Overheard in the Refugee Camp in Glebe Park

By 25 September 2008 44

I’m not going to editorialise too much on this as other readers will be able to offer more experienced and insightful views of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and their operations. As with a regular column I write elsewhere in a world of music I perceive only dimly through inexpert eyes, I’ll give you ‘A Punter’s Perspective’.

MSF do not facilitate flight of refugees across borders. They deal exclusively with ‘internally-displaced persons’.

My earlier throw-away comment about people who are against accepting refugees to our shores, I stand by; but it’s not relevant to any discussion about the work of MSF. To quote from their literature: ‘MSF is an independent organisation for medical-humanitarian aid which provides victims of disease, natural or manmade disasters, or armed conflict, access to urgently needed medical care.

MSF also speaks out on the plight of the people it helps.’You can read more about MSF and related activities such as ‘Refugee Camp in your city’ at

With the light fading on a pleasant early spring afternoon in Canberra, and just a couple of hundred metres from one of the city’s brightly-lit, plastic temples to mass consumerism, I was stopped at the entrance to the refugee camp and held there until the border guards deigned to let me in.

(Slideshow below)

‘What can you offer us to come in?’ asked the volunteer at the ‘Stop’ sign. This was no ‘charity-mugger’ spruiking for spare change or a sign-up to a charitable giving program; she was setting the scene for the camp tour.

From here, I’ll let Ruth the tour guide take over. Ruth is studying International Relations in Canberra, but she’s also served in operating theatres at refugee camps in Darfur and Pakistan.

“There’s a lot of political agenda about trying to stop the production of landmines. And then there’s a lot of work trying to de-activate them. The people who are working on that say it will take 110 years to clear up the mines that are already there; never mind if there are any more added.”

Ruth showed examples of cluster bombs that are dropped from planes with a parachute device so they don’t detonate when they land. The example mine she had looked like a cross between a tennis ball and a hacky sack.

“Children will come and pick them up to play with, and they’ll be killed. Or you might walk along and, depending on the size of the person, you might not be killed, but you could lose a leg.”

“The World Food Program does most of the work in regard to providing food distribution. MSF can get involved in that, but we certainly don’t have the resources. In Darfur at the moment, they estimate about two million people living in camps being fed by the World Food Program.”

“We would use between 250 to 300 litres of water a day per person on average in Australia, and the girl in the camp here would get 20 litres per day each. So the container has 30 written on it but it’s filled to 20.”

The children, typically the girls, heft the water containers over long distances. While I could physically lift 20 litres of water off the ground, I dread to think what it would take a malnourished body to transport it over distance. And I’m 42. How does an eight-year-old cope? Badly, I suspect.

“People get cold and hot during the day and night, and while they might normally be able to fight infections off, here they might get colds and coughs. Upper respiratory tract infections is another key area we have to treat. And measles is another of the main diseases. They just get very, very sickly.”

“If the temperature goes below two degrees or above eight degrees the vaccines are no longer viable, so they have to be discarded.”

“[For outbreaks of cholera] we set up a separate area. You can’t come through unless you step through trays that are filled with water and chlorine, then you come through here – your family can’t come in – and the next thing is you get sprayed with chlorine. So it’s pretty serious; chlorine’s a chemical we know is pretty awful.”

[I’ve skipped over the bit on the effects and treatment of cholera – you may be eating. Consider yourself lucky if you are. How does a daily dose of basic grains sound with nothing else but a side serving of more grains?]

[Oh, the next bit about how they deal with all sorts of waste including sharps, waste and the cholera victims who just didn’t quite make it through the disease – you don’t want to hear it.]

Let’s skip through and finish with the reactions of a fellow tour member, Phillipa (aged 22, a student of International Relations in Canberra, currently studying genocide).

