Fabulous New Zealand

gaynzYesterday I sat down at my computer with my cornflakes as I usually do at breakfast time and read a news (I use the term loosely) Website from New Zealand. This little ritual has been going on for years and helps me feel connected to those two long islands down in the South Pacific.

One headline caught my eye (Young Nelson doctor pays tribute to late partner through exhibition) and I clicked. As the accompanying photo is of a man, I assumed his deceased partner was a woman. But as is revealed in the first paragraph, his partner was male. Nothing too shocking there. This is, after all, the country that was fifteenth in the world to allow same-sex marriage (and incidentally was the first country in the world to allow women to vote). But what I read next surprised me. The ‘young doctor’ is 24 while his partner was, oh, a bit older – 85. I nearly choked on my cornflakes – that’s almost a sixty year age gap. While I try not to be too judgy in matters of the heart, I did look twice.

The article goes on to show a photo of the couple (who had been together for six years) and talk about their shared love of landscape photography, which took them on international adventures (Wong’s partner, Barry Woods, was a professional photographer). It also mentioned that the hospice in which Wong’s exhibition is a fundraiser for gave the couple of a lot of support during Woods’ battle with lung cancer.

Reading this from my little perch in Seoul, in what has to be one of the most conservative, sexist, racist, classist, conformist, ageist, patriarchal, closed-minded and homophobic countries in the developed world, I felt a surge of pride for my homeland. While New Zealand has its fair share of social problems (child abuse and poverty, rising inequality, erosion of indigenous rights, covert racism, an embarrassing prime minster etc.) it is awesome that such an article can be graciously published on one of the country’s most popular and mainstream news Websites.

While I don’t have the mobility of someone with say, an EU passport, I’m so happy that I was born in New Zealand and have grown up in a progressive, accepting and free-thinking society. I’m grateful for the world-class education I received which fostered the growth of a social conscience and open mind which underpins the person I am today. I heart you NZ!

The tragedy of those trapped in Malta

With so much heartbreaking media coverage recently about the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe (and also in the Middle East and Australia), I felt compelled to share an article I wrote in November of 2007 while working as a reporter on board Peace Boat. One port of call on our global voyage was Malta where I spent some time at a detention center. Here,  male African migrants were trapped with no way to go forward to Europe, as intended, and no way to return back to their home countries. Read on for the full story.

Participants presented Father Mintoff, founder of Peace Laboratory, with a banner that states: “We Can Save the World, We Can Change the Situation.”

Participants presented Father Mintoff, founder of Peace Laboratory, with a banner that states: “We Can Save the World, We Can Change the Situation.”

The issue of African migrants in Malta is a relatively new phenomena, occurring in the past five years as a consequence of ongoing war, famine and poverty in many African nations. The migrants arrive in Malta due to unfortunate circumstances, such as their boat breaking while making the incredibly risky journey to mainland Europe. They are placed in detention and their long held dreams of reaching Europe and starting a new life are shattered. This was the side of Malta Peace Boat participants experienced.

 

The Marsa Open Center, which gives basic needs such as food and shelter to the many migrants who risk their lives trying to get from Africa to Europe

The Marsa Open Center, which gives basic needs such as food and shelter to the many migrants who risk their lives trying to get from Africa to Europe

Generally speaking, there are high levels of racism and xenophobia in Malta directed at the migrants. This is exacerbated by the fact that the migrants do not want to be there either, as they are pinning their hopes on joining an established African community in another European country such as the Netherlands. Moreover, the migrants who come from a range of African nations, especially Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Congo, Algeria, and Egypt are held as scapegoats and many of the country’s ills are blamed on them. According to Mr Scicluna: ‘They’re not coming to take jobs, or overturn the culture. They are here because of desperate circumstances. The population of Malta is 400,000. We need 500 laborers each year as predicted by economists, so the presence of the immigrants is actually helping the economy.’

Under the guidance of Emanuel Scicluna, a volunteer from Peace Laboratory, a Maltese non-government organization situated in the town of Hal Far, participants visited the NGO which offers material and emotional support to the migrants. In the past, the center has also campaigned on their behalf to raise awareness about their situation and has been instrumental in protecting their human and legal rights, especially considering the difficulty in determining their status as either migrants or refugees.

Migrants hang out in the Internet café at the Marsa Open Center

Migrants hang out in the Internet café at the Marsa Open Center

After a briefing on the current situation of the migrants arriving in Malta and the fate that awaits them, participants went to see for themselves what life is like for them. After spending 18 months in a detention center upon arrival, the migrants are then placed in an open center which gives them more freedom. The Marsa Open Center is home for 750 men aged between 18 and 34 and provides basic needs such as food and shelter. For the past three years, it has been run by Terry Gosden, who hails from England.

The mosque at the Open Center which accommodates the many Muslims staying there

The mosque at the Open Center which accommodates the many Muslims staying there

In a small room that acts as a classroom with a dozen desks and a whiteboard, Mr Gosden explained the situation of the migrants. Only about one quarter of people fleeing Africa for Europe make it and in 2006, there were at least 1000 known deaths in the Mediterranean. His colleagues, who include Somali and Eritrean members, devised a system that gives the migrants a sense of purpose while they are in this ‘limbo’ phase. The center has been constructed into a village of sorts, with restaurants, shops, a mosque, a church, a school, a barber’s, and an Internet café, all run by the migrants themselves. ‘These people have suffered. They have nothing, so we give them something so that they have a stake-hold over their lives,’ Mr Gosden said. ‘What surprises me the most is the amount of dignity and self-respect these people are able to maintain under difficult circumstances,’ he added.

