A letter to Quakers

Rowe Morrow, New South Wales Regional Meeting

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November 9th, 2022

 Dear Friends: 

 “I learned that I have a community larger than me, than us, seeking to have the same common future: of hope, peace and fair share!”

 I want to write to you as a tribute to your continuing a Quaker tradition of supporting refugees prompted by our testimonies of equity and peace.

 I have just returned from Mertola in Portugal where your financial support and convictions enabled eight people to begin new lives after fleeing Kabul where they were young, Shia, Hazara and peace activists – all these factors putting their lives in danger.

 There are several innovations in these projects you are supporting through various Australian Quaker funds. Some of these funds were willed to Quakers by former refugees.

 Firstly, we have been able to assist people to move in a group to freedom and this was accepted by the Portuguese government who, once you allocated the funds, and with the help of peace activists in the USA, Canada and UK, issued visas and after three months in Portugal everyone received the same rights and benefits as Portuguese citizens. This is remarkable in a world where refugees are increasingly stigmatised and rejected.

 The Mertola group resettlement of refugees, as this innovative project is called, is being widely followed by others in the global permaculture, peace and refugee support communities. And by the Portuguese government who has followed the project closely and is very pleased with its outcomes. Now the government is about to issue visas for a second group of 19 young people among them some young women at risk. This time, a regional city, Laitiara, has several organisations who combined to accept to support this next group through its first year.

Rowe with the integrated final class.

Secondly, the project has been successful because it:

  • Assured work for everyone on a land restoration project where their hosts also work.
  • Introduced the young people to others in the town by videos clip in which they spoke of their lives and needs while they were in Pakistan awaiting visas.
  • Demonstrated a clear budget which listed all the necessary items for successful resettlement from housing to psychosocial support.
  • Brought a group who would stay together, and could continue to exchange experiences and news of home, while also talking easily in their own language and feeling comforted by others who shared their experiences.

The multicultural group assessing soil samples

In 2016 and 2018 I was able teach permaculture to most of them and then maintain contact with some as they developed their own projects, so catching up in Mertola was a rich and happy experience. It was also challenging.

The young people some of whom had been 16 or 17 years old at the time are now responsible mature young adults. They worked right through a searing drought over the Portuguese summers. They learned and continue to learn Portuguese, they joined the local soccer club and childcare groups. They belong to the library. They shop locally and are known and liked by local people.  They are seriously considering their futures – making them very thoughtful.

I had several provocative conversations with Ali about being a refugee and he is profoundly grateful for the opportunities ahead of him and will profit from them and so will Portugal. (I wished Australia had been foresighted enough to see what a gift they would be for this country.)  He said, “I am fortunate now to live in a peaceful country but my country Afghanistan should be peaceful and prosperous too”. I found this truthful and sad.

 A permaculture design course was held as part of their program, and it was also attended by people from Germany, Colombia, Hong Kong, Brazil and France with the young Afghans. It was heart-gladdening to see them converse in English, participate in group activities, dance and sing together on an equal basis.

 They had matured socially and emotionally since we last met in Kabul and I could see how supporting them had also developed special qualities. As we discussed their futures, they mentioned how reaching safety and having opportunities only strengthened their desire to assist in bringing peace and hope to Afghanistan.  One comment was:

 “I learned that I have a community larger than me, than us, seeking to have the same common future: of hope, peace and fair share!”

Towards this, over the next three months they will spend one day a week together writing the first permaculture manual for Afghanistan in Dari and we have offers from others to translate it into Pashtu. This is desperately needed now. We also have the means to transmit the manual widely over phones, computers and other media in Afghanistan. 

 Other young peace activists in waiting to find countries of final settlements have assisted in writing ‘Emergency’ papers on food gardening and first aid for sending back on social media to Afghanistan.

 If ever it is safe, some would like to return as assist in rebuilding a new and brighter country. As originally peace volunteers, the experience of being refugees has not destroyed their belief that peace is of primary importance for all people and lives.

Young Afghan students learning sophisticated computer techniques for identifying contours in their village back in Afghanistan.

With the other global peace activists in the USA, and the UK, our small informal group has managed to send another family of five people to Brazil, some to Germany and Canada, and get others out of immediate danger in Kabul to a safe house in Pakistan. Unfortunately, Pakistan is now severely stretched by its floods, loss of crops and housing and is no longer a safer place than Afghanistan.

 Of the original group of peace volunteers we have contacted most of them, and supported some in Kabul in addition to those in Portugal. We hope to recommend some for Germany under their new humanitarian visas for Afghans.

Our young Afghan friends presenting their sustainable designs for homes in Kabul and for a rural village.

It was a young Portuguese woman, Eunice Neves, who knocked at the doors of her Immigration Department and put this project to them. She couldn’t see why it couldn’t be done.  It has been.

We would like to have the Mertola model of group refugee resettlement accepted in Australia as a fine working model. With Mark Isaacs, Martin Reusch of Blue Mountain Local Meeting and Dale Hess in Australia we have learned more than we ever wanted to know about humanitarian visas, flights, problems, delay and the joys of working in such a program together. Now we have been joined by Alan Clayton and Dorothy Scott.

We have developed a buddy system for being in friendly contact with people in danger and letting them know we care and are interested in their lives. The buddy system has enriched both “buddies” and developed real friendships.

Australian Quaker funding has enormously facilitated getting people to safety and to new lives. This is such a long and rewarding Quaker tradition and gives me such profound peace and trust to be one with you.

 In Peace

Rowe

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