Human Rights Australia 2013

Fourteen SMU undergraduate and M.L.S. students, as well as professors and staffers, will be in Perth, Australia, August 1-14 for an Embrey Human Rights Program-sponsored study trip. The group will “connect with individuals and communities working for better human rights records pertaining to indigenous populations, treatment of refugees, violence against women, LGBT issues and survivors of torture,” says EHRP Director Rick Halperin, who is leading the trip.

“Where will these people be?”

An update from Aymen, a biology and Spanish major, and human rights minor:

A month ago, all I knew about Australia was from what I had seen in movies and read on the Outback Steakhouse menu. After spending 10 days in Perth, I came back with unforgettable memories of exploring the city, taking selfies with kangaroos, being covered head to toe in dirt from crawling through a cave, (struggling) to canoe up a river, and most of all hearing firsthand accounts of Australia’s human rights issues.

Upon arriving at Curtin University, we dove headfirst into a hefty list of human rights violations, the first being the issue of refugee/asylum seekers. I wish the previous research I had done on the topic could have prepared me for the information I was going to learn, but like all human rights issues, each statistic, violation, and story made me think, “How do more people not know about this issue, and how am I just now finding out about it?”

Refugees/asylum seekers arriving in Australia are immediately placed in one of the 18 detention centers scattered around the continent. The refugees’ futures are far from clear, as many of them never know whether they will reunite with their families or whether they will wake up some day and be shipped to detention centers on the islands of Papua New Guinea or Nauru. While most people get a glimpse of detention facilities through newspapers or TV, our group had a rare opportunity to step inside and tour one.

The official who guided us through the Yongah Hill Immigration Detention Center acclaimed the center’s amenities such as the state-of-the-art gym, computer room, and sewing room; however, drawings of estranged family members on the walls and the barbed wire surrounding the detention center starkly contrasted with the somewhat comfortable façade.

After the tour, I was confused and thought the detention center resembled a glorified jail or more aptly, a “people warehousing system.” Knowing that not all refugees in the center are granted temporary protection visas in Australia, the inevitable question was asked: “Where will these people be in the next couple days, weeks, or months?” The answer was, “No one knows, not the refugees themselves, nor the officials”; many refugees may face harsh living conditions on offshore processing islands or, worse, they will be sent back to their own countries from which they once tried to escape.

Our group was told firsthand that these refugees felt their sense of safety and trust was replaced with disempowerment and hopelessness. It’s easy to think, “Eh, well, all countries have immigration issues, there’s nothing I can really do about it.” When you look past the politics, you find stories of people who go about their daily lives with their loved ones and suddenly find themselves catapulted into dehumanizing circumstances, away from everything they know and trust.

Through this trip, I realized that all human rights issues can be categorized through statistics and pie charts, but hearing someone else’s story and realizing the inherent similarity between their humanity and your own sparks the true initiative to make change.

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Postcards from Australia

An update from Emily, a junior majoring in human rights in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences:

Some of our group in King's Park, overlooking Perth and the Swan River

Some of our group in King’s Park, overlooking Perth and the Swan River

Students who participated in SMU's Civil Rights Pilgrimage beside a photo of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in Perth.

Students who participated in SMU’s Civil Rights Pilgrimage beside a photo of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Trinity Church in Perth.

Professor Halperin writing the Embrey Human Rights Program's motto, "There's no such thing as a lesser person," in the sand.

Professor Halperin writing the Embrey Human Rights Program’s motto, “There’s no such thing as a lesser person,” in the sand.

Simon Forrest, professor of Aboriginal Studies at Curtin University, robed in a kangaroo pelt while performing the "Welcome to Country" ceremony

Simon Forrest, professor of Aboriginal Studies at Curtin University, robed in a kangaroo pelt while performing the “Welcome to Country” ceremony

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Celebrating honesty in dance

An update from Kelsey, a junior dance major in Meadows School of the Arts: 

What is a dance major doing on a human rights trip to Perth, Australia? On day five of our trip, after a long day of lectures, I realized my connection to human rights was more pertinent than I could ever imagine.

The day began with Dr. Jude Comfort’s lecture on “Using a Human Rights Lens on LGBTI Issues.” I learned a lot about the history, terminology, and stigma surrounding the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex community; however, what really resonated with me was Dr. Comfort’s story about Larry and his lens on the issue.

Because I’m an artist, people often ask me, “So you know lots of gay people?” and I do, but to me they have never been gay people. They are people — my friends — whom I have seen struggle with the idea of identity just like most of us do. But unlike most college identity crises, their identity has a “dirty,” “diseased,” “sinful” stigma attached to it that, in order for them to succeed, requires an amount of courage that I have never truly comprehended. Larry’s story helped me not only understand the courage involved in coming out but also my role, particularly as a dancer, in this issue.

Larry grew up fighting mental health problems that arose from the social stigma associated with his sexual and gender identity. After several suicide attempts and resulting counseling, Larry gained the courage to come out. His story involved inspiring strength, but as Dr. Comfort retold his journey, one quote in particular stood out. She quoted Larry saying, “Since I’ve been honest with myself, my eyes dance a lot more.” Maybe it’s because I’m a dancer, and any mention of the word “dance” echoes continuously in my mind, but just hearing the word in a human rights setting uncovered a new lens into my relationship with honesty and dance.

The dance studio has always been a place where I can be honest — a place to celebrate my own identity without fear of judgment. Even on my worst days, the movement’s truth is inescapable. This one quote helped me realize that I am so fortunate to be involved in a community where this honesty is celebrated. And although I cannot rid the world of the negative stigma associated with being gay, I can join in celebrating honesty. Because, as I saw through Larry’s dancing eyes, a celebration follows the courage to be honest. And what better way to celebrate than with dance?

A thought-provoking handout provided to us by a speaker

A thought-provoking handout provided to us by a speaker

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