Wednesday, January 19, 2011

New Year, New Hope

New Year is a time of renewal and hope. And also typically where we wish friends and family good wishes for peace and prosperity.

Young men dance a traditional Karen
dance in celebration of the New Year
This year I celebrated two New Years. The first was with my family and thousands of other Sydney-siders enjoying the Harbourside fireworks. The second, a week later on the 8 January, was with the Karen community launching the Karen calender year at Granville Town Hall in Sydney’s west. The New Year was heralded in by an elder blowing the traditional buffalo horn.

Peace was very much on the minds of the Karen who have endured more than two decades of persecution in their homeland of Burma. The Karen are one of the main ethnic groups who have been in conflict with the Burmese regime for decades with more Karen now living as refugees outside Burma than in.

Over the last few years, thousands of Karen have been resettled in Australia and I had the good fortune of being invited to this year’s event by friends in the community who I had first met in refugee camps on the Thai Burma border.

The Zu family have travelled a very long path from when I first met them five years ago in Tham Hin refugee camp - to their new home in Sydney. Their teenage daughter, Naw Zu, gave a moving speech about her experiences as a young refugee.

Born in the jungle as her family fled from the Burmese army, Naw grew up with her brothers and sisters in the camp. When they first arrived there was nothing and her family had to hack down the bush and build their own shelters. Naw said education was one of the most valued things about her new life in Australia. She was determined to use her new opportunity to go back and help other Karen still in the camps.

One week later, I met with my friend Ibasi Ohide and her family from Sydney’s south. Ibasi and her family were also acutely aware of the hardship having lived for many years in a refugee camp in northern Uganda after fleeing their bombarded town of Torit across the Sudanese border. 

At the time they would never have predicted that South Sudan would now be at an historic turning point with the long anticipated referendum finally taking place last week. Nearly four million Sudanese registered to vote in the landmark referendum. 

In yet another example  of how interconnected we are, nearly 9,000 Sudanese waited patiently for  their turn to mark the ballot paper with their thumb in polling  stations set up in Canberra, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney. Australia was one of a number of countries with a large Sudanese diaspora who were given the right to vote in the election. 

In a side story to the floods, the organisers of the referendum polling in Sudan ordered an extension to polling in flood-hit areas of Australia.

Rose Ohide with her referendum
registration card
Almost everyone expects the south to vote overwhelmingly to break away from the north leading to the creation of the world's newest nation. 

Despite the apprehension about the many challenges ahead – Sudanese have made a leap in their faith with their thumbs up for a new South Sudan. As Rose Ohide told me “It’s good to dream. I want my country for once and for all to be stable, peaceful, developed like any other country. We have great resources in Sudan. We want our leaders to use them wisely for the benefit of the people. It has been a hard journey but nothing is ever too late.” 

UNHCR reports that an average of 2000 people are crossing into South Sudan every day with many more expected in the coming months following the referendum. They have come with everything they own, including beds, mattresses, sofas, chairs, tables, cooking utensils, corrugated iron sheeting, radios, TV sets, fridges and small generators.
UNHCR has established a presence in the 10 states of South Sudan to support returnees and the local community. The refugee agency also set up five way stations and a number of soup kitchens along the route to the principal areas of return. These way stations are providing a safe place for women, children and the elderly to rest as they make the arduous journey home. 

For these returning families, like so many refugees, this is just one more step in a journey home that for many has lasted a lifetime. 

I hope 2011 brings us all peace and happiness. 

Naomi Steer, National Director