoCS!
These two stories were similar and taught us all a valuable lesson about understanding. When the status quo is a certain set of values, anything deviating from that is othered, judged and condemned. We needed to see with wider eyes. It was so valuable to have culturally appropriate caseworkers and a space where we sought to understand our clients instead of jumping to conclusions. It is something that is lacking in many social services and public domains at large, and the situation is even worse in the private sector, I would imagine.
I am now working in the public health system. It is a diverse environment both in terms of clientele and service providers being from all over the world. We are required to participate in Aboriginal Cultural Awareness Training as mandatory training. I took part recently and found it profoundly moving and emotional. The main feeling I had was rage. I kept thinking about the fact that here we were trying to condense 80,000 years of continuous culture into a three hour seminar to make us better workers, when the gift shop in the main hospital still sells golliwogs!
|Image writer's own|
While cultural awareness and sensitivity policies are fantastic on paper, the reality is vastly lacking. It is an effort every day to maintain my composure when I witness blatant instances of racial profiling, discrimination, prejudice and downright ignorance, with no clear way to address it or report it and get any sort of adequate response. "Report it to your Manager" is not good enough.
The best I can do is be an example, treat everyone equally while being aware and sensitive toward their individual needs and keep trying to see beyond the things that divide us, by connecting with everyone's humanity first.