Mr Gosden, along with some of his staff, tells participants about how the center is run and the major problems faced by the men such as mental health issues

Mr Gosden, along with some of his staff, tells participants about how the center is run and the major problems faced by the men such as mental health issues

The most outstanding problem faced in the center is mental health. ‘Where we work hardest is on the mind. Everybody here has suffered. They experience grief, post-traumatic stress syndrome, and loss of culture. They are stuck on an island that doesn’t want them. However, they are grateful to Malta because they are still alive,’ explained Mr Gosden. Because of the huge stigma regarding mental health in many African nations, he is not asked to intervene until it becomes a matter of life and death. While being released from the detention center into the open center means more freedom for the men, they are still trapped. ‘The mythology they grew up with is broken. Their dreams are shattered. There’s no way forward and no way back.’ As our time at the center came to a close, Mr Gosden left participants with a final

Dr Namdi discussed the political context in which Africans are forced to flee their own countries and migrate elsewhere. He also talked about how African migrants are treated in Malta

Dr Namdi discussed the political context in which Africans are forced to flee their own countries and migrate elsewhere. He also talked about how African migrants are treated in Malta

thought: ‘You’re on a journey of discovery. For these people, their journey is one of life and death and is much more poignant. They’re leaving behind their culture and their life. When you return to your country of origin, send a prayer to the people making these journeys. I thank you for that.’

Back at Peace Lab, participants listened to a talk by Dr Namdi, a Nigerian cardiologist who has lived in Malta for twenty five years. As a fellow African, he tries to improve the lives of those migrants arriving in Malta. Dr Namdi discussed how war and infighting has displaced many people both within and outside their own countries. ‘The problems of refugees have been created by the policies of European countries because they still have a colonialist mentality and want to obtain precious resources such as oil, minerals and diamonds,’ he claimed. It is near impossible for the migrants to make a life in Malta, as, believes Dr Namdi, ‘no opportunities are created for such a life to flourish. The Maltese government ignores or hides the problem.’ In the discussion that followed his talk, most participants agreed that the problem should be addressed by developed nations who should take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Many also believed that the fact that Japan only accepts a very small number of refugees each year needs to be readdressed. At the very least, participants promised they would raise awareness of the plight of the African migrants in Malta when they returned home.

 

An Ugly Truth

sadstatueTwo friends brought to my attention the tragic cases of sexual violence that are currently making headlines in New Zealand. Writer and human rights lawyer Marianne Elliott has summed up the issue on her blog:

If you are reading outside New Zealand, the short version is that this week one of our TV news shows broke a story about a group of teenage sexual predators who, for the past three years, have been boasting on Facebook about  ‘roasting’ drunk and underage girls. They call themselves the ‘Roastbusters.’ I looked up what ‘roast’ means in urban slang. It means multiple males having sequential sex with a single female…As I said, there was a reason I was afraid to get drunk at rugby parties when I was a teenager. That is rape culture and I’ve seen it everywhere I’ve been. But it’s not inevitable.

Drawing on her extensive work in documenting cases of violence against women in Afghanistan, Elliott goes on to compare how the rape culture in New Zealand is not so different. She talks about her own personal experience of growing up a teenaged girl in small-town New Zealand and how she always had to be careful and never take risks with drinking too much or wearing “provocative” clothing, because it was likely one of the boys she socialized with would take advantage of her, and if something did happen, it would be her fault. She talks of how the police have shied away from taking any consequential action, despite being privy to information that would suggest there have been many miscarriages of justice in sweeping these now very public cases under the rug while insinuating that the victims were asking for it. Finally, she concludes that:

What we are missing is the courage to be honest about how ugly some parts of our beloved country and culture really are, the courage to own the part we all play in letting this go on, and the courage to speak up..to take action where and when we can…So I’m starting here. Because rape culture is pervasive, but it’s not inevitable.

While Elliott’s exploration of this is more personal, University of Auckland academic Nicola Gavey published an article on sexualpoliticsnow.org.nz that probes into the roots of this occurrence and how the culture at large has come to normalize sexual violence and misogyny. In her own words:

I have become more and more convinced of the connection between sexual violence and a wider cultural tolerance of misogyny. Sexual violence and gang rape are not new. But something seems different about the narcissistic performative nature of these violations. That they are sometimes filmed and distributed, or gloated about, on social media. That the boasting is so open, online for anyone to see, is made possible by communication technologies that weren’t around even 10 years ago. Different kinds of behaviour become possible. That these boys and men use this technology without any apparent sense of caution for the repercussions – not only for their victims but also for their own reputations later in life and their chances of getting caught – suggests that cultural norms are changing with the technological possibilities.

Both these commentators have written so powerfully and concisely on this topic that I don’t think I can add much that hasn’t already been said. However, I do want to add, in the vein of Elliott whose title for her piece resonated with me (‘There’s a reason I was afraid to get drunk at rugby parties’) that many of my friends were victims of sexual violence as teenagers. Some of these girls were early bloomers with an appetite for experience which was taken advantage of by older men who should’ve known better than to ply a fourteen year old girl with alcohol, drag her outside and then rape her. Other cases would be less black and white in the face of the law – girls whose beloved boyfriends get carried away and demand and force sex despite their partners’ protestations. In fact, recently a friend in New Zealand told me about her experience of date rape with a boyfriend from years ago and said, ‘I’ve heard it from so many other women – it’s so common it’s not even talked about.’ Part of me was shocked to hear this, but part of me wasn’t surprised either – after all, some of my friends have told me similar stories about their own experience with men they knew and trusted. I hope the culture can change. After all, in the 1950s, it was socially acceptable for men to go out and get drunk then come home and beat their wives. Now I would hope that such behaviour would be duly punished and would-be perpetrators would think twice. To paraphrase Elliott, rape culture might be pervasive, but it’s not inevitable.