Mon, Jun 20, 2011 - Page 5 News List

Documentary takes Australians on refugee journey

IN THEIR SHOES:Participants reported undergoing epiphanies after they spent time in refugee center, took a dangerous sea journey and witnessed life in Iraq

AFP, SYDNEY

An undated SBS TV photograph released on Saturday shows Adam Hartup in Sydney at the beginning of the soon-to-be-screened SBS documentary Go Back To Where You Came From.

PHOTO: AFP/Cordell Jigsaw, SBS

Lifeguard Adam Hartup proudly watched white Australians gather on Sydney’s Cronulla Beach five years ago to protest over a spate of attacks on locals and “reclaim” their beach from outsiders.

The gathering degenerated into a riot, with alcohol-fueled mobs setting upon beachgoers of Middle Eastern appearance. Hartup was not involved in the violence, but he said he used to have little time for boat people.

“I didn’t really understand what a refugee was, but I didn’t have any tolerance for them,” he said.

“We’ve had so many floods and fires, there are people who can’t afford mortgages and that sort of stuff, so I really thought we need to be looking after our own before we worry about other people’s problems,” he said.

However, after experiencing first hand the hardships endured by an Iraqi refugee who came to Australia by boat, for a television documentary series airing this week, Hartup changed his views.

The 26-year-old retraced a refugee’s journey in reverse — from Sydney’s Villawood immigration center, on a leaky vessel to Malaysia and through Jordan back to the bombs of Baghdad.

He was one of six Australians invited to live a refugee experience for the documentary series Go Back to Where You Came From.

Commissioning editor Peter Newman said he hoped the series would show the complexity of the immigration issue.

“It’s clearly the hottest topic in Australia today, and it’s definitely touched a nerve among all Australians no matter what side of the debate you sit on,” he said.

The series chose participants from diverse backgrounds, but who mostly shared skeptical views, including one retired woman whose town became home to a refugee detention center last year said she wanted to “shoot the lot of them.”

All were hugely challenged by what they saw and some had “radical” epiphanies as early as the first week, when they lived with refugees in Australia, producer Ivan Mahoney said.

“To have two or three people come back with an entirely different look on it and changed opinions was actually huge, and I had not expected that,” he said. “I certainly hadn’t expected Adam’s change of heart.”

Hartup grew up on Cronulla beach in Sydney, a beautiful sandy stretch which made world headlines in 2005 when a mob chased and beat Middle Eastern Australians.

Thousands were drawn to “reclaim” the beach after an attack on volunteer lifesavers days -earlier, which some media reported was carried out by Middle Eastern youths, and Hartup said he was initially happy to take part.

“I was pretty proud on the day, on the morning of it, it was just like a big Australia Day,” he said, referring to the national holiday celebrating the historic landing of white settlers in 1788.

Though he said the violence was wrong — “bashing of innocent people was what we were there to stop” — Hartup admitted he was among “the large, vast majority [who] think sort of, why [are refugees] our problem?”

For the documentary, he took a terrifying sea journey to Malaysia, in which the boat began to sink and had to be rescued by the coastguard.

“But probably the most scared [I was], that brought you to reality was when we were in Baghdad and in the army convoy, we were fully kitted up with bulletproof vests, helmets, glasses and all that sort of stuff,” he said.

“And about 20 minutes after we got to the base we heard an IED [improvised explosive device] had gone off on that road we were on,” he said.

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