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Desh Balasubramaniam speaks for the voiceless
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Desh Balasubramaniam speaks for the voiceless
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Desh Balasubramaniam speaks for the voiceless
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Articles
20 February 2014

Desh Balasubramaniam speaks for the voiceless

Voiceless Journeys tells the the tales of 101 people who have fled their countries due to war or conflict.

Written by Lorelai Vashti

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

The participants in the photographic exhibition may look silent, but look closer and you’ll see an entire story being told through their hands. You’ll see the tales of 101 people who have fled their countries due to war or conflict.

The exhibition is called Voiceless Journeys, and with stunning, intimate portraits that are blown-up and exhibited in various public spaces around Melbourne, the project helps combat the misleading political rhetoric about “boat people” and “illegals.” It is just one of many projects that Desh Balasubramaniam has created through Ondru—a volunteer organisation that brings together people whose voices are not usually heard to create art that challenges and inspires.

Desh juggles the running of Ondru with a full-time job in education because he is passionate about making sure those people on the fringes are heard. He believes in the power of telling stories to create positive social change, and art’s role in challenging the current political discourse. But while Voiceless Journeys is about telling other people’s stories, Desh also has a powerful tale of of his own.

Desh’s family fled Sri Lanka when he was 13. “It’s a beautiful paradise but it had this very horrific ongoing conflict which was a big part of my childhood,” he says. After more than two years of displacement within the country and outside of it, Desh’s family was eventually able to move to Hamilton in New Zealand. “My parents said, ‘Here’s your high school.’ It was very much a shock because it was a country town and I was used to growing up on a beach, with tropical weather.”

Desh, who had barely any English language skills when he arrived, eventually went on to graduate from law and business school. He spent time after uni travelling through New Zealand, Australia and Asia, working as a labourer, a steel fixer on a train line, a fruit picker and a cleaner. “I was confused,” Desh tells me. “I wasn’t quite sure who I was. You know: am I a Tamil, a Sri Lankan, a Kiwi or am I something else?” Somewhere along the way, Desh realised that his identity was not Tamil, Sri Lankan or Kiwi. “It’s just uniquely me. Desh.”

He ended up in Melbourne, where he founded Ondru in 2009. One of the reasons Voiceless Journeys was an important project for him was because his parents had never told their stories. “I’ve never really spoken and I felt like my parents have never spoken, because they never had the time to because they had to survive,” he explains. The project took more than a year, but Desh was determined that these stories be heard. “If you don’t stand up, no one else is going to,” he says.

“Initially we went out to Footscray, there were about five of us, and on the first day we stood out there with our cameras and video cameras trying to stop passers-by. People thought we were well-paid, undercover people from Immigration. We were there for like six hours or something. But only one person posed for us.”

“My dad came over to visit and we took his photo. And then I went to a couple of places and said, ‘This is my dad’s photo as a part of this project and we’re looking for others to be a part of this.’ That opened the doors.”

Many of the participants had never told their story before. Speaking to Desh and his volunteers was the first time they had felt listened to since arriving in Australia. To read their stories on the Voiceless Journeys website—stories that range from simple statements to engrossing narratives—is to be reminded of the value of listening. Desh explains that this is where the change can happen at a grassroots level: “When people can see the other person’s stories.”

“There are communities in Australia, whether Indigenous, migrants, the disengaged, the unemployed—if we are to really understand each we have to get to know each other. Diversity isn’t about cuisine, it’s about knowing each other. That’s what this project was really about.”

Ondru are always seeking organisation sponsors and looking for volunteers to join the team. For more, head to voicelessjourneys.org

Lorelai Vashti

Lorelei Vashti is a writer and editor. She is a co-curator of the popular Women of Letters series, and her projects include a baby surname handbook to help new parents choose their child’s last name, and a podcast about names. She also manages a guesthouse and artist’s retreat in the Dandenong Ranges called Jacky Winter Gardens. Her book, Dress Memory: A Memoir of my Twenties in Dresses, was published in 2014.

Photography: James Braund

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