Current Issue #488

Real Australians Say Welcome

Real Australians Say Welcome

With the viral Real Australians Say Welcome campaign, Adelaide’s Peter Drew has sparked a national asylum seeker conversation through street art.

Sometimes it’s the simplest things that can spark much-needed global conversations. Like, say, a few hundred posters, a catchy slogan and an Instagram account.

It’s these unlikely elements that Adelaide street artist Peter Drew has harnessed over the past weeks to explore our treatment of asylum seekers via his now-viral Real Australians Say Welcome campaign. Since taking off around Australia with 1000 hand-printed posters emblazoned with the Real Australians Say Welcome slogan in April, Drew has turned all sorts of heads.

He’s gained support from punks in Melbourne, refugees in Sydney and tourists in Brisbane. South Australian premier Jay Weatherill and London-based artist James Cochran have gotten behind the campaign. Drew even discussed how to reduce Australia’s fear towards Muslims over a cuppa with Grand Mufti Ibrahim Abu Mohamed.

That, he says, is the whole point behind his grand project. “I can sympathise with the fear because if you just watch the news and don’t actually have any one-on-one human contact with Islamic people, you’re going to get a pretty skewed view and it’s easy to convince yourself that you should be afraid,” the 30-year-old says. “I wanted to create projects that had a bit of sympathy for those people in the middle that are struggling. I think it’s really okay to feel fear; you don’t have to be apologetic about that. It’s how we respond to that fear, it’s the choices that we make based on that fear that decide our character as individuals and as a nation.”

Drew says Real Australians Say Welcome was inspired by the little-known lyrics of the Australian national anthem’s second verse, especially the words “with courage let us all combine”. He believes that line contains an important seed for harmonious multiculturalism, because it acknowledges that it takes courage to be welcoming to people who seem different. He is critical of the Australian Government’s hardline approach to asylum seekers and refugees, saying many are treated like criminals even if they have a valid claim to seek asylum in Australia.

“The government gets to appear tough and appeal to a part of the electorate that is essentially people who are afraid of Islam,” he says. Hoping to inspire a more compassionate approach, Drew says his project aims to appeal to and even reclaim our national identity. “Why has it gotten to the stage where nationalism is owned by bigots?” he says. “I’m sick of that and I think a lot of Australians are sick of that. I wanted to pop that bubble but also create a way for ordinary Australians who are proud of multiculturalism to feel like they could celebrate that and not feel pushed around by right-wing nationalists.”

After securing more than $8000 in crowdfunding via Pozible, Drew travelled to Sydney, Melbourne and Darwin, via Alice Springs and Katherine, on the Ghan. After briefly returning to Adelaide, he headed on to Perth and Brisbane, stopping by Pauline Hanson’s old Ipswich fish and chip shop, which, somewhat ironically, is now run by a Vietnamese couple who came to Australia 22 years ago as refugees. Drew’s been plastering up posters as he goes, both with permission and without. He even climbed onto UniSA’s roof in broad daylight without authorisation. “The whole time I was thinking, ‘This is it, if someone catches me, fair enough, what I’m doing is ridiculous’. But no, it was fine,” he says. “I wear an orange hi-vis vest, which allows you to just do whatever you want.”

The project has attracted intense media interest, even in places as far flung as Russia, especially after Lucy Feagins, editor of popular Australian blog The Design Files, encouraged artists to create their own spin-off artworks on Instagram via the hashtag #realaustralianssaywelcome. In Melbourne’s Dandenong, famed as Australia’s most multicultural suburb, Drew received an email from the council asking for details of exactly where he’d plastered up posters — so authorities could tell cleaning crews to leave them untouched.

But naturally, not everyone’s impressed. Drew was chased down a Western Sydney street by a guy who took exception to the work, has copped some online hatred and has seen some posters defaced or torn down. In Perth last month, about $3000 worth of camera equipment was stolen from his hostel locker. But Drew says he’s not letting any of that slow him down. “I knew it was going to provoke people and especially a certain group of people that consider themselves ‘real’ Australians,” he says.

Drew will finish his grand journey this month in Canberra for National Refugee Week. “I’m really hoping to get the message right in politicians’ faces, just spend that week being as obnoxious as possible to politicians, showing them how much support we’ve got,” he says. He also hopes the campaign helps immigrants to feel more welcome in Australia. “Political change is pretty hard to achieve but just making asylum seekers feel at home or less threatened is something this project can definitely achieve.”

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