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Standing ovations are rare in this country.

Performers have to really earn them and rarely do performances move an Australian audience to the point where empathy surpasses apathy!

It’s not because we don’t care. It’s not because we are generally apathetic – no. It’s left over from a kind of ‘British reserve’ that is our heritage. But slowly, slowly and surely, our multi-cultural infusions have tempered this reserve.

The current situation, regarding the worst humanitarian crisis the world has ever seen, in relation to refugees, and particularly our government’s response to it in Australia, has stirred the masses to action, or in this case —to reaction.

Two speakers at TedX Canberra earned their standing ovation. They deserved it. We gave it and hopefully, this will spur them on to continue to advocate for understanding on behalf of refugees everywhere.

This was an idea certainly worth spreading!

You could have heard a pin drop in the theatre, when two Syrian refugees stood on stage at TedXCanberra on Saturday and related their human story.

Omar and Saad Al-Kassab were 17 and 14 respectively when the Syrian Civil War broke out. The motif wrapped around their story was in the form of an Arabic – English dictionary, which had been the cherished possession of their father, who had been tortured in prison by an oppressive regime, and which symbolised the hope of one day, escaping that brutal regime.

Apparently that little dictionary was instrumental in his father becoming fluent in English and the Syrian boys’ motivation to get the highest education possible. Their mother, they told us, had wanted both boys to become doctors – an aspiration all Syrian mothers have for their children apparently, the boys playfully suggested.

The pair are passionate about promoting understanding and awareness of the situation facing Syria and its citizens at a time when it matters most!

They are young and articulate (after only two years in Australia), and their speech was well-crafted and impeccably executed.

Omar didn’t become a doctor, but left that wish of his mother’s to his brother, Saad to fulfil. He gently teased his younger brother who is currently studying in Yr. 11. Saad told us he topped his class recently and we all applauded vigorously, as Omar once again interjected with “of course it was Arabic” that earned him these academic accolades.

They went on to recount their assimilation into Aussie society by relaying what they have learnt about our culture. They learnt that you should never back Collingwood (they live in Victoria), and that Saad has become proficient in “throwing a snag on the barbie on a Saturday arvo.”

We loved them. We applauded them. We left them with the knowledge that they are more than welcome into our country and the promise that we will embrace them as new Australians who we know will contribute much to our society.

After 9/11 Hunter S. Thompson said “loose lips sink ships”. I would venture to suggest as a response to this presentation, that lubricated lips liberate, empowering refugee voices who bravely speak up.

If only our politicians had been present and had felt the vibe! One of them might finally stand up and speak out on behalf of all of us, to reach out to as many refugees as we can possibly manage to assist.

Throwing further light on conflict zones, we had an engaging presentation from Eric Yager. Eric is a Marine, who has served in the US Special Forces in Afghanistan and Iraq with numerous deployments, earning him awards for valour in combat. He gave us profound insight into PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) from his own personal experiences.

This is the common mental health issue that such serving veterans experience on returning home and trying to assimilate into civilian life.

Akin to Australia’s own “Exit Wounds” story by John Cantwell, we got a glimpse of the extreme mental hardships they experience, regardless of what country they come from.

Eric was clear in his assertion that the deployments were easy; that’s what they were trained to do professionally. But coming home and keeping your family was the biggest challenge – what do you do when you are trained to respond to adrenaline-filled days and yet, at home, you become isolated, displaced and alone?

The dog he brought home from Afghanistan was on stage with Eric and his companion seemed to symbolise the connector between his life then, and his life now.

What struck a chord was when he said he didn’t hate the Taliban and the Fedayeen – that yes, they were the enemy, but were fighting for what they believed in, as much as he was fighting on the other side. He said he had respect for their bravery and commitment. He also talked about the fact that he had done things that were not fair or just (even as a child when he had been hunting for rabbits, he had told his dad he didn’t want to hunt again because the way they had killed the rabbit he thought, wasn’t fair or just.) An extraordinary glimpse (we couldn’t begin to imagine), for civilians like us, into war and how it works in the minds of the soldiers deployed to serve and protect their countries.

Eric, who lives in Canberra with his wife and two children, continues to work as an Ambassador to Australia and Asia Pacific for the Global Special Operations Forces (SOF) Foundation.

His was an idea worth spreading; what are we doing for our veterans? We must not let our veterans down (as we had with the Vietnam veterans all those years ago). We can’t expect them to fight and risk dying for us, and then let them sink into oblivion after (those who were lucky enough) have returned from duty.

From action in the fields of Uruzgan province, (Afghanistan) we heard from singer-songwriter, author and conflict zone re-constructor, Fred Smith.

Fred presented a refreshing musical performance from his album, Dust of Uruzgan, and we found out that he has written a book about his experiences in Afghanistan too. He had been sent there to support our soldiers through his work with Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The subject of two documentary films about his work in conflict zones, Fred was described by The Melbourne Age as “one of the country’s most literate, humorous, intelligent and empathetic songwriters”.

The TedXCanberra audience warmed to him, with his hilarious rendition of “Niet Swaffelen op de Dixi” – which can only be described as a hilarious romp through human relations between the Aussie and Dutch soldiers deployed there.

It left one with a warm and fuzzy feeling about multi-cultural relations in remote locations that must be so personal, so intense and so vivid in a war zone where one could live or die in an indiscriminate fateful lottery. Fred’s humour was in essence, musical mental health.

What ideas were worth spreading at this year’s TedXCanberra?

War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing!

But in reality, it’s not true. The aftermath of such devastation brings out the best in humanity. It’s reminiscent of dialogue from the movie Starman, where we heard this:

Starman: You are a strange species…Shall I tell you what I find beautiful about you?

[Shermin nods]

Starman: You are at your very best when things are worst. (Source: IMDB website)

At TedxCanberra in 2016 we saw three examples of this aspect of the human condition, through entirely different lenses.

It was supreme storytelling of the finest kind. The Syrian boys’ refugee story, the US Marine’s poignant conflict story and Fred, an Aussie’s humorous story; all gifting us with profound ideas worth spreading in true Ted fashion.

We applaud you. We admire you. We encourage you to keep spreading these ideas for a better world we all crave.

Suzanne Kiraly

Canberra Writer

Image: Artivist Ineka Voigt

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