“[The camp tour] is highly relevant to my study at the moment. The MSF Refugee Camp has been a really good way to picture, hands-on, what it might be like for some of these people. Ruth, our tour guide, was able to give us her personal insight and really convey some amazing experiences that she’s had in Darfur and Pakistan. Firstly, the resilience of the people in the camps and how amazed she was that the children still laughed and played in the camps, even in the bad conditions they were living in. And secondly, the personal experience of working with nurses and other medical staff in the camps, the personal relationships, and the things she was able to learn from those people.”

I have no other words to offer by way of editorial. I’ll just finish with some words from a song I’ve quoted here before on another topic. After three years of listening to this song I can now finally hear these words, as a father, without reaching for the tissues:

    “On the midnight street the young man roams
    His heart and soul full of fright
    He screams out in vain his children’s names
    Who knows where they are tonight?
    Hallelujah, hallelujah
    He screams out in vain his children’s names
    Who knows where they are tonight?”
    All God’s Beggars by Kavisha Mazella from ‘Silver Hook Tango’.

Enjoy this spring weather, enjoy the rest of your week and weekend.

Put your feet up, go watch a band, go sink a few too many drinks. Above all enjoy your freedom, and celebrate that you and yours are so very, very lucky on so many fronts (not eastern fronts or western fronts or heavily fortified or land-mined fronts).

But do smile, not sneer, at the next migrant you pass by. And mentally walk a mile in their moccasins before you judge or speak too harshly.

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44 Responses to
Overheard in the Refugee Camp in Glebe Park
Danman 9:56 am
25 Sep 08

I spent a month in non commercial/tourist parts of India.

Taught me many valuable life lessons.

Thumper 10:00 am
25 Sep 08

Mate of mine was in Somalia as a peacekeeper.

Sure changed his life…

Overheard 10:05 am
25 Sep 08

Technical point: those pics were taken on the phone that I’ve had for five months and it’s the first time I’ve downloaded them onto a PC. I nearly fell off my chair when I saw the resolutiojn — I typically use my phone to (wait for it) make and receive phone calls. But yesterday it tripled as a camera and reasonable-ish MP3 recorder.

The other thing I meant to do was add the part of that wonderful Kavisha Mazella song that’s more pertinent to matters at hand:

“Oh, what is it that we fear so much?
What is it, dear Australia?
We are a land ful of refugees,
And this good land has been our saviour.
Hallelujah, hallelujah.
We are a land ful of refugees,
And this good land has been our saviour.”

And then there’s a bridge part that goes up to the top of my range and to beyond, which is probably why I’ve never done it on stage. But as a wonderful fiddle-player ( said to me on Sunday night when she was playing improv fiddle in my left ear and sending my beautiful Australian convict ballad all over the shop, and as she read my bright yellow wrist-band: “There’s always ‘hope’!”

Overheard 10:15 am
25 Sep 08

* full *

Granny 10:45 am
25 Sep 08

Oh, I am in tears!

*deep breath*

Wish I could just kiss the world better.
Think I need to go and hug a child …

sepi 2:04 pm
25 Sep 08

Great story – thanks.

Overheard 4:59 pm
25 Sep 08

Thanks, sepi. You may or might not have caught it, but I credited you on the other thread for giving me the trigger to go down there yesterday afternoon, so back at you.

Emlyn Ward 5:51 pm
25 Sep 08

You’re doing it again:
“But do smile, not sneer, at the next migrant you pass by. And mentally walk a mile in their moccasins before you judge or speak too harshly.”

Since when does “refugee” = “migrant”?

It’s beyond belief how confused some people are on such simple things.

Migrants are people who have chosen to move to another country.
Refugees are people who through no choice of their own are displaced from their own lands.

And bear in mind that Australia is almost the only country in the world with a formal refugee resettlement programme – if other countries did what we do, organisations like MSF would have a much easier time of it.

Mind you, when Australia agrees to take refugees, *we* don’t choose which ones we get – the UNHCR administrators do their best to select all the barrack-room lawyers, the unruly, troublemakers, human rights activists, and anybody else who annoys them….hence famous problems such as the Somalis in Victoria.

