Pictures in my Heart, recently published by Wakefield Press, is a book that illustrates the longing we all have for home. Refugees feel this longing most keenly. In 2003 I began my work with Afghan men that had arrived in Australia by boat between 1999 and 2001. Many of them congregated in Murray Bridge where they found work easily at the abattoirs. They were all on Temporary Protection Visas, which meant they had to wait on average four or five years to receive permanent protection. During this time it was not certain what their future would be and if they would be allowed to stay. The political climate was hostile, as it remains, and the refugees felt unwelcome. A leading figure in the itinerant community was so traumatised by the thought of having to return to Afghanistan that he committed suicide. They were all separated from their families, mostly young men with young wives and children, who they had left behind in a war zone, to escape capture by the Taliban.
They attended the Murray Mallee Community Health Service, where they came to share a meal and have a swim. Later I initiated an art program, which I ran with Miranda Harris. The work that was produced by these novices was unexpectedly powerful and poignant. We exhibited it with much success. From here more art work were produced and over the course of the next years, photographs were given to me, and I collected hours of recorded interviews that I wrote up into stories.
Almost 12 years to the day that I first met the Afghan refugees, we launched the book Pictures in my Heart at the Migration Museum on Harmony Day, 21st March 2015. It was a chance to celebrate and honour the participants in the book as well as all of the many Australians who have supported them over the years. Sarah Hanson-Young, Greens Senator for South Australia and Iranian born artist Hossein Valamanesh both spoke in support of the book. Young artist Murtaza Hussaini, the son of Sayed, who contributed beautiful artworks and stories to the book, spoke also. He talked about his experience as a refugee and how lucky his family is to have the opportunities they now have. He is studying Visual Arts and his borother Mustafa studies Architecture, both at the University of South Australia. He asked "What would have happened to us if we were locked up indefinitely in detention?" What talent do we have locked up in off shore detention centers - for years?
It is my hope that the book can help Australians connect with refugees as individual human beings, not as a hoard of people threatening to overtake this country. I hope that readers will understand that these people are the same as us, it is only their circumstances that are different. All we have to do is ask the question, "How would I want to be treated if I were in their shoes?"