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Youth festival shines a light on justice issues

As part of its Give Hope: Uniting for Asylum Seekers campaign, the SJF invited two refugee storytellers and a policy expert from the Refugee Advice and Casework Service (RACS) to join a special Table Talk session. In light of hot public debate surrounding this issue, the aim of the Table Talk was to start a new conversation about refugees and people seeking asylum – one that focused on stories and was grounded in values. Attendees were invited to reflect on a number of important values, such as compassion, opportunity, kindness and hospitality, and were open in sharing how their own personal life experiences and relationships shaped their connection with particular values.

They were then introduced to Dor, originally from South Sudan, and Aasif*, from Afghanistan, who spoke of their experiences of being refugees and seeking asylum in Australia. The stories were different, with Dor remembering the civil war that saw his childhood spent desperately fleeing violence and years spent in a refugee camp before he was offered safety in Australia whilst on the brink of death. Aasif spoke about his memories of the oppression and persecution he and his family felt as Hazaras living under the rule of the Taliban and of the perilous journey he took by boat to Australia as an unaccompanied minor.

The group was moved by the powerful stories of strength and survival and put their questions to policy expert Tina Posunkina from RACS. These included how to use language that is sensitive and respectful to refugees, about the current policies and visa restrictions for refugees, and what we can do to help refugees and people seeking asylum feel welcome in Australia. To end the session, all attendees took part in the #WeCanDoBetter symbolic action to demonstrate their solidarity in working for a better way for refugees and people seeking asylum.

The SJF also put together a session with Dr Marianne Jauncey from Sydney’s Medically Supervised Injecting Centre titled: “Drugs: From War to Where…?” – exploring such issues as drug law reform, harm reduction and decriminalisation. This follows resolutions of the Uniting Church Synod of NSW/ACT in April 2016 to support and advocate for decriminalisation of personal drug use and greater investment in harm reduction and demand reduction strategies.

In this session Dr Jauncey brought her stories, experience and expert knowledge to challenge the perceptions of illicit drugs and the people who use them and encouraged participants to share their thoughts and feelings about the “war on drugs” and whether a change is needed.

Dr Jauncey spoke about the benefits of the safe injecting facility and services offered to clients, and lamented that, despite its great success, it was still the only facility of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. Speaking about her clients, Dr Jauncey reflected on the stigmas and marginalisation they face in society. It was acknowledged that some media has played a role in perpetuating these stigmas, portraying drug users as uniformly reckless, dangerous and unstable. Likewise, the so-called tough “war on drugs” approach, endorsed by both sides of Australian politics, has also contributed to this, with some in the session admitting that recent TV advertisements about the drug “ice” had seriously influenced their perception of the drug and those who use it.

The group was interested in learning more about pill testing and how to approach the widespread, recreational use of party drugs, such as ecstasy and “speed” in the wake of recent deaths at festivals. Marianne referred to quality evidence and international examples such as from the Netherlands and Portugal, which clearly demonstrate the benefits of harm-and-demand-reduction policies. Pill testing aims to provide users with a clear understanding of substances present in the pill they intend to consume, allowing for more informed decisions. Substances detected could include ecstasy, MDMA or any added poisonous cutting agents – with many of these poisonous additives causing the greatest harm to the individual.

On a practical note, head of the Social Justice Forum, Jon O’Brien, led a workshop on Day 3 of the festival titled Meditation: Reclaiming the Contemplative Dimension of Life, which was about learning to connect with inner and outer dimensions and about connecting contemplation and activism. This was a brief introduction to silent contemplative prayer, a practice traced back to the desert fathers and mothers in the fourth century.

The group listened to an excerpt from Laurence Freeman, a Catholic priest and Benedictine monk who is Director of the World Community for Christian Meditation, where he explains how we know God not just through Scripture, thought and ideas but through silence and stillness. It is based on the conviction that concern for justice and compassion (our outer life) and contemplation (our inner life), are inextricably bound together as part of Christian discipleship. This theology relates to the SJF’s social justice advocacy work in that, through this process of contemplative prayer, individuals can learn to become more sensitised to the beauty, pain and injustice in the world and discover the need to respond in authentic love and action.

 

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