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Political philosopher at the University of Sydney’s Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, Dr Tim Soutphommasane, led a deeply moving panel on Extraordinary Stories of Migration at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, navigating the pain and trauma of the migrant experience.

Most Australians are migrants or have been shaped by experiences of migration. As a species, we are often, either by necessity or choice, driven to motion, and our lives are unique patchworks of extraordinary stories stitched together.

On Friday morning, each panelist was a living testament to the rich diversity of migrant histories – from University of Sydney alumnus Majok Tulba, who was born in Sudan and spent eight years in refugee camps before arriving in Australia, to the Iranian Jew, Kooshyar Karimi, who was subjected to torture by Iranian intelligence services. They were joined by Pauline Nguyen, whose family fled war-torn Vietnam in 1977, and New Zealand-born Arnold Zable, who migrated to Melbourne when he was ten months old.

Sitting in the cosy loft-like space of the Bangarra Mezzanine, you got the sense that you were about to witness something special. If the soft sunlight filtering in through the windows didn’t add to the intimate atmosphere, the limited seating in the room most certainly did. It was clear that the room would not accommodate the queue that stretched along the pier outside.

Upon introducing the panelists, Dr Soutphommasane gave a brief summary of their backgrounds; the wonder and awe emanating from the audience hung in the silence of the room.

It is almost ironic, then, that Tulba, who was forced to flee his village of Pacong as a child, regarded his audience with some trepidation. “How many eyes are looking at me?” he laughed. He then waved off the nerves, saying, “I’ll survive.” And indeed, his is a story of survival. Tulba narrowly escaped the fate of child soldiers in Sudan, but even this came at the expense of a stable childhood. “I’ve lost a lot of my childhood… I’m catching up in my adulthood,” he said to a captivated audience.

There was a recurring theme of loss among the panelists. Karimi’s story was met with murmurs as he explained that growing up Jewish in Muslim-dominated Iran was fraught with enormous tension. Any association with Judaism carried the risk of being imprisoned, tortured or murdered. “I had to hide my faith, which was very precious to me,” he said. Even more perilous was his commitment to helping rape victims terminate their pregnancies. With the knowledge that he could very well be executed for his activities, he decided to help his patients, who would otherwise have been victims of honour killings.

So unimaginably potent and terrifying were the stories being told that it was hard to believe we were sitting in a room on the beautiful harbour with these survivors. Zable acknowledged the many liberties we enjoy in Australia and sitting in such an intimate space listening to his co-panelists’ stories of hardship, the sense of gratitude for his freedom is especially acute.

“There are real life stories that can’t be fictionalised, they’re so extraordinary,” he said. For him, this is the power of storytelling.

Pauline Nguyen echoed his thoughts, saying, “When you have been through so much, it’s a habit to be in the moment.” Her deeply personal memoir, Secrets of the Red Lantern, traces the history of her family and their journey to Australia. When asked whether racism affected her and her brother growing up, she paused, struggling to find the words to express her pain. “How could it not? How could it not?” she asked.

Tearing up, she recalled the challenges of “starting from scratch”, and in the case of her proud and stubborn father, having to receive handouts and facing racism in their new home. Nguyen’s poignant remembrances were uttered in a tremulous voice fighting deep emotion. There was not a sound in the room as she spoke, save for the odd sigh of sympathy and understanding.

The panel came full circle with a reflection on returning home. When asked what he missed most about his home in Sudan, Tulba paints a vivid picture of his former life. “You know, when you wake up in the morning and hear the sound of birds, I can tell the different types of birds… It was the most beautiful place I could be,” he reflected. He still has fond memories of the dusty Sudanese landscape, where huts housed villagers and even the comfort of clothes was scarce.

Perhaps that is a cue for us all to see our world in a new light.

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