Building our community: Refugee Week at the Migration Museum

Earlier this week we launched our new exhibition in the Migration Museum’s community access gallery, the Forum.

The exhibition has been put together by staff and students from Thebarton Senior College. Thebarton has a large program for English language students, most of whom are recent arrivals to Australia, and many of whom arrived in this country as refugees.

This week and last, the students have been coming to the Museum and sharing something of their culture with the wider community, and with school students in particular. Amongst many presentations we have learned about various Islamic festivals and events, we counted to 10 in Burmese, had Congolese dance lesson and discovered some of the traditions behind a Vietnamese wedding celebration. There have been games, music, goldfish and more. But above all, we have had the chance to talk to the Thebarton students and learn more about them. Even those who have only been in Australia for a few short months have had the courage to converse in English – for some, their fourth language. Feedback from teachers and students at Thebarton has been positive: one teacher said in an email:’… my students were really proud of their work. I could see how much they all got out of it and they genuinely seemed to have grown in confidence as a result of their participation…’

costumes on display - Hazara, Vietnamese and Uyighur

The exhibition in the Museum’s Forum Gallery features lots of beautiful clothes and accessories for special occasions – a Uyghur traditional dress, Hazara women’s jewellery, a wedding dress from Guinea and brightly striped weaving from Myanmar. Through the exhibition texts, the students share some of the stories of their lives. These stories put human faces to the tragedies in the news headlines. One young Hazara woman from Afghanistan recounts the worst day of her life. This was the day on which she witnessed the carnage of two suicide bombs which took 130 lives. A student who fled with his family from the Democratic Republic of Congo recounts the murder of his father, brother and cousin.

These stories rock me to the core – they fill me with sadness. But what I discover as I read them is that these people don’t ask for pity – instead, they express their gratitude that they feel safe here. What is clear to me is that they have enormous courage; they are adaptable, resilient and strong. I am reminded that once they have been accepted and have settled here in Australia, they are no longer refugees – they have found their refuge.

At a time when migration is still such a hot topic in the media – internationally as well as in Australia – museums have the opportunity to participate in some of the public conversations. At the Migration Museum, we have never been shy about the fact that there is an inherently political aspect to our work. We do need to be careful, though, to be sensitive to the needs of the people whose stories we tell.

I have never been asked to make public statements on behalf of my ethnic association nor to defend my religious views to strangers, yet there is a danger that some of the students may feel that this is the position that we have put them in. In inviting members of the public to come and meet them and hear their stories, we cannot control the questions that may be asked. In providing a space for giving voice, we must be mindful, too, of providing the safest and most supportive environment that we can. To this end, our Education Manager, Madelena Bendo, worked with the Thebarton students and teachers over a period of several months to invite them to visit the Museum, to become familiar in the spaces and to talk through the processes.

We hope that through this project we will develop strong, lasting relationships with the students, and that when Refugee Week finishes they will understand that our museum is really their museum.

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