Joy Connor (BMRSG), Clavenda Bockarie, Katrina Middlebrook (Winmalee High School Principal ), Guy Power (BMRSG),  Nick Craig (Winmalee High School Captain), Henry Hutchinson (Winmalee High Vice Captain) 

By Kim Shaddick

Sierra Leonian refugee Clavenda Bockarie spoke to Winmalee High School students at their school assembly on Tuesday 4th June. Ms. Bockarie fled Sierra Leone, a country in West Africa, during the country’s bloody civil war. Throughout this time many journalists were harrassed, detained or murdered for reporting unfavourably about the government of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah. In 1998, when Ms. Bockarie was three years old her mother, broadcast journalist Olivia Mensah, was arrested and imprisoned as an enemy of the state. Eventually Ms. Bockarie, her siblings and her mother escaped and reached asylum inAustralia via a refugee camp in Ghana. 

In introducing Ms. Bockarie, Guy Power from the Blue Mountains Refugee Support Network described how his organisation ‘helps refugees in concrete and valuable ways, working with the values of justice and compassion’.

Mr. Power encouraged the students of Winmalee High to think about how to understand and welcome refugees arriving by boat, reminding them that the second verse of the national anthem says that for ‘those who’ve come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share’. 

‘We do have a lot of land to share’, Mr. Power said. ‘But it’s more important to make people feel welcome in our actions and deeds’.

Ms. Bockarie has now been in Australia for 12 years and she shared her story with the students at Winmalee High School

‘My Mum was only doing her job to expose the truth but the president didn’t like it’ said Ms. Bockarie. 

‘We watched as soldiers took her away and we didn’t hear from her at all for almost ten years’.

Ms. Bockarie and her siblings lived through the height of the civil war in Sierra Leone. 

‘It was not easy to see lot’s of things happening, especially bad things to young children. I saw dead bodies, children being shot. It’s something no child should ever have to go through’, she said. 

At the time the only think Ms. Bockarie wanted was a peaceful night’s sleep where she didn’t fear being shot or ‘woken up by the sound of bullets’.

After being reunited with her mother in the Ghanian refugee camp and settling in Australia, Ms. Bockarie relished the freedom and safety of her new country. 

‘In Sierra Leone, we are bound by culture and family and we don’t have the freedom to make our own decisions’, she said.

‘I love Australia and I am very grateful to grow up as a young adult here’ said Ms. Bockarie.

‘But one of the difficulties that I always face in my life here is the colour of my skin. It’s wherever I go, people judge my skin rather than me as a person and it shouldn’t be like that. We are all human beings’.

Ms Bockarie concluded her remarks by reinforcing the notion that refugees don’t come to Australia seeking trouble.

‘When we come here, we come for peace’, she said. ‘We are seeking peace, freedom and we want to learn about your culture’.

Winmalee High students warmly applauded Ms. Bockarie. 

School Principal, Katrina Middlebrook acknowledged Ms. Bockarie’s bravery in speaking at the assembly and contrasted her experience to that of the students at the assembly.

‘Our kids don’t understand the freedom they have to speak without consequence’, she said. ‘They can disagree with the government of the day yet have no concept that you could suddenly dissappear when you tell the truth’.

For Mr. Power the benefit to the student’s watching Ms. Bockaries testimony was invaluable.

‘When you see someone it actually happened to, it’s very powerful’, he said. 

Ms. Bockarie’s mother’s story of survival and her journey back to West Africa to reunify a fractured family is part of a documentary series on SBS, Destination Australia, that explores the lives of some of Australia’s refugees. 

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