The voice of the nation’s conscience

Meet Martine Valentine,  Strategist and brand new nan from Grandmothers Against the Detention of Refugee Children

People have always stood on one side of history. For some, their actions have been a catalyst for freedom – a positive force for a necessary change. But for the majority, our actions, or lack thereof, has perpetuated a difficult situation or legitimised a wrong. In the public debate surrounding asylum seekers on Nauru Island and refugees in Australia, there is little room for neutrality – not when the livelihood of children are at stake.

In Melbourne and Sydney, a group of grandmothers are standing up against the government’s treatment of refugees, and according to the advocates, the way we treat children says a lot about the condition of our nation’s soul. I shared a morning coffee with Martine Valentine, from Grandmothers Against Detention of Refugee Children (GADRC) and this is what she had to say:

How did this organisation first start? It first started in Melbourne, when a lot of women who were early educators and psychologists and they were very concerned about the long-term effects of detention on children and they knew how destructive it was to their lifelong development. They started in Melbourne, a wonderful team of women and they’ve continued to lead the whole thing and now there’s 2000 of us across Australia.

"You know your government has failed when your grandmother starts to riot."
“You know your government has failed when your grandmother starts to riot.”

The main thing we do is we try to be a visual presence on the street just to help ordinary people understand that having children locked up in detention, there’s just no need for it – it’s very destructive for children. It’s bad for us, it’s bad for our nation’s soul. Let’s face it. Ask somebody from Nazi Germany how they felt about the concentration camps. I don’t want to have to be one of those grandmothers that

I don’t want to have to be one of those grandmothers that has to explain to my grandchildren why I didn’t do something, why I didn’t stand up for the freedom of innocent people trying to flee war zones or even poverty. These people have shown to be genuine refugees and are escaping some kind of violence or torture and now we’re torturing them. We’re just dumbfounded that people can’t see how bad this is for us. Do we want to be a nation that’s not proud of ourselves?

These people have shown to be genuine refugees and are escaping some kind of violence or torture and now we’re torturing them. We’re just dumbfounded that people can’t see how bad this is for us – do we want to be a nation that’s not proud of ourselves?

Visually, the organisation caught my eye. Can you tell me about the colour purple? Purple has been a symbol for a few different things – the feminist movement for example, were the suffragette colours. As a Catholic, purple is a symbol of lent and advent so it’s quite significant to be with the suffering and joys of other people and that’s why I wear purple. I wear it proudly and I’m very proud to be a grandmother too… I spend a lot of time with my grandchildren and I guess it’s for them that I took this on.

The colour purple is a key symbol for GADRC
Martine Valentine, GADRC

What was your understanding of refugees and asylum seekers before you started?
Growing up in a country town post WW2, I was surrounded by beautiful refugees from Europe, and it was amazing how my life was enriched by them so I’ve always felt very strongly to welcome refugees and asylum seekers.

There are no longer children held in onshore detention facilities, do you consider that a ‘win’?
The reduction, we do. We claim some victory amongst many other people fighting for justice for these people. In particular we focus on the children and we’re very please with the reduction but there are still children living on Nauru, some don’t go to school because of bullying issues… Because they’re locked up, they’re seen as lesser people. Nauru is struggling itself so they don’t seem to have room in their hearts, well a lot of them, to help these people and be supportive of them.

The Nauru files has very clearly laid out sexual abuse, very bad living conditions and skin conditions because of phosphate, it was an old phosphate mine so it’s very dusty and hot… If two people have self immolated, it can’t be too good.

What is the community’s response to these allegations? One of the things we focus on is trying to end the bipartisan support of offshore immigration detention and many of us are no longer able to vote Labour because of their support of the government’s policy of offshore detention. I think it’s ludicrous to think that stopping the boats allows for torture of innocent people. I don’t think the boats are stopped for one, it’s just covered in secrecy but surely, all of these great minds in Canberra can outsmart a few third world fishermen they call people smugglers, otherwise why are we paying them the big bucks?

We’re just pleading the parliamentarians to consider the needs of the children and let them be free and bring them to Australia. They’re going to need trauma treatment.

What are some changes you hope for? We liaise with groups that are the experts on what’s happening. We get advice from them and we consider ourselves a moderate, non-threatening group. We don’t involve ourselves in civil disobedience. We realise that people trust grandmothers to do the right thing and that’s our reputation that we hold dear because with grandmothers standing up they think, maybe we should do something.

How do you keep yourself going and stop desensitising myself? Whenever I go and stand outside the skirts of QVB, I’m with other grandmothers from all walks of life. They’re all so different, some of them have PhDs in refugee issues and there are lots I can learn from them. Just being together with a group of women bonded by the similar stance for justice for children, refugees and asylum seekers is very empowering. It’s very empowering…

Grandmothers in QVB, Sydney
Grandmothers campaigning in QVB, Sydney

What reputation do you think Australia has in the eyes of the world for its policy of offshore detention? I think we’re living on borrowed time. Increasingly people are starting to sit up and notice how destructive and detrimental our policies are. I don’t think we’re winning many friends – even these countries that have serious numbers coming in don’t seem to be impressed.

We’ve basically got an empty continent, triple-A credit ratings and we’re doing pretty well yet we can’t find it in our hearts to offer even a basic number of refugees and asylum seekers and increasingly we’re going to lose respect in the eyes of other countries in the world.

Do you find there’s been a lot of support in the community? We get great support, very rarely do we get anything negative. Although Andrew Wilkie said when we were on the lawns of parliament, “there’s nothing scarier than a paddock full of grandmothers” so maybe people are a bit scared of us and that’s why they’re nice, but I don’t think so.

If you could give one message to the community, what would it be? I think the first thing that comes to mind is educate yourself. Do you realise we’ve spent $9.6 billion dollars on keeping under 2000 people locked up. It’s your taxpayer money people! We could have put them all up on at the Hilton and that would have been much more civilised and still save money!

When will you be out of business? We can’t wait till we’re out of business… when at the very least when all children are safe and out of detention facilities. When they’re being supported and compensated for the torture they’ve been through.

We certainly won’t give up. There are many other groups such as lawyers that volunteer their time and I take my hat off to them.

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