Shira Sebban

Shira Sebban

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Living Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Have you seen the powerful documentary Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea? I was so moved by it that I wrote this article.
Please try to see this film if you can. You can actually download it or watch it online.

I cannot forget Chaman's eyes. Filled with tears, they bore into my soul as he makes his plea:

"People who are really refugees are people who have terrible troubles. Please do something for them. They are people like me. If my life weren't in danger, if my family had not been killed, I would never take the risk to come here… I never wanted this to happen. I never wanted to be a refugee. But it's just because I have no one left."

It is too late to help Chaman himself. This young and handsome Afghan disappeared while en route to Australia by boat in October 2009. The boat was never found.

Nor was that fateful trip the first time he had tried to reach Australia. Previously, he had spent more than three weeks to get as far as Ashmore Reef, only for that boat to be turned back and forced to return to Indonesia. Hamid Karzai had recently become President of Afghanistan, and believing life would now be more peaceful, Chaman had agreed to return home, only for the Taliban to take away his family's land, destroy their wealth and kill his parents and brothers.

Some would argue that he should never have got on any boat in the first place and that if asylum seekers persist in endangering their lives in that way, then it is our Government's role to deter, if not prevent them from doing so by whatever means it can. But Chaman would say that he had no choice.

His tragic story is one of many recounted by asylum seekers themselves in Between The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (, an award-winning, powerful and moving documentary conceived by Melbourne barrister and refugee advocate Jessie Taylor. In mid-2009, together with interpreter Ali Reza Sadiqi, she interviewed about 250 asylum seekers, including around 120 children and unaccompanied minors, often living in squalid conditions in jails, detention centres and hostels across Indonesia, their words and images captured by a camera on occasion illegally smuggled into prison under Taylor's headscarf.

Currently touring Australia on a road trip funded by donations, the documentary, which was produced by Taylor and filmmakers David Schmidt and Chris Kamen, will be officially screened for politicians in Parliament House in Canberra on March 18. "Come watch the film that Tony and Julia don't want you to see," the publicity urges. As Taylor explains, "the more people talk about the human beings behind this issue, the less likely it is that politicians can ignore them".

Accompanied by my children, I attended a local screening, which took place in their school hall in Sydney. By the end of the film, some of the young high school students were in tears, overcome by the images of individuals, groups of friends, or families with children, some holding asylum seeker certificates and gazing unflinchingly at the camera. We have come to know many of them during the documentary as they told their stories. Now we learn their fate as each image is stamped "drowned at sea", "missing", "in detention" or "living in Australia". Entire families lost, saved, or tragically torn apart.

Throughout the film, Taylor stresses that the people she interviewed had patiently tried to wait their turn, or as she puts it, "to stand in the queue". As she says, "they saw Indonesia as the doorstep to Australia, not so they could kick down the door, but so they could knock and wait to be let in". In other words, they had sought registration, interview and processing by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in an effort to attain refugee status and hopefully be recommended for resettlement in Australia.

The problem according to Taylor is that by 2009, the process was simply not working: "People were being resettled in Australia at a rate of between 35 and 50 people a year. The number of asylum seekers waiting for resettlement was 2500 and rising. A quick juggle of the numbers revealed that people could be waiting between 40 and 60 years for resettlement in Australia. They could be waiting a lifetime."

Obviously, some four years later, the numbers are even higher, with more than 6700 asylum seekers and over 1800 refugees registered with the UNHCR in Jakarta as of the end of January 2013 ( Without the necessary legislation and procedures in place to protect refugees, South East Asian countries like Indonesia are dependent on the UNHCR and non-government bodies such as the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to provide assistance, partly funded by the Australian Government. Yet, as Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea clearly shows, the hope of many applicants is often extinguished by the sheer chaos and squalor of the conditions within which they face a seemingly interminable wait.

In the search for a better life, some, like Chaman, are desperate enough to risk the ultimate gamble, in their need to flee war, persecution or terror. A middle-aged man tells the interviewer, as his wife sobs in the background: "I would choose to die in pursuit of freedom rather than return to die at the hands of my oppressors."

Others are motivated by a craving to belong. As one young man in the film explains: "I am 24 years old. I've never had a country. I just want to have a country. If I find a country, I will give my soul for that country."

I urge you to see this film, listen to the voices and their stories, and make up your own mind. It certainly taught my own children a hard lesson: Life is a lottery, especially for a refugee on the run, who truly lives "between the devil and the deep blue sea".

