AWAKE AT NIGHTWith Melissa Fleming
UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Cate Blanchett meets a Syrian refugee mother and daughter living at an informal settlement in Lebanon in May 2015. ©UNHCR/Jordi Matas
28 JUNE 2019
The Path of Compassion
28 JUNE 2019
The Path of Compassion
Cate Blanchett is one of the finest screen and stage actors of her generation. Born in Australia, she is an actor and the mother of four children. She also dedicates herself to refugees and stateless people as goodwill ambassador for UNHCR.
Describing her experience of working with UNHCR and meeting refugees as “one of the great privileges of my life”, Blanchett reflects on how it has profoundly altered her perception of human suffering and the capacity to hope.
“We can all sit late at night feeling despair,” she says. “Our hope can very, very quickly turn to despair, but there are positive things that we can all do to keep that hope alive… We’ve all got networks, we’ve all got the power of language and we all have hearts.”
+ Full Transcript
Edited transcript: Cate Blanchett
Melissa Fleming: I am so happy to welcome you to this very special episode of Awake at Night, our podcast about people who go out of their way to help refugees. I’m Melissa Fleming and I’m the spokesperson for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. Today, it is an incredible pleasure and honour to have Cate Blanchett with me, one of the finest screen and stage actors of her generation. Born in Australia, she is an Oscar-winning actor and the mother of four children. And she also dedicates herself to refugees and stateless people as goodwill ambassador for UNHCR.
Cate, Welcome to Awake at Night!
Cate Blanchett: Thank you!
MF: What made you decide to help refugees? Was there a moment or an encounter that you can remember that made you decide to take action?
CB: Well, I think you’ve said it right there. I’m the mother of four children and it’s interesting that this podcast is called “What keeps you awake at night”. I tend to do most of my thinking at night and, under the provocation of the title of this podcast, I did ask myself what keeps me awake and I think it’s the sense of the future. When I’m awake in the middle of the night I think about the future of my children, their hopes, their dreams. It’s often a time when you can free-associate and increasingly, over the last decade, what has preoccupied me is how fragile the future seems. You have to be optimistic. It’s a great act of optimism, I think, at the moment to have children when the future seems so under siege.
I started thinking about other children, other parents who had children perhaps in less privileged situations than the ones that my own children find themselves in. And being an Australian, a country that’s been very positively built in a lot of respects on immigration and the contribution of refugees, I found that the discourