The Ultimate Tensile Strength

From Story Act 2, 2017

Journalist Kathleen Noonan at Yeronga State High’s Yconnect project that measures the impact of arts and cultural participation for young people.

We are counting borders. Was it four or five? I can’t keep up, looking over scribbled notes. Is that four or five countries? We are gathered in a school theatre at Yeronga State High School and, on stage, students are describing their journeys.

Don’t worry, these are actual journeys, not those things contestants on MasterChef go on from accountant to opening a dessert bar. Many of these students are refugees and these journeys involve – in some cases – thousands of kilometres, some on foot, five or six countries, fleeing murderous regimes, packed refugee camps, random gunfire, wide seas, many years, and empty promises. Some involve leaving family members behind. All involve leaving something profound behind. Like Estella: "I was born in the Congo, then moved to South Africa where life was difficult so we moved to Tanzania then to a refugee camp in Malawi where we stayed for 10 years, and then moved to Australia."

She, like others, tells her story in shorthand, quietly, quickly. It’s over in a sentence. Blink and you’ll miss it. It’s not that the story is too small. It is that it may be too huge, as if it might engulf and swamp the ship, if entirely allowed out of the bag. Listening to her is like seeing only the top 5cm tip of the summit of Everest and thinking you understand every step of the mountainous, dangerous climb. So, you need to do research.

It is not difficult to understand why anyone flees the Democratic Republic of Congo, the most dangerous place on Earth to be a woman today, where it is riskier to be a female than it is to be a soldier. In a country of more than 67 million people, 87 percent live on less than $1.45 a day. And what’s a refugee camp like in Malawi? Well, Dzaleka Refugee Camp – Malawi’s primary hosting ground for refugees – has swelled to 26,000 people, most women and children – as more cross the Malawian border in hope of escaping political insecurity. About 90 percent of food for refugees is made up of humanitarian assistance – maize, pulses, fortified vegetable oil and fortified, blended food to prevent malnutrition. With shortages, refugees are forced to adopt negative coping mechanisms, including early child marriage for girls. Consider all that, and the fact that Estella is sitting on a stage in leafy Yeronga, Brisbane, Australia, on a lovely winter’s day telling her story, is nothing short of incredible.

These students, from Sri Lanka, India, the Congo, Zambia, Iran, Vietnam, Afghanistan, you name it, have gathered to kick around the idea of resistance with Adele Rice AM, one of the most inspirational educators in the state. After 28 years at the helm of Milpera, Brisbane’s state high school for refugee and migrant students, she understands they have witnessed guilt, grief, terror and adjustment after being torn from their roots. They were encircled by history. It takes forces beyond your control – civil wars, disasters, dire poverty, ethnic hate, persecution or unrest – to take to your heels. Of this group of Years 11 and 12, aged 16 to 20, many have just one parent in Australia. Some have none. Two have babies. For a few, home life is extremely challenging with parents overwhelmed with trauma and grief.

Drama, art and creative play have been a significant part of their healing and learning. They have all been part of The YConnect project at Yeronga State High School and many students have also spent time at Milpera School, working on English literacy so that it is not an albatross in future life, and learning coping mechanisms through HEAL, Home of Expressive Arts and Learning. Formed in 2012, it exists to provide creative arts therapy to young people of refugee backgrounds through the provision of mental health services and settlement assistance. They are familiar with art, music and drama as a tool for unpacking the unspeakable. "I faced much war in my country,’" says Mary, a Tamil from civil war torn Sri Lanka. "My dad was in the war. He died when I was three months. It’s so difficult to forget my dad. I moved to many different countries to come to Australia – Sri Lanka, then to India in a refugee camp, then to Malaysia for three years, then moved to Indonesia, and came by boat. It was very hard." Somalian-born Sadia, now in Year 12, moved from country to country.

“When we crossed a border, it was hard to cross. You can see people lying there, injured and you can’t do anything.”

Some of the students recently visited QPAC's Lyric Theatre to see the latest revival of irresistible hit musical My Fair Lady. "Oh my," says Hanifah, originally from Uganda, holding the sides of her face with her hands, rocking, big eyes closed in mock ecstasy. "It was the most beautiful thing. The dresses… the stage… all of it." Wouldn’t George Bernard Shaw be bemused to see his 1913 Pygmalion story on which the 1956 musical was based, travel 100 years – leapfrogging countries, class divides, language gaps?

On paper, it shouldn’t. It’s the tale of a cockney flower girl and a phonetics professor, forgawksake, so not immediately refugee-relevant material. Yet, it is a tale of a vulnerable human being plucked from a precarious life and parachuted into a foreign world, struggling with the language and culture, while fighting for identity. All while trying to learn to speak English perfectly. They left the theatre alongside the Brisbane River singing "The Rain in Spain".

As the students onstage explore the idea of resistance, I am doing the arrogant thing journalists do – pen poised – believing if I just find the right words to sum up their complex collective history, I will somehow be able to nail it to the page, like a scientist pins a collected butterfly specimen. Foolishly striving to shoehorn something unruly and messy into a neat box, I write down a bunch of words – resist, combat, counter, oppose, defy, refrain, desist, struggle, fight, bear, battle, counteract, refuse, repel, stonewall, thwart. (Hmm, those daily crosswords have come in handy.) In scientific terms, resistance is 'the capacity to withstand the effects of a harmful physical agent'. Yet that doesn’t quite encompass what’s on display. Until I realise… we are watching young people capable of absolute adaptability. It’s a survival tactic honed in high school, as well as hostile countries. Let’s stay close to this kind of strength for a while. It’s not a rigid unbending resistance but the exact opposite: rigid suggests inflexible and therefore prone to breaking under pressure. These students have revealed – in all their different ways – a durability, a tensile strength, expanded and shrinking when they had to, to survive – every camp, every country, every move, every home, every school, and every new language. Morphing, shape-shifting. It’s a hell of a stunt. 

