The kind of welcome the world needs

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The onboard airline announcement went on forever. Instructions in Malay, followed by an English translation – the Australian Government’s requirements for entering the country. Two forms to complete including a lengthy Travel History Card “to help us protect you, your family and other members of the community” requiring a signature “to ensure you’ve made a truthful declaration”.

The woman sitting next to me turned and said she hadn’t seen this degree of bureaucracy in all her travels. “What’s Australia coming to? This is the welcome home we get – in our own country!” she exclaimed so anyone could hear. A young man on the other side who’d spent nine weeks travelling around Europe on a Contiki tour was trying to work out whether he was expected to squeeze in 21 countries on the three rows allocated.

Contrast entering Brunei: just a one-sided transit form asking if you’d visited an Ebola country, and in Britain and Saudi Arabia: no forms, just smiles for my EU passport and “Welcomes”.

If how airports greet you is a reflection of a nation’s personality, then Britain now has it down pat, while Australia is fast undoing everything Hoges ever made happen with his ‘Come ‘n say G’day’ campaign. On first impressions, you get the feeling that Australians don’t want to put on a BBQ for anyone these days.

First impressions count. At London Heathrow, billboards featuring smiling Londoners – a police officer, a busker, a Beefeater – greet you even before you hit Duty Free, with a handwritten “Welcome” sign. They’re not selling anything other than a big friendly hello. And the country itself seems to measure up. The English are friendlier than I remember because they seem to be enjoying who they are more than they ever have. Leftovers, perhaps, from a successful Olympics and a London Mayor who seems to hit the right note of fun and civic pride.

Contrast Melbourne airport where the billboards are sponsored, selling luxury lifestyle brands, and you’re greeted by a bank of E-passport booths and customs officers (re-branded “Border Force”) who observe you from a distance. There was no “G’day” on the day I arrived back in Australia. But I did meet a Tasmanian coming home.

I hadn’t bumped into Becky Shrimpton in Tassie for a few years. Like me, she’d spent August holidaying with family and friends in England, her birth country. And she was glowing as we compared notes over a coffee in the Brunei transit lounge.

Becky had also noticed how friendly the Brits were – more so than she recalled. “I did a lot of travelling on trains in southern England,” she explained, “and on every journey the rail staff and fellow travellers were extremely helpful and friendly – not just because there was an event on.”

Later, we exchanged emails about our Arrivals experience in Melbourne.

“I always thought that 20 years ago I’d made my home in a place that prided itself on a warm welcome,” wrote Becky, “but it was quite a contrast coming back into Australia. At Melbourne airport I kept hearing less than positive conversations between staff and customers and wondered what kind of welcome this really did give visitors to Oz.

“Clearly our stance to date on refugees is not sending out a very welcoming message either. I heard lots of negative comments about this in England when I said I was from Australia. I’d never had negative comments before – saying you’re from Australia used to produce a very positive reaction.”

Home a couple of days and Australia’s attitude is the subject of a New York Times editorial: “Australia’s brutal treatment of migrants”. Thanks to a boy washed up on a Bodrum beach like driftwood, and open protest in our capital cities, Australia is now offering Syrians asylum.

Just because the former Prime Minister’s first and automatic response was to defend the nation against people escaping desperation – rather than go to their aid – shouldn’t make the rest of us appear inhumane. Regardless of whose side you’re on, it’s a relief to hear the new PM say  “there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian”.  Now time to prove it.

We know that good people doing good things rarely make the nightly news. So it’s up to us to remind ourselves of the stuff of life that pops up, gives us hope, shows that regardless of the havoc mankind wreaks on the planet, there are positive acts going on in communities.

For example, in that airport café in Brunei, Becky told me her husband Art is now Tasmania’s first appointed ‘Emergency Response Team’ member for Shelterbox. The international Rotary-affiliated organization is headquartered in Cornwall in the UK and was set up, initially as a one-off Millennium project, to help aid go directly to the people who need it in troubled areas like Nepal, Greece and Syria. Each box supplies an extended family with a tent and essential equipment while they are displaced or homeless.

Art, a former oceanographer, told me he found out about the job through an old Cornish school friend of Becky’s who’d been in touch while holidaying in Hobart last year. It turned out he was the Australian manager for Shelterbox and just happened to be looking for someone to join the organisation in Tasmania. Art put up his hand, flew to Brisbane for an assessment, and spent nine days on an intense training course in the UK.

While also working as a teacher at Tarremah School in Hobart, Art loves his role with Shelterbox. Says it’s helped people in a total of 90 different disaster areas, including residents of Dunalley who received 18 Shelterboxes during the 2013 bushfires.

“It’s hooked up with Rotary, we fundraise, and many people bequeath funds to us,” explains Art, “so we don’t have to get involved with government funding and all the associated red tape. We deal with people on the ground, through Rotary and Red Cross, where you really get to see results, fast.”

Now that’s the kind of welcome the world needs. From a group of people seeing a need and just helping.

First published in Tasweekend, September 19th, 2015

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