We gathered today to acknowledge and show respect to Faysal Ishak Ahmed.
We gather knowing we will do this again. We will do this again because there will be more deaths. They are preventable. This is unacceptable. We know this will happen again because it has happened and is still happening with 23 deaths in the last two years (Australian Border Deaths Database). Perhaps it’s feeling like there’s too many vigils, we had one just last month… to this we say “Yes. There are too many vigils.”
The origin of the word “vigil” is to do with being awake and keeping watch. We want to acknowledge the sorrow, grief and anger of Faysal’s friends and family. The other survivors of Dafur who know how few survivors there were wondering whether they might ever feel at home here. Those yet in camps on Nauru or Manus who wonder what help, what hope, might yet come for them.
Faysal, refugee – yes, and also a son, a husband, a father, a human died at 27 years of age. Today we say his name, hold his picture up – we say not only that your death meant something, but your life meant something even though we did not know you.
I imagine Jesus on his knees praying in the garden of Gethsemane wondering what help, what hope, might yet come but having some sense of inevitability about his situation asking of his companions: “Can you not stay awake and watch with me for even an hour?”. To those waiting in the camps it must seem as though we are asleep for surely if we knew they were sick, surely if we knew they were being hurt, surely if we knew they were hungry this would not be a situation we would let continue… I hold my goddaughter in my lap, she is just starting out at school – learning to read – I imagine her asking me in years to come when this is a social studies project at school “Where were you while this was happening? Why didn’t you do something? Why did it take so long to change?” and trying to explain how it could be that some of us, so many of us, should be “asleep”. Yes he had refugee status – that didn’t seem to make a difference. The PNG government declared the camps illegal – that didn’t seem to make a difference. The UN said aspects of Australia’s asylum seeker policies violate the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment – that didn’t seem to make a difference… What will make a difference? I overhear one woman say to another: “What people don’t understand is that to do nothing is to do something.”
We have met today on the Princes Bridge, I don’t know why. I look around while I wait for the formalities to begin and notice that all along the bridge is the Latin motto Vires Acquirit Eundo (the coat of arms of Melbourne) meaning ‘she gathers strength as she goes’ referring to the Roman goddess Fama or rumour personified. Following the speakers and a moment of silence, those holding flowers are invited to throw them from the bridge into the Yarra river and I realise my hope is that these vigils might gather strength as they go.
Those who are on their knees praying are asking us if we can be awake.
Those crying alone in the darkness are asking if we can stay awake with them.
Unbidden some of those at the vigil move out onto the road and block traffic on the bridge. They are asking us: “Are you awake?”
The next action calling for the camps to be closed, for the refugees seeking our protection to be given their mandated human rights, will be held on Sunday 9 April (Palm Sunday) – this is a question for people of all faiths and none: “Are you awake?”
Consider looking into the Love Makes A Way movement or Refugee Action Collective for other ways to be involved and further details for the Palm Sunday event as it draws closer. I’ve drawn on inspiration from many of tonight’s vigil speakers above, thanks for your voice and advocacy.