Like Remi, now in Year 11, from the strife-ravaged Congo. "There was hunger and danger in my life, shooting. I could pretty much hear the shooting. On the way here, I was pretty terrified. I have been here nine years and have got used to it. I’m not scared anymore." So, patience also is a form of action. I scribble 'ultimate tensile strength', in my notebook, underline it. From an engineering mate, I know scientists conduct experiments to test for it involving two vices applying tension to, say, a metal beam by stretching it to breaking point, testing its capacity to withstand load. A thing’s ultimate tensile strength is its resistance to being pulled apart. Then, ideally, at some point with the pressure off, the object can return to its original shape and size, without too much distortion or hardening. That’s the big trick: without distortion or hardening. Looking at these students – laughing, warm and quietly articulate – it’s clear they have more ultimate tensile strength than the Sydney Harbour Bridge. What a nation-building resource they are.

The action switches to a drama game. Professor Judith McLean, Scholar in Residence at QPAC, is directing students as Meriam acts out navigating her way to where she wants to go – university. A little play is, first and foremost, a blueprint. So, if their form of resistance is a kind of tensile strength, then drama and arts, surely, is non-destructive testing. It’s taking the deadly grenade apart without any danger of it going off in someone’s face. Quiet and slim as a reed, Meriam, originally from Somalia, aspires to go to university to become a social worker but knows she will face considerable hurdles – at home, financially, academic demands. There is laughter as unexpected words spill out, solutions to challenges found. "Drama helps me a lot," says Meriam.

“Before I used to be scared to talk to Australian people and I only talked to people like my cousins. Since drama, I feel much better talking to others. You share ideas.’’

Komi is keen to talk. His deep, corduroy voice fills the theatre. His parents were born in the small troubled nation of Togo in Africa, then moved to Ghana where he was born. He topped his lessons from Year 1-6 in Africa but on arriving in Australia – with no English – struggled. "I used to have anger issues,"’ he says. "But having to be around a lot more people in drama helped me in different ways to handle rage building up. Having different people to talk to when something is triggered… does help me in terms of handling anger." He experienced bullying in primary school. "I was short fused. A lot of the time I’d react to something that’s not worth reacting to… Now I love the arts – performing and creative arts." Robert Dessaix, one of Australian’s finest writers and broadcasters writes in his latest book The Pleasures of Leisure, "When we play we are most intensely ourselves. Your chosen play or leisure is not what you have to do or are expected to do. It is what you choose to do. It is what sets you apart from our sister, brother, parents, because it is yours. It is utterly you. The essence of exactly who you are". Could it be that these students’ ultimate resistance is holding on – in all circumstances – to what is essentially themselves without distortion or hardening, despite everything. Existence can be resistance but living a good life, flourishing with moments of joy, is surely resistance in full flight.

Can we talk about resistance without referring to the subversive everyday work of love and hope, in the face of random casual racism on the street? All that ‘fitting in’ can be exhausting. And being in a safe country and welcoming school does not mean all pressure simply falls away. There is the push-pull of a new culture versus your old culture, and of course, what all students complain about in high school: parental expectations. Out of school, Komi loves computer gaming, sports and playing drums. He is thoughtful and articulate. "You could be a diplomat" a teacher says. His father wants him to pursue engineering or architecture. How is the maths? "It is laughable, Miss!"

Female refugee students often must negotiate rockier shoals. Imagine as a bright young woman, even contemplating pursuing university and a career when your family and cultural inheritance has only marriage and babies planned for you. Try even harbouring that radical thought. Whispering that three-letter word: uni. That’s outlaw territory. That’s rebel thinking. Among this group is Masoumeh, a UN refugee from Afghanistan, who received serious burns to her body in a fire that killed her father and brother. Her hands were so severely burnt, she needed 30 operations at Brisbane’s Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital. For much of her young life, she has been at the whim of world events and terrible circumstances. Quiet for most of the session, now Masoumeh takes the microphone. “Drama has helped me with my confidence. I’m now comfortable talking to other people.’’ The most rebellious act can be sharing words. Masoumeh aspires to be not an actor but a theatre director, the person who oversees and orchestrates the staging of a play. The head honcho, in charge of the destiny of the whole damn thing. Of course she does. The bell rings. They pick up their gear and wander back to class

YConnect project is a research partnership between Griffith University and Yeronga State High School.
It measures the impact of arts and cultural participation for young people.


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Kathleen Noonan

Kathleen Noonan is a journalist and columnist who has reported in South Africa, the UK and Australia for more than three decades. Her weekly column, 'Last Word/, has appeared in Saturday’s The Courier-Mail for 14 years. She has a longstanding interest in what makes society fair. Raised on a sugarcane farm in North Queensland, Kathleen did her early news reporting in the Mackay district. After working in South Africa through the dying years of apartheid and the transition to democracy, she returned to Australia, working as a senior features writer with various newspapers and magazines. Kathleen is chair of Second Chance, the only charity in Australia that raises money exclusively for homeless women, which also supports at-risk women and children in domestic violence shelters.