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A place to belong?
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I'm reading
A place to belong?
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I'm reading
A place to belong?
Pass it on
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Articles
10 September 2019

A place to belong?

Who gets to belong? Who doesn’t? And who decides?

Written by Meg Mundell

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

The bell rings and kids swarm across the playground, finding their buddies and forming ragged lines. Watching my son scamper to join his friends, I feel a pang of relief: he’s happily settled into his first year of school. He belongs.

Built in the 1860s from local bluestone, our school resembles a miniature castle. Its first students were the children of stonebreakers and quarry workers from the British Isles. In later decades Footscray became home to waves of migrants and refugees who worked in the suburb’s factories, bone mills and tanneries, or opened restaurants and businesses.

The factories are gone now, but the multicultural mix remains: the students learn Vietnamese, take African drumming classes, order Banh Mi from the canteen. At pick-up the parents arrange playdates and defuse quibbles over unshared Cheezels or lost Pokemon cards. We come from all over: Mauritias, Laos, England, Sudan, Hong Kong, Germany, Naarm, country Victoria.

When you move to a new country, or start a new school, you’re an outsider. It takes time to find your place, become part of a community. For writers, that outsider’s perspective can be valuable: seen through fresh eyes, the familiar becomes strange, and human encounters gain an added charge.

Migrant writers often explore belonging, but it’s a universal theme. Belonging is an anchor, a haven, a source of warmth and comfort. It’s good for your soul, your blood pressure and your life expectancy.

But belonging has a dark side, too: it’s often granted selectively. Australia is home to class divisions, cliques and prejudice, and the country’s history is full of shadows. Aboriginal kids share the playground now, but by the 1860s, when our school was built, most of the local Woi Wurrung and Bunurong people were gone, scattered or killed by forced removals, racist violence and imported diseases. Indigenous Australians were denied citizenship until 1967, and today live on average eight years less than their non-Indigenous counterparts.

For a country originally “settled” by boat people, a place where one in four of us were born overseas, our attitude to outsiders is puzzling. As a white New Zealander, Australia welcomed me with open arms, but other immigrants receive starkly different receptions. I came here by boat, working as a crew member. Nobody called me a queue-jumper, tried to tow me back out to sea, or locked me up indefinitely in an offshore prison. Despite feeling foreign, my belonging was assumed.

This warm welcome was pure luck, an accident of birth. It made me wonder: who gets to belong? Who doesn’t? And who decides? I don’t have the answers, but writing is one way to raise the questions. For both writers and readers, stories offer the thrill of exploring new worlds, a chance to walk in other people’s shoes.

In my new novel,The Trespassers, a group of migrant workers flees a post-Brexit UK shattered by disease and economic collapse. Like many before them, they’re bound for Australia, seeking a brighter future for themselves and their children. But disaster strikes mid-journey, and when the passengers reach their new homeland, they don’t get the welcome they’d expected.

The scaffolds of belonging are laid down early, and the effects can last a lifetime. Writing the character of Cleary, a nine-year-old deaf boy who finds himself alone as the ship descends into chaos, I was intensely aware of his vulnerability. In reaching out to a stranger, Cleary finds a source of love and protection that ultimately saves his life.

Following Cleary’s journey through a hostile world, we come to care about him. That’s the spooky magic of fiction: it makes us empathise with made-up people. But this imaginary boy has thousands of real-world counterparts: children caught up in manmade disasters, at the mercy of powerful adults. Kids denied the opportunity to belong.

Reading the Nauru files, 2000 reports leaked from one of Australia’s offshore detention centres, filled me with helpless rage: a horrific litany of physical assaults, sexual abuse, self-harm and medical neglect, the victims often children. Many became suicidal; some stopped speaking, eating or drinking, a condition known as Traumatic Withdrawal Syndrome.

Public pressure eventually saw children removed from offshore detention – but not before public apathy kept them trapped there for years. Kids remain jailed in our onshore detention centres, and those who survived our offshore gulags bear a legacy of trauma. The scaffolding is laid down early.

Australia likes to call itself a fair-minded, egalitarian nation. So why impose such suffering on people fleeing war and persecution? Why refuse to let children belong?

While writing The Trespassers,I was also editing another book. We Are Here: Stories of Home, Place and Belonging (Affirm Press, October 2019) is a collection of true stories written by people who’ve experienced homelessness. The 38 talented contributors come from all over: country Victoria, Naarm, Alice Springs, Canada, Hungary, Indonesia, Iran, Scotland, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sydney. Some have refugee backgrounds.

The book’s theme is “place”, and childhood looms large: some stories recall beloved childhood haunts, while others touch on early experiences of abuse, neglect and trauma. For some contributors, bad luck struck later in life – injury, illness, job loss, poverty, domestic violence. Add a housing crisis, and homelessness was the result.

Losing your home, or your homeland, is a profoundly unsettling experience. It involves a loss of belonging: to place, to family, to community and wider society.

No-one chooses to become homeless – just as no-one volunteers to become a refugee. Yet both groups are routinely blamed and vilified, demonised and excluded. We imagine it could never happen to us, but that’s just a comforting myth.

Belonging is something we can help create, not just yearn to receive; something we can offer, not just seek. We decide how we treat people who’ve lost their homes. Can we see them as fellow human beings, people who deserve a place to belong?

Meg Mundell is a Melbourne-based writer and researcher. Her second novel, The Trespassers (UQP), is out now. Her edited collection, We Are Here: Stories of Home, Place & Belonging (Affirm Press), launches in October 2019.

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