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Saturday, 20 June 2020
Virtual Ceremony
Her Excellency Margaret Beazley AC QC, Governor of New South Wales

A humane society not only looks after others, it acknowledges those who strive to make lives better. 

I welcome you to the 12th annual NSW Humanitarian Awards Ceremony.

In Refugee Week, with this year’s theme ‘Year of Welcome’, it is poignant that we celebrate this year’s awards online, rather than here at Government House, due to the constraints of COVID -19. We are mindful that the COVID-19 environment also presents difficulties for members of the refugee and asylum seeker communities and those who assist them.

As many of you know, my background is in the law.  Lawyers like words.  They are their tools of trade.  But as Geoffrey Robertson QC said in an interview at last year’s 2nd Australia and New Zealand International Refugee Trauma in Recovery Conference:[1]

“I’m a lawyer so I’m good with words, but words are not important when you are in a refugee camp.”[2]

Nonetheless, who can forget Behrouz Boochani’s powerful words, smuggled out of Manus Island digitally through WhatsApp: “Waiting is a mechanism of torture used in the dungeon of time.”[3]

Both of those statements, evocative of the everyday reality for 30 million refugees and more than 40 million forcibly displaced persons around the world is the reason why STARTTS exists and underscores the significance of these Awards across 10 categories.

They not only recognise the work that is done in our community for refugees and asylum-seekers, they also provide a public space for storytelling, a space where the truth and the impact of inhumane treatment can be exposed. 

As importantly, they provide the backdrop to how we, as a humane society, not only hold up a sign which says ‘Welcome’; they tell the stories of what we, as a society, can do to make people welcome in our country of opportunity.   

As Professor Shergold has said: “our proud record in refugee settlement is a story worth telling.”[4]

Last year in NSW we welcomed almost 6500 people from over 30 countries, settled as part of Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program - approximately one third of all people accepted under this program nationally.  And I would like to use this occasion to formally welcome each and every one of our new people.

The richness our refugee community brings to our society is immeasurable. But their capacity to thrive is not automatic. Indeed, there must be times when rather than having escaped to a life of stability and prosperity, let alone a life where they can their meet basic needs, they must feel they are clinging to a rockface.  

What we do know is that when basic needs, such as income, housing, language, education and health are supported, refugee community participation and employment is high across all sectors, including the arts, science, agriculture, media, education, sport and business. 

STARTTS - and other similarly minded organisations, as well the NSW Government - are integral to making this possible – in the cities and increasingly, the ‘Welcome’ sign is out in our regional towns. STARTTS itself has offices in Armidale, Newcastle, Wagga Wagga, Coffs Harbour and Wollongong.

To turn the theme of ‘Welcome’ slightly on its head, for the people of New South Wales, this year could not have started in a less welcoming way.

The New Year was heralded in by bushfires.  During that time, Arif,a member of the NSW Hazara community from Afghanistan, walked the streets of western Sydney to raise money for the Rural Fire Service.

When interviewed, he said: “I’m helping the bushfire appeal because I know what it’s like to lose everything.”[5]

I met Arif at a conference.  Arif understood the devastation of fire where people lost everything they had – but for him it was Taliban fire – bullets, guns and suicide attacks.

Generous acts of support from people who had gone through so much in their own countries were repeated across New South Wales communities.

The bushfires were only one example of refugees volunteering, contributing and giving back to the community, professionally and personally - participants in the society to which they belong.

This year, our 2020 NSW Australian of the Year is Professor Munjed Al Muderis, a surgeon and human rights advocate, who fled Saddam Hussein’s regime of terror by boat, was detained on Christmas Island, had to requalify in Australia and is now an orthopaedic surgeon in Sydney and in Iraq.

In reflecting upon our community, our State’s history of migration and refugee settlement, and - for the most part - our successful refugee resettlement program, we come to this Awards ceremony in celebration of refugees as valued members of our community.

This Awards ceremony brings to our attention the outstanding work of STARTTS, the Refugee Council of Australia, support agencies, and members of our community, who ‘facilitate the healing process of survivors of torture and refugee trauma.’[6]

As we approach World Refugee Day, I am honoured to recognise the Award recipients as they assist others to re-build their lives in New South Wales. Those refugees, in turn, reward us with their contributions to the community.

On behalf of the people of New South Wales, and personally, thank you to each nominee and to each winner of this year’s Awards

[1] 27-29 March 2019, Brisbane

[2]Refugees in Transition magazine, published by STARTTS, August 2019, Interview with Karen Collier in:

[3] Behrouz Boochani, No Friend But The Mountains (Pan Macmillan-Picador)

[4] NSW Coordinator General for Refugee Resettlement and Chancellor, Western Sydney University: - page 1

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