Looking through the lens of humanity

The ‘Welcome’ sign on the front door of Phil Glendenning’s home means ‘Welcome everyone, asylum seekers and refugees included.’ Phil is Director of the Edmund Rice Centre and President of the Refugee Council of Australia. Tracey Edstein met Phil ahead of his approaching visit to Newcastle.

Looking through the lens of humanity

Phil Glendenning tells a story that captures a light bulb moment: “I remember at a very early age, six children in the car, going on holidays and someone complaining about not getting the same number of biscuits as someone else. Dad stopped the car and he said, ‘Listen, I’m never going to treat you the same, because you’re all different, but I’ll treat you fairly.’ It stuck with me.”


Listening to Phil’s story, it’s clear he was always drawn to those who were not treated fairly. Some might call him an edgewalker.


He’s a former student and longtime friend of the Christian Brothers, having attended St Leo’s College at Wahroonga. “I went travelling as a young bloke and suddenly saw poverty...I thought, my God, how’s this happened?” Having completed his training, Phil taught in Marrickville where there were some 89 nationalities, and in London, where his students were refugees from Sri Lanka and eastern Europe. When one of his former teachers let him know that he was establishing a centre for homeless young offenders in Mount Druitt, Phil signed on and stayed three years. “Working with Indigenous people and refugees together, I saw the commonality and learned so much from them.”


Along the way, he realised that the questions his students’ stories posed were about international aid and development so he completed a degree in politics and development studies. This understanding, and a heart for the oppressed, equipped him to become Caritas’ national adult education and information officer. “I travelled to Latin America, Indigenous Australia, the Middle East, Asia...it was a great job but there were lots of challenges. From there I came to Edmund Rice where I still am.”


One step led to another, although there was never a blueprint. “I tell my kids I’m not sure what I’ll do when I grow up!” Opportunities presented themselves and he took them, and opportunity is one of the gifts he wishes to offer the refugees and asylum seekers who long to call Australia home. “The red thread through my story is working with people, trying to shine a bit of light in places that are shadowed by darkness.”


Phil describes Indigenous people, “the first to come and the last to arrive”, as the most excluded in Australia and he advocates daily for those at the margins. The documentary, A Well Founded Fear, which he engineered, encapsulates much of what Phil believes. A small team visited Rwanda, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and many other countries to record the stories of refugees whom the Australian government detained, rejected, then deported. “Unless we know what has happened to these people, we’ll never know if the government made the right decision to send them back.” One of the issues arising is the small number of refugees and asylum seekers Australia accepts, compared with other less wealthy nations. “In Lebanon more than a quarter of the population are refugees, 1.3 million, and 50% are children, but instead of calling in the military and having ‘operation sovereign borders’, which sounds like something Bruce Willis should be starring in, they called for their teachers and suspended the start of the school year for six weeks to run double shifts to ensure every child could go to school.”


Phil recalls, tellingly, that “after Vietnam, the numbers coming here by boat were higher than those coming now but there was a bipartisan consensus not to use the issue to scare people. You could argue Australia was a more racist, isolated, xenophobic country in the 70s, yet 2.1 million people were resettled over eight years. There’s a deliberate decision not to do that now, and that’s to be regretted.”   


Phil is scathing about the misuse of language to deceive the Australian population. “It’s a humanitarian issue that’s become an issue of border protection, and yet, when people get to the border, what do they do? They don’t ask to take it over, they actually ask for protection within it, so rather than being a threat to the border, it’s actually an endorsement of the security that exists there. And Australia’s completely out of step with the rest of the world, in saying that we want people to come in an orderly fashion. If you’re running from the Taliban, there’s no order. ”    


I ask Phil how he sustains hope in the face of legislation, letters to the editor and news reports that fuel hopelessness. He doesn’t hesitate, “It’s the people. I go to Afghanistan a couple of times a year and people say to me, that must be terrible. Well yes, there’s a war going on and it’s violent and it’s dangerous but the people are fantastic. It’s the same when you go to Aboriginal communities.


“Often we look at these issues from a prism of deficit or disorder, or as a problem to fix, but if we look at it through the lens of humanity, then these are people to get to know, and once you do that, you can’t turn back. You can’t ‘unknow’, and you can’t ‘unchoose’. I find it gives me life, whereas I see so many people in this country who allow themselves to be traduced into quiet lives of suburban disappointment. I don’t find that in Afghanistan. When you strip humanity back to its bare essentials, and that’s what happens in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iran, Iraq, in the fourth world of Aboriginal Australia, what’s left is really good, and inspirational. That’s what the Pope’s talking about, the Church being more closely connected with the poor – it’s not so the Church is there to be the saviour, it’s so the Church can hear the truth. Real life isn’t lived at the centre, it’s lived at the edges. If you go to the edges, that’s where you hear the gospel, that’s where you hear the truth of humanity.


“But fire in the belly can turn to self-immolation, so you have to stop every now and then. That’s where music comes in for me (Phil used to play in the Broken Watch Band!), that’s where football comes in (he’s a Rabbitohs fan), I’ve got a little boat to potter about on the river – and I have great holidays with the family. All these things are fundamental.”    


The tasks on Phil Glendenning’s to-do list are unlikely to be ticked soon, while Australia remains “a country that sees compassion as weakness”, but he continues to work daily so that refugees and asylum seekers might experience that fair treatment his father promised him and his siblings. 


Phil is speaking at the Assembly of Catholic Professionals lunch on 29 May. For details, please P Sean Scanlon 4979 1167. Please visit www.erc.org.au, www.novemberfilms.com.au/films/a-well-founded-fear and www.refugeecouncil.org.au.


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