When a boat carrying a group of asylum seekers is sunk by a freak wave, Faris wakes from the shipwreck in an Australia he's always dreamed of. There are kangaroos grazing under orange trees and the sky is always blue. On a nearby beach, Faris meets a group of young people who have come from far different times and places. They are also seeking refuge, and each has their own story of why they had to leave their own story of why they had to leave their country to make a new life for themselves. It is only when Faris chooses to return to 'real life' and find his father in Australia that he learns the extraordinary truth about the friends he made in the golden beach.
Listen to Jackie speak about Refuge
Inspiration behind Refuge
As a child, listening to the stories of my ancestors – we are a long-lived family and all storytellers – I was haunted by images of 60,000 years worth of small boats, facing the waves as they headed towards Australia. My ancestors, from more than seven nations and racial groups came on some of those boats, many generations past. Since that first canoe 60,000 years ago, those arrivals have made our nation.
Decades later, from a hotel room, I watched a game on the beach below. It was a simple game: each person threw the ball to someone else, while the others tried to catch it. But this game never stopped. Kids played it after school, later their places were taken by teenagers and young adults. Toddlers joined in and an old man with a walking stick. When I got up at 2 am to get a drink the shadows still played out there on the beach.
Our beaches are as iconic as Uluru. They are in the tourist brochures, the dream of Australia we give the world. But also, as a child, the beach was my refuge, staying with my grandmother in school holidays, the place I could walk for hours, where land met the sea and possibilities were endless. I sang and knew no one would hear me above the waves.
This game seemed quintessentially Australian too: people of so many diverse ages, backgrounds, races, languages, all joining in this simple game on the beach, where no one was turned away.
Our nation is strong because of our diversity. New arrivals bring a deep sense of the optimism and hope that brings them here. As a society we need hope, dreams and optimism, and this is what the newcomers bring to us.
But this was also the hardest book that I have written. It is set not just on a beach, but in the imagined Australia that each of the children brings with them. The characters in this book come from times and places that mark each major surge of migration to our country. Some backgrounds were familiar to me, but with others I needed to seek out those who had come here more recently and ask how? Why? What did you expect? What have you found?
It wasn’t easy – physically, intellectually and, especially, emotionally. But truth rarely is. Truth is rarely simple either, and I had to make this book easy enough for children to understand.
The boats have come for 60,000 years. They will keep coming, as long as there are humans and boats to sail in them.
No nation has the duty to accept all who come to their shores nor can that be done sustainably, either socially and ecologically. We do not necessarily owe those who arrive here the right to live here. But we do owe them kindness, compassion, education and medical help, to the best of our ability to provide it.
As a nation, we must know that the boats will continue to come and work out long-term, realistic, human responses, instead of hoping that somehow, sometime, it will all go away.
I wanted this book to show the reader that dreams and hope can take us to extraordinary places, even if they are not the ones that we expect. That each one of us comes from very different places and cultures but we create a nation together. That while dreams are vital, both for us personally and as a nation, it is not good to linger too long in dreams, as some of the children did on their imaginary beach, but to use them to find the strength to face reality and make the dreams come true or, more likely, let that reality change your dreams, just as your dreams can also help change the real world.
To be kind to each other. To know that one kind act may become a small wave of kindness spreading across the world.
To know that standing together—despite your differences—makes you strong.
To be able to say, when things are bad, 'I can cope with this. And tomorrow—or next year—things will be good.'
To know that as humans we all have far more that binds us together than the things that make us different. I am descended from races and religions that fought each other, tried to exterminate each other, that hated each other with passion and dedication. I wish I could tell those people that, generations later, they'd have descendants in common, who honour them all.
Perhaps just: be kind. Do what is necessary, but also be kind. Perhaps, if that is all this book can show, that will be enough.