As World Refugee Weekis celebrated amidst continuing debate around Australia's asylum seeker policies, two young refugees-turned-lawyers share their thoughts on humanity, opportunity and getting a fair go. Claire Chaffey writes
When Jose Cruz was just 8 years old, he thought the sound of gun fire and bombs exploding was normal. The fact that his neighbours were kidnapped and tortured, before being rescued and fleeing to Canada, was not particularly unusual for someone who had lived most of his life in the shadow of civil war.
But in 1987, seven years after the civil war in Central America's El Salvador began, Cruz's parents saw there was no future for them or their children in the war-torn country and made an off-shore refugee application to come to Australia. Two years later, the Cruz family was on a plane bound for Brisbane.
Kot Monoah was also just a young boy when civil war forced him and his family of eight to flee Southern Sudan for neighbouring Ethiopia. At just four years of age, Monoah had witnessed atrocities most of us will never have to face: people from his community being gunned down and dying in explosions as the National Islamic Front descended.
However, escalating conflict in Ethiopia soon forced the family to walk to Kenya - a long and treacherous journey which many did not survive, and where hazards like lions and disease were a daily reality. Like thousands of other refugees, they eventually settled in Kakuma Refugee Camp where they stayed for the next 12 years.
In 2003 Monoah's life changed when he met an immigration lawyer at Kakuma who assessed his family's application for refugee status. Not only did this lawyer find Monoah's family eligible for resettlement in Australia, he also inspired Monoah to pursue a career in law.
"When I could see that this lawyer was able to take his time and assess our case on the facts and merits on humanitarian grounds, I had a feeling that lawyers are people who want to help and who are there to help the underprivileged"
Kot Monoah, solicitor, Slater & Gordon
"When I could see that this lawyer was able to take his time and assess our case on the facts and merits on humanitarian grounds, I had a feeling that lawyers are people who want to help and who are there to help the underprivileged," he says.
"I felt that if I ever got the opportunity, the law would be a career I would look into."
In 2004, Monoah was given that opportunity and he and his family were resettled in Melbourne. Now, seven years later, Monoah is a solicitor with Slater & Gordon.
Cruz, too, became a lawyer and now works as an associate with Brisbane firm Rostron Carlyle. He says the drive to practise law is directly linked to his background.
"That push to always find justice was always in me, but it's only now that I ask myself why I am driven to do that. I think it's because I grew up in a society where justice wasn't the norm," he says.
"I felt I needed to do something with my life, because we moved from El Salvador. I was searching for something that would be a really good vehicle for me to be able to fight for good causes."
Both Cruz and Monoah have made the most of the opportunities given them in Australia and, while they are understanding of the difficult situation the government faces in dealing with the issue of asylum seekers, they urge a more understanding and empathetic approach.
"The government is entitled to have its position and policies, but whether a person is a refugee or an asylum seeker, all those people have a number of issues in their lives," says Monoah.
"They are looking for opportunities to start afresh in life. We should look at it from the point of view that if we were in those shoes, how would we want to be treated? That is the message."
Cruz has similar views and says that ordinary Australians can always do more to show the government that society will not stand for such discriminatory policies which, he says, do not reflect the wishes of the majority of Australians.
"There should be a human approach, not a legal approach. If you start from there, you might get better results. Why is it that a mother is willing to put their child into that situation? They're asking for help. Let's address it from a human point of view," he says.
"Refugees are not going away. This is going to be a part of our world. If we want to be leaders in the international community, we have to deal with this issue accordingly, and in a positive way."
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