Tales of humanity hit close to home

3 April 2018

Nicola Gray

Photo: Nicola Gray

Followed by a community of more than 110,000 people, the New Humans of Australia Facebook page has become a powerful platform for the voices of migrants and refugees who now call Australia home. UTS alumna Nicola Gray shares the story behind the stories.

One of the first people Nicola Gray interviewed for the New Humans of Australia project was Roda from Ogaden, who came to Australia as a refugee more than ten years ago.

Roda walked for weeks across Somalia with her two younger sisters, carrying one child on her back.

“It was a story that never left me,” says Gray.

“She told me about the moment when she had to decide to leave behind a family photo album she was carrying, because it was too heavy.

“They also encountered a lion, and to calm the children she told them not to worry, because the lion was a refugee, just like them.”

This is just one of the remarkable tales shared by refugees and migrants since Gray, a UTS communication graduate and writer, launched the Facebook page in 2015. The stories are in turn harrowing, triumphant and heartwarming, but all have an important lesson at their heart.

“When you meet someone, you fear them less. You see that not all people fit in to stereotypes. You feel empathy. New Humans of Australia is a way for Australians to ‘meet’ people that they might not otherwise come into contact with in their everyday lives.”

While Gray says the page is deliberately non-political, it has become a way to celebrate the diverse contributions of refugees and migrants, and to generate conversations about “who we are as Australians and what we should be doing”.

“I wanted to reach Australians who might not normally engage with a political page. I also decided to tell stories of all migrants to Australia, as I think it’s important for Australians to see that refugees are just another kind of migrant, and that actually, we are all migrants (with the exception of the Indigenous Australian people),” she says.

"When you meet someone, you fear them less. You see that not all people fit in to stereotypes. You feel empathy."

The idea for New Humans of Australia came to Gray while she was managing a college that delivered the government-funded Adult Migrant English Program. The college had a mix of migrant and refugee students from a diverse range of countries, including Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.

The role proved to be a steep learning curve for Gray.

“There was so much I needed to learn about, including the torture and trauma that many refugees experience, and also the many challenges that all non-English speaking migrants face when settling in Australia,” she says.

“I also started to hear the students’ life stories, which were eye-opening, and I realised that most fourth (or more) generation Australians, like me, had never heard these stories.”

Gray was struck by the disconnect between the people she was meeting and what she was hearing in the media. “Politicians and much of the mainstream media were creating a narrative that painted all Muslims as terrorists, which infuriated me.”

Inspired by the hugely popular Humans of New York, a photoblog with more than 15 million followers, Gray decided to start a Facebook page telling the stories of some of the migrants she knew.

The page started slowly, but when she posted about Hassan, a former Afghan refugee who fled the Taliban as a teenager in 1999, the post was shared almost 5000 times and viewed by more than a million people.

“My father was killed by the Taliban,” Hassan says in his story. “Then, one day, the Taliban came to our village and took my older brother away. The only reason they didn’t get me was because I was visiting my uncle that day.”

Hassan fled to Pakistan where he was separated from his cousin. “I have never seen him since,” he says.

From Pakistan he flew to Indonesia where he took a boat to Australia. “We spent 11 nights on the boat, and I was sick the whole time. When the Australian navy found us, they took us to the camp and gave us food and medicine, and only after that did I start to feel alive again.

“I’m so grateful to Australia for helping me, and I feel so lucky.”

Gray says the most common theme of people’s stories is “wanting to give back in some way to the country that took them in, and working very hard just to make a simple life here”.

“There are many stories of people who have used the strength they have gained from their adverse experiences to propel them forward in life.”

Visit the New Humans of Australia Facebook page.

Byline: Alex Wise