It’s Saturday afternoon and I am visiting a new baby in hospital. It is the third child of an Iranian family of asylum seekers held in detention in Port Augusta. The gorgeous little boy has a full head of hair and well-developed face. His father, with excellent English, translates for the mother, who is very tired. He mentions the boat they came on – a terrible memory. They didn’t expect it to be so dangerous, but they are here now, ready to contribute their wonderful talents to our country. The baby stirs and scrunches up his face, oblivious. Welcome to Australia!

Turn back the clock a few hours. It is a sunny, but very windy, day at the Port Augusta foreshore. A friendly group has gathered as part of the national Welcome to Australia celebrations for Refugee Week. We have been organising this for a couple of months, but things go wrong at the last minute (the best laid plans of mice and men…) Last night we heard that we could no longer use the sound system. This morning our back-up was lost and others we tried were unsuccessful. Finally and fortunately, our speaker had a small portable microphone that just did the job!

The first surprise is as we are setting up. By chance, a group of asylum seekers from the detention centre are having a BBQ not far from us. There is a large group of Vietnamese unaccompanied minors here at the moment, and they are seldom allowed out. So we ask them to help us move our banner (with large writing, ‘Welcome to Australia’) up the beach. In a small way they are able to be part of our event.

Then, as they are taken back to their area, we begin the proceedings. A flautist and a ukelele group keep us entertained initially, and a van of Indian food is parked nearby. Then, officially, we have an Acknowledgement of Country and I perform a short handstand routine (and get knocked over by the wind a few times!) This is followed by our speaker, a Vietnamese man who came to Australia when he was 8. He tells us of the 64 people crammed into a small boat that encountered pirates three times. He still lives with the memories of seeing girls raped on board.

After him, Desert Voices perform their eminently sing-along-able tunes, including a powerful one about walking in each other’s shoes. Next a Chinese sheng performance, which is a fascinating instrument I have never seen before. Finally, the Hearts of Women choir leave us inspired with their message of overcoming obstacles in life. While all this goes on, some children are entertained with a picture book about a magician asylum seeker. We also paint another banner with handprints of many colours. As the singing stops, the adults join in and one Aboriginal women just loves it, explaining that this (and this country) is “her Dreaming”.

We are dreaming too, of a welcoming country that is a safe haven for those fleeing persecution. Perhaps you have seen the SBS reality TV show this week, “Go back to where you came from”. If not, let me recommend it. While we can never experience the refugee experience for ourselves, we can get some insight into the life-threatening decisions they must make and trauma they must live through. Today’s reading (Genesis 18:1-15) was the story of Abraham who welcomed three strangers passing by his house with these words: “if I find favour with you, please do not pass your servant by. Let me have a little water brought, and you can wash your feet and have a rest under the tree. Let me fetch a little bread and you can refresh yourselves before going further, now that you have come in your servant’s direction.” What a privilege hospitality was for Abraham. May we do the same! May today’s newborn grow up in a country that is proud to call him their own!

[I only use photos of people in my blog if I have their permission. Photos 1,2 and 4 by Anne Foale.]

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