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Breaking the Silence on Asylum Seekers

Without as much as a flourish, renowned author Tim Winton wrote “Keep breaking the silence” inside the jacket of his latest book and handed it to Nambour author Rob Swales. These words were the only inspiration that Rob needed to finish his book depicting his first-hand experiences of working with asylum seekers in Switzerland.

by Judy Fredriksen

Holding a lifelong philosophy to help marginalised communities because “any landscape that’s marginalised is more creative by nature; it needs to be more creative just to survive,” Rob found himself in Switzerland in 2010.

This was a serious departure from his previous life as a bank manager, when he decided his and the bank’s values failed to align. The realisation goaded him to leave the bank and study for a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Philosophy/Indigenous studies and as a natural progression, his aim was to “look for those communities that needed help or education, or access to information”.

Arriving in Switzerland as support for his ex-partner who had secured a teaching job there, Rob thought he would continue his writing career. But he was also eager to invoke his deep desire to help asylum seekers, an ambition that was easier said than done.

Then a chance email provided the catalyst he was looking for, prompting him to contact the head counsellor in an organisation called EVAM (Vaud Institutions-Home for Migrants) which was based in Crissier, a suburb of Lausanne. Rob offered to volunteer “in any capacity” and much to his delight, was accepted.

What followed was a two-year, soul-enriching journey in which he concluded, “never underestimate the joy of giving”.

A government-funded organisation, the EVAM facility usually accommodated around 420 residents who had fled from dozens of war-torn countries like Libya, Afghanistan, Iran, Eritrea and the west coast of Africa.

“EVAM provides them accommodation, a basic living allowance of about $33 a day per family member but they don’t have to pay electricity, they don’t have to pay medical, they don’t have to pay bus fares, they get a card for all of that,” explains Rob.

“So they’re given enough to survive on, and they process their claims within four months.”

After that they are either assimilated into the community, or sent back to their home country if their claim as a refugee cannot be validated.

Australia differs from Europe in its treatment of refugees because members of the European Union are bound by The Dublin Convention which came into effect in September 1997.

Under The Dublin Convention, each Swiss canton (state) has to take so many of the asylum seekers each month in accordance with the population of that state, says Rob.

Rob’s role at EVAM as a volunteer Children’s Activities Officer brought him face-to-face with refugee families, but because many of their stories were so heartbreaking, he was advised “not to become an adviser to these people or help them in any way except to support them in their day-to-day living”.

One of the positive ways he was able to support them was through a program in which he was “able to connect with the International School of Lausanne (ISL) and establish a weekly cultural/educational/sporting visit program, where students from the EVAM Crissier Asylum Seeker Centre were able to interact with ISL students and teachers.”

This allowed the refugees to experience educational facilities and help them settle into their new country, an outcome Rob found highly gratifying.

It was a proud moment when in 2019, Rob returned to EVAM for a visit to find the weekly program was still actively embraced.

Despite the horrors many of the refugees had experienced, Rob has nothing but admiration for their beautiful, loving and kind souls – in particular the Afghans.

“They’re the most beautiful people I’ve ever met. Culturally – Afghans are very creative artisans. They make pottery, they paint, they design clothes, they make beautiful garments and they’re so gentle. Especially the men.

“Every time I went to their house I was made welcome. If it was around mealtimes, I had to eat with them … although they had nothing. They would share whatever they had. They would be upset if you didn’t.”

Being an author and keen to highlight the plight of all these people, Rob decided to record their individual stories, but struggled with an appropriate ending.

And so it was thanks to the sage advice from Tim Winton that he finally completed Lubna’s Story: Breaking the Silence on Asylum Seekers!

The book covers dozens of raw and honest stories of individuals and families who have narrowly escaped soul destroying situations – most of them being predicaments that are totally unfamiliar to the average Australian because of our cultural differences.

“I think the stories are really honest stories.I know they are my experience and my interpretation. They were stories that the people told me.

“The people (and stories) that I chose for this book were people that I worked with for 18 months, 2–3 days a week on a weekly basis and got to know them and their families really well.”

For now, Rob is unsure of his next writing venture but one thing is for sure – he intends to keep breaking the silence!

Lubna’s Story is available on Amazon.