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Art with a Message: Suburban Refuge

The term "refugee" has had contentious undertones ever since it was introduced into society, and it represents an issue that has the power to divide or unite the opinionated everywhere. Needless to say, it is also an issue that is shrouded in misunderstanding and blatant ignorance, particularly among those who use the phrase "boat people" to describe refugees (and often go on to insist that they are the ruin of Australia and multiculturalism is a bad thing before sitting back and ordering Thai takeout). We could make an argument for why such reasoning must equate to a brain defect, but instead, we'll point you in the direction of an article that does so rather eloquently and turn our focus to an art project that is aiming to shine a light on the reality of what it is like to be a refugee in a different (non-argumentative) way.

Suburban Refuge is a UTS student design project by Dinalie Dabarera and Liz Broekhuyse that encourages support for refugees by highlighting them as human beings rather than political entities. The ladies scattered nearly a hundred small wooden boats around Sydney suburbs and placed an individual story of a refugee who settled here inside each of them. Armed with a note that urged "take me home" along with an explanation of the project, passerbys were encouraged to pick the boat up and make a place for it within their own home, "an act which mirrors our capacity as Australians to invite asylum seekers into our country, and take joy instead of insult in their peaceful settlement into our communities." We asked the ladies about the origin behind their clever concept and what they hope it achieves.


To start with, what made you two decide to embark on this project together?
Suburban Refuge started out as a project for a subject called Designing Sydney at the University of Technology. The brief was to create a public intervention in the streets of Sydney. It was so open that we thought it would be a good time to work on a project that addresses an issue we really care about like the issue of asylum seekers. Much, much more interesting than creating a corporate letterhead.

Who are you both? What are your backgrounds, what are you studying and how did you meet?
We are Dinalie Dabarera and Liz Broekhuyse. We have a background in art and design, and sometimes we try to get a little political. We're both studying Visual Communications at UTS. We met through working on a couple of projects together in other classes before this one.

Why did you decide to focus on the issue of asylum seekers in the form of this project?
It's something that we both care about, and an issue where we feel our stance as a nation is a poor reflection of us as a people. It is such a divisive issue in Australia, and it still continues to be something which people get so angry about, without ever being given more information than hyperbole from the government and the media. The brief was so open that we thought we'd have a try at putting another perspective into the mix.

Do you think that art will encourage people to look at this issue in a different way?
I think that this issue is something that's just kind of stagnating, in the sense that I believe no one who is against asylum seekers or 'boat people' has really formed their opinions based on the numbers, considering that on average about less than 10% of people seeking asylum in Australia arrive by boat, and of those about 90% are eventually recognised by the government as genuine refugees, compared to 45% of those who arrive by plane. But people will feel the way they feel, so we felt that by approaching this issue through art we could address the emotional human side that sometimes goes missing.

How long will this project go for?

Well, we've distributed all 92 of the Sydney boats around Sydney's streets, and we're still eyeing our inboxes hoping that a couple more people will pick them up and get in contact with us about the new homes they've found for them! Other than that, Suburban Refuge will also be a part of the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival so keep an eye out for us there!

How can we hear their stories (if we don't find a boat!)?
You can find the stories on our website . I think Australians will really be able to understand and empathise with these stories and the simple desire to live a safe and happy life with your family (or your cute cat).

What did you learn about yourselves in doing this project?
I think it was also important for us to see that some asylum seekers were lucky enough to create a new life for themselves here in Australia, because what we usually see are news reports of everything going wrong. It was quite a positive thing, and I think it's always good to know that trying to make things better can actually have a real outcome on the lives of real people.

What are you hoping to eventually get out of this project, both on a community and personal level?
I guess what we hope is by focusing on the stories of individual refugees, we can change the focus of this issue from immigration numbers and queue jumping and fear to how a little bit of generosity can change the lives of people who are just like all of us. Even if we can't reach everyone, we believe that people we do reach are more likely to be swayed by empathy than numbers and facts, and we think just a little bit of perspective is what this debate needs.

The Human Rights Arts & Film Festival will be holding a benefit gig on March 22 at Hermanns Bar, Darlington. Tickets are super cheap and go to a good cause, so be sure to get a few here.

interview: Seema Duggal

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