Since the origins of communication, humans have sat in a circle around fire to connect through story telling. In Australia, we are blessed to come from a land that has the oldest culture on the planet, who still to this day pass down their knowledge and culture through this very system. So it is with respect to those elders and the values of the first Australian women, that SWL members continue to learn and share through story telling and conversation, in this way, on the same land.
The SWL members-only fireside chat on September 30th was a wonderful evening of love, laughter, storytelling and as always, healing.
Anita Pahor SWL chair graciously hosted the evening at her home. An evening of flowing wine and delicious food provided for members, clad in ugg boots and slippers, sitting round a blazing fire on a cold Melbourne night.
And so the evening began, with a celebratory round up of where we are to date and of our exciting growth in numbers. First event of the evening was officially welcoming another three new members, presenting them with the honour of wearing the SWL bracelets with the red cross emblem, signifying our purpose and shared beliefs.
With wine glasses topped up, we settled into the very personal story from an Australian woman, an acclaimed chef and business owner, Jerry Mai of Annam restaurant and Pho Nom, Melbourne.
Born in Vietnam just after the war, Jerry Mai told us an emotional, powerful and often funny story of her journey and that of her family, through Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand to Australia. She spoke of refugee camps and frightening and dangerous boat trips and tense moments fraught with language barriers. Of being heavily reliant on the twists of fate and decisions of uniformed individuals, that impacted the outcome of her family’s destiny. It was a tale of bravery and we were fascinated.
It is interesting however to note that a few days before our fireside chat, Jerry voiced concerns to me and felt unsure about sharing her story. She did not wish to appear a ‘charity’ case or in anyway ‘assisted’ or ‘lucky’ or ‘saved’. Fortunately she went ahead and her courage in the telling of her story, allowed us an insight and a greater understanding, into the heart of those displaced and currently in the refugee and asylum process today. We often talk of our values supporting the Red Cross, of helping the vulnerable whomever they may be. But let us not confuse people who have found themselves in a vulnerable situation with weakness. Indeed many of those confronted with the raw face of adversity, exhibit a strength and power beyond our imaginings.
When we assist and help people, it is only because we can and indeed we should.
What we learned that night was much greater than fundraising. It was a simple story of love. When you give money or clothes or food or time, enjoy. It is a wonderful feeling to give and makes your heart happier. BUT when you give another human being love, when you stop to give them respect, when you really see that person and when you connect and identify with the similarities to yourself, that’s life changing.
And in a seamless handover our next speakers Wenda and Sophie from Australian Red Cross, spoke of that very issue. We remembered the 80’s and 90’s when the laws were different in Australia. Sophie highlighted new projects and new ways that Red Cross is implementing in a changing context - their focus always on delivering humanitarian outcomes for the people that seek asylum and safety. People like Jerry.
It really enforced the power of what we do and more importantly why we do it. SWL is essential and the impact of what we do together, united through love and the energy of that love, will effect Australia for decades to come.
On a personal note I was one of the recipients of the SWL bracelet and pin with the Red Cross emblem that night. Although I have been a member for a year, I wanted to wait to fully process what SWL stood for. Like many of us, I find the giving easy - it is the taking that is the challenge, which made me wonder exactly how I would feel and react as Jerry? Would I have spoken or would I have closed myself down to sharing with people who couldn’t possibly relate to my journey? I respected her enormously for her gracious conversation and felt that exchange of love, as we all did that night. I like to think that perhaps we healed her a little in the telling of her story and of course, she healed us right back.
I couldn’t be more proud of being part of this sisterhood and I am deeply honoured to wear my SWL bracelet with that universally recognised and respected symbol. I thought of the red cross emblem and what it represents. The international sign that means "don’t shoot". I thought of the women who have died working for that emblem and what people see and deal with everyday, those who dedicate themselves to the values of what it represents. It felt heavy and it should, but not with pressure but with gravitas.
Every time we meet, for cocktails or conferences, we take a moment. Think of those on the front line and what they feel when they wear that emblem. Think of the sisters we have funded and send them energy to face the challenges ahead. Think what it must feel like living in horror and seeing that cross arrive in your city or village or home. Take a moment to feel the solidarity of those all over the world who wear it and work for it and love it. Be proud and honoured, I am and then bring that energy with you. Our diversity is our strength but our love is our power.
I like to always pop a famous persons quote when I write, but todays quote is from Jerry and I think it is pretty special. This is for all of us, Sydney, Melbourne, Queensland and beyond.
At the end of the evening Jerry said, "Thank God for you ladies, I didn’t know this existed. To know that there are women with the financial means to help but with hearts full of love and understanding is powerful. It makes me feel hopeful, it makes me feel excited".
Words Monica Brown
Pictures Anna Ryan Photography
(Both provided pro bono)