Granny 6:29 pm
25 Sep 08

It was a wonderful story, and I think it’s obvious what was intended by that remark. What is wrong with somebody illuminating the plight of displaced persons for goodness’ sake?

Overheard 6:30 pm
25 Sep 08

^^ Thanks for the Egg Sucking 101 lesson, Emlyn. I didn’t spend five years with AMEP for the company of people with cool accents. I did glean at least one or two things, and I’ve had that knowledge enhanced no end yesterday.

On the other thread I said I had a long post that sadly bit the dust So just know that I covered this distinction in some detail. It’s currently bouncing around the ether.

What you’re doing here is making a one farnarkling big assumption (cf. previous comments about what assumptions are the mother of).

‘Since when does “refugee” = “migrant”?’ It’s beyond belief how confused some people are on such simple things,’ you sneer.

I’ll answer that question with a question. “Where exactly did I say this?”

Answer: “I didn’t.”

Just because two concepts are mentioned in the same breath or the same paragraph or the same postcode doesn’t mean they’re being directly linked.

Are you ready for this one, because it’s a biggie. Only a few people reading this post will get to walk past a “refugee” or “internally-displaced person”.

You know, the last time I was in the Sudan…. oh, yeah, I forgot. I wasn’t.

Cf. my other comment about making off the cuff, random statements the habit of a lifetime. It’s the bain (or the bane — whatever) of my life. Personally, privately and professionally — as recently as today x several times. (Random unrelated comment: Buy John Schumann’s new album ‘Behind The Lines’ in store now. Songland Records at Tuggeranong will see you right. Those two thoughts in that para are linked. But this does not mean that I think Schooie is random, or has his cuffs off, or needs une autre bain ce soir avant il prend son diner.)

(I’m so tired!)

I wrote that story last night or in the early hours of this morning — frankly, I have little memory of doing it I was so fatigued and working on inhaling a nice cheap and cheerful bottle of dry white. I’m amazed the story emerged in English — ‘scuse the punctuation lapses.

Right now I can hardly sit up straight.

So, Emlyn:

1. Sue me.
2. Copy and paste your smarmy, smug, git-fingered spit down your raised nose (physically impossible, but rather fun to say) into an email and send it to goandget@pharked.fh

There, I feel better already!

Eht’s goan ter be a greeeaaat night!

Granny 6:36 pm
25 Sep 08


What does the .fh stand for?

Overheard 6:41 pm
25 Sep 08

Granny said :


What does the .fh stand for?

I’ll leave that to your fertile little imagination, Granny. If you guess right, I’ll buy you a glass of house white.

I can’t remember if I mentioned this before.

Overheard to Granny on Tuesday night: Do you want another drink?
Granny: Yes, but it’s my turn to buy you one. How does this ‘shouting’ thing work?
Overheard (at quite some volume): DO YOU WANT ANOTHER DRINK??!!

Gots to make your own fun, peeps.

Granny 6:59 pm
25 Sep 08

Overheard, you should buy me a glass of house white anyway for giving away my secrets like that!!

; )

Overheard 7:06 pm
25 Sep 08

I didn’t tell the juicy secrets, like the fact that you only we…. [HTTP Error 5001 Post Truncated by Office of National Assessment -- Do It Again And We'll Have You Bang To Rights, Sunshine]

Granny 9:24 pm
25 Sep 08

Well, that’s just jolly lucky for you, my good man!


Oops, can’t type straight! Just been out and had another three wines!!

Granny 9:26 pm
25 Sep 08

P.S. Still don’t know what the fs thing is? Are you sure it’s in English? My ovaries are proving to be more fertile than my imagination right now ….

mad_kiwi 9:33 pm
25 Sep 08

as annoying as the dial a quote / rev. Tim Costello can be, he made a good point this morning, the US can come up with $ 700 billion for a financial crisis and the previous humanitarian crisis in the Sudan / thousands of people a week dying of starvation, etc are ignored

Overheard 11:52 pm
25 Sep 08

mad_kiwi said :

as annoying as the dial a quote / rev. Tim Costello can be, he made a good point this morning, the US can come up with $ 700 billion for a financial crisis and the previous humanitarian crisis in the Sudan / thousands of people a week dying of starvation, etc are ignored

Agreed, mad_kiwi. (On the inequity thing; I don’t have a view on Costello the Lefterer, and I didn’t see and hear the comments myself.

To draw a loose comparison, much was made of the way the US poured so much cash (and ordnance) into Gulf War I (The Phantom Menace), ostensibly in the name of saving little old Kuwait. And not long after, they pulled the shutters up while the old Yugoslavia was going to hell in a hand-basket.

I forget what the official US line was, but the sub-titles that run along the screen read: ‘Yeah, we checked: no oil in Kosovo’.

Disclaimer for Evelyn Waugh (or Emlyn thing — my scrollings a bit hay-wire or maybe it’s the scroller): I have nothing against Kuwait, and I am no expert on the wars in the old Yugoslavia, but Billy Bragg did re-write ‘Rumours of War’ on topic on his 1993 bootleg with the Rocking Red Stars which was where I learnt how to pronounce Srebinca (sp?).

Oh, and there are no shutters on my house and I don’t own a hand-basket.

Overheard 11:53 pm
25 Sep 08

Granny said :

P.S. Still don’t know what the fs thing is? Are you sure it’s in English? My ovaries are proving to be more fertile than my imagination right now ….

fh, Granny, fh. But it’s closely related to fs. Same action, different word.

Granny 12:44 am
26 Sep 08

Nope. I got nothin’. How many syllables?

Overheard 1:05 am
26 Sep 08

Use the force, Granny. Feel it surround you and flow through you. Let go your inhibitions…. whoops, now we’re back to the unzippendisco!

Granny 8:16 am
26 Sep 08

Overheard, have you never played charades? Your fixation with zippers is less than helpful right now! I am thinking the ‘f’ must be some conjugation of the ‘f word’….

Overheard 9:06 am
26 Sep 08

Ah, Granny it’s been a few weeks since any unzippenstrokenpoken, so maybe the subconscious is a bit in overdrive!

But no, you’ve jumped to one of those assumptions. The ‘f’ is not about, ahem, horizontal folk dancing.

But it is furry…..

Overheard 9:07 am
26 Sep 08

Back OT, and to copy and paste from the other thread: if anyone is out there who has the skill sets of an interest in migrants, gathering and recording stories and facilitation (all of mine in spades, but I’m away this weekend more’s the pity), I’m in the market for someone to help out with some Sudanese oral history collection this weekend. I’ll post more details here when I speak to their contact — I only got this call late last night as the SIMS challenge was coming to an end — but if you have half a mind to be involved with this, keep that mid to back brain.

Granny 9:29 am
26 Sep 08

Fur head? Ferret something?

Overheard 9:34 am
26 Sep 08

She’s almost got it! Yes, the ferret. Now feel your way, switch off your teleguidance system thingy and use the force. Find that thingy where you shoot the cannon into and let’s blow this thing (careful!) and go home. It’s just like blasting womp rats in someone’s canyon.

Loose Brown 9:39 am
26 Sep 08

Thanks for the thought provoking, passionate and lengthy article OH.

And geez Emlyn!?!? WTF?

Mad Kiwi – spot on. Hadn’t thought of that. Amazing.

Overheard 9:43 am
26 Sep 08

Cheers, Loose Brown. And I hope noone’s offended by Granny and my bantering e-charades here. It’s all for sh!ts and giggles and actually serves a purpose related to the main topic, but I’ll just let that one sit.

(I can think I can smell Granny’s brain meshing!)

Granny 10:04 am
26 Sep 08

You can smell me going to the refrigerator and billing you for the personal trainer!

; )

rosebud 10:17 am
26 Sep 08

We are in a lifeboat, floating on a sea of human misery.
Every now and then, we reach in and pull a lucky few out.

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