Helen Sheil

An Other Shame - Poem by Helen Sheil

Take a closer look.
There is a pattern
The words used in the public arena shape attitudes
to those who are ‘other’.
Who are not white, urban, upper class, male, European, wealthy…
Stories are created using these words
that become accepted myths
Then laws are passed adding legitimacy
to the view of what is ‘right.’
How many times will we let this happen
before finding an other way forward?

Was it ignorance or arrogance?
that led the colonisers to call themselves civilised
and Australian native people barbaric
creating myths of a people with no culture
while silencing languages which spoke of country and kinship
banning cultural gatherings except when in need of entertainment.
The myth of people In need of saving
led to laws legitimising their removal them from country.
Into missions and settlements or herded up and killed.
Was it after people were removed or before
that the land was declared empty – Terra Nullis?

Slowly an other story emerged
as people spoke up and told their own stories
Oodgeroo of the Noonuccal (1972)
Kevin Gilbert (1988) Boori Pryor (1998)
sang their own songs: Ruby Hunter, Archie Roach, Tiddas, Kev Carmody
made their own films: , Jimmy Blacksmith, Rabbit proof fence, the Sapphires, Bran nu dae,
and we began to glimpse the damage.

To mature as a nation we had to acknowledge
Our shameful past.
Prime Minister Keating led the way
when he said sorry at Redfern (1992)
acknowledging that it was us (non-indigenous people)
who did the dispossessing.
‘We took the traditional lands
And smashed traditional ways of life
We bought the disasters, the alcohol
We committed the murders
We took the children from their mothers
We practised discrimination and exclusion’

Then there was ‘sorry’ to the Stolen Generation
By Prime Minister Rudd
and opposition leader Dr. Nelson in 2008
‘for the laws and policies of successive parliaments
And governments that have inflicted profound grief, and suffering
And loss on our fellow Australians.
We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children
From their families and communities and their country
For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants
And for their families and communities, we say sorry.
To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters,
for the breaking up of families
Left behind we say sorry,
And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people
And a proud culture we say sorry’

The same pattern is evident
For children known as the child migrants
called orphans,
and offered opportunities of going
to a land of sunshine and oranges.
Then transported to Australia
To become an underclass of domestics and farm labourers
From 1930’s to 1970’s - 500,000 children
150,000 child migrants from United Kingdom.
Shocked individuals listened and began tracking the stories
of adults damaged by this practice.
On my wall – is a painting by Harold Haig
a gift from a generous but troubled man
reunited with his siblings in his 60’s
He was one of the men whose story
informed the film
Sunshine and Oranges.

In 2000 British Prime Minister Brown
Said - Sorry to the Child Migrants
‘Sorry that as children
You were taken from your families
And placed in institutions
Where so often you were abused
Sorry for the physical suffering
The emotional starvation
And the cold absence of love
Of tenderness of care
Sorry for the absolute tragedy
Of childhood lost’

Just when we thought the world knew better
Prime Ministers Rudd, Gillard and Abbott –our leaders
Along with sections of the media
Are repeating the pattern
Refugees - have become ‘illegal immigrants’
The myths of the Tampa affair – parents throwing children overboard
became a story to demonise
desperate parents holding up children to show
that they had no weapons
but escaped the only way possible
to set up a safe life for their children
Stop the boats – stop hope
Legitimised by laws that declare parts of Australia
not Australia.
To deny due human rights processing as
Australia is signatory to charters
developed an other time when those in power had also
felt it expedient to rid themselves of those who were different – the Jews.
And from a distance we could never comprehend
How ordinary good people let this happen.

Our refugees are hidden away in detention centres
So that we do not hear their stories
And learn of the hell they were escaping from
Stories like Ali Al Jenabi – the People Smuggler
Named the Schindler of Asia
are now published.
Again it will be left to the next generation to live with the damage
to begin the difficult journey of healing
of saying sorry.

Poet's Notes about The Poem

I began writing this poem when in Scotland at the time of the 2013 election - where each major party tried to outdo each other in demonising refugees and of course Julia. as an Australian I was at a loss to answer people's questions as to why we had taken this path. The analysis comes from a doctorate on collaborative engagement and the role of stories as a significant strategy. (one of 9 that leads to transformative change.

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Poem Submitted: Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Poem Edited: Wednesday, February 12, 2014

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