In 1991 I was 25, a B.Sc under my belt, a brand new sales rep at a medical company in North Ryde, NSW. I was to meet with medical professionals in major hospitals and sell them consumables for kidney dialysis, including bloodlines – the tubing sets that take blood from patients, pump it through artificial kidneys and return it, purified. At my new company these tubing sets were assembled in a small factory downstairs, and the CEO deemed it necessary for me to spend a few days becoming familiar with their production before I was sent out to sell them.
It was thus I found myself, one morning, a cleanroom gown and elastic shoe covers over my smart suit and heels, my neat blonde bob in a hairnet, at a big, white, laminated table. I was surrounded by women from the Subcontinent and the Middle East chattering in various languages over the hum of the laminar airflow system while gluing lengths of medical-grade PVC tubing to drip-chambers, injection sites, T- and Y-pieces according to diagrammatic instructions on charts in front of them.
Having mastered my task of applying a smear of glue and attaching a short length of tubing to a drip-chamber, I turned to the middle-aged woman to my left. I learned that her name was Salma. She had arrived in Australia two years previously with her husband and daughter. They were refugees from Afghanistan.
‘Do you enjoy working here?’ I said. Lame, I know, but it was the only common ground I could think of.
‘Oh, yes, I am happy to work while I get my qualification,’ said Salma.
Salma smiled. ‘Yes, I study at night. English lessons plus I am re-qualifying as a doctor. I was a paediatrician in Afghanistan. My husband was a GP.’
I stared at Salma’s hands, deftly fastening luer-locks to tubing, while my youthful world order crumbled and reassembled itself at that big white table on the ground floor of a medical consumables company in a North Ryde business park.
There have been calls for replacing a portion of Australia’s migrant intake with refugees. One argument against the idea was that Australia needed the skilled workforce – the doctors, engineers, lawyers – that the migration intake guaranteed. The unspoken assumption is that people arriving as refugees are unskilled. But a short roll call of past refugee arrivals includes award-winning short-story author Nam Le, eminent businessman Frank Lowy, technical entrepreneur Tan Le, football commentator Les Murray and 2000 Australian of the Year, research scientist Gustav Nossal. And, may I add, Dr Salma.
Who are the people on these boats that we’re turning away? Doctors and scientists? Poets and artists? Social workers, nurses, IT professionals? All of the above, I’m sure.
Referring to refugees as “boat people” may be dehumanising. But when the “people” is removed altogether, as in Tony Abbott’s highly effective “Stop the boats!” slogan, how much more dehumanising is that? Who can argue that “Stop the boat people!” would have had the same resonance?
And media, commentators, even the Opposition have fallen into line like so many disciples. No-one mentions “boat people” anymore. I call on everyone to reclaim “boat people” immediately. Counter every smug reminder that they’ve “stopped the boats” with “Oh, you’ve stopped the boat people?” and witness the confusion.
Remember that it’s not empty vessels being repelled from our borders, but people.
People like Salma, who in 1991 patiently assembled medical consumables by day and studied English at night in the hope of treating children again, in her new homeland, one day.