Monday, 4 February 2013

My article, "The Life In Our Years" has just been published in Online Opinion (

A friend told me recently that his fast-approaching 50th birthday would probably be his worst and that he was just going to put his head down, get through the day and move on with his life.

I can certainly sympathise – few of us like to be reminded of the passing years as we get older, especially in our youth-obsessed society where the aim seems to be at the very least to make time stand still or even go backwards. Today, we are constantly told that “50 is the new 40”, or in the case of celebrity Kelly Preston, the wife of John Travolta, “the new 25”: “I feel incredible,” the mother of three, including a two-year-old, gushed to People magazine, “You are as old as you feel and I feel like I’m 25!”

Mixed messages abound. Either we’re being reassured there is nothing to fear about turning 50 – so long as we follow the myriad of beauty, fashion, diet and exercise tips on offer – or we’re being bombarded with advice on how to cope in our 50s and 60s, decades that have been likened to the Bermuda Triangle: if you manage to pass through relatively unscathed, you’ll be fine.

To quote Huffington Post blogger Sharon Greenthal: “Don’t dwell on the things that didn’t happen, the opportunities missed, the loved ones gone, the friends at a distance. Forget the money that you’ve lost or the journey not taken.” Journalist Linda Lowen sounds an even gloomier warning: “After turning 50, nearly all of us are closer to death than birth”. Thanks Sharon and Linda, now I feel really depressed!

On the other hand, by the time we reach 50, we’re meant to be wise and experienced, with plenty of knowledge to impart to others. Indeed, ancient wisdom teaches that 40 is when we attain understanding, 50 when we can offer advice, and 60 when we finally reach seniority (Ethics of Our Fathers 5:24).

While I certainly haven’t waited to turn 50 to proffer advice to anyone who will listen, I don’t necessarily feel wiser than the next person. As Oscar Wilde pointed out, “Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes”. And I, like everyone else, have made plenty of them. Sure, life has taught me lessons I can share, but I’m often wrong and am not afraid to say so, learn from it and move on.

Some people drift through life, carried along by circumstance or, for those seemingly fortunate few, by sheer whim. Apparently content and relaxed, they don’t look as if they are stirred by guilt and give the impression, at least, of effortlessly remaining in the moment, confident about, and at peace with, who they are and what they have or haven’t achieved so far… Or perhaps they just haven’t given much thought to the big picture.

I’ve often wished that I could be more like them – surely life would be so much easier!

“Blessed” with a driven personality, I need to have a purpose almost all of the time in order to feel good about myself. I still strive to learn something new every day and am constantly motivated to succeed at whatever task I’ve set myself, analysing and questioning the value of my work.

After all, we only have relatively few short years on this earth, so am I doing the very best I can? What else should I be doing before it’s too late?

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the average retirement age for women is around 50! But as a member of the “sandwich generation”, who is still juggling the care of young children and elderly parents with work and volunteering opportunities, I’m no where near ready to retire, and at least at this stage, don’t think I ever will be … although I certainly would love more time to travel.

I suppose much of the blame for this personality trait and attitude to life can be sheeted home to my parents and grandfather, who have had such a huge influence on me. They encouraged me to strive for excellence – as distinct from perfection – and had high expectations of both themselves and those they loved, always remaining true to their principles. They taught me to be humble and ethical, encouraging me to think for myself and stand up for what I believe in.

In short, they raised me to trust I could do anything I set my mind to and urged me to find an interest in life that would sustain me. As my mother once wrote to me: “Life has a lot to offer. One must, however, know how to cherish it and to make the most of the opportunities offered.”

My grandfather put it this way: “The world becomes a universe full of puzzles and its secrets a life full of exciting curiosities, joy and deep feeling for its hidden mysteries.”

Surely then what truly matters is not how many years have passed, which after all is beyond our control, but what we do with each day, or as my friend put it, “getting on with life”.

So instead of feeling like I’m staring down the barrel of turning 50 next birthday, I’m going to try and emulate the attitude Abraham Lincoln displayed when he commented so eloquently: “And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” Now there’s a man who probably wouldn’t have turned a hair at the prospect of growing older if he’d been given the chance!

We may not always succeed, but like dwarfs standing on the shoulders of those giants who lived before us, we can strive to understand and build on the past, continuing to contribute creatively, derive meaning and purpose and hopefully help to make the world a better place for future generations.

That, after all, is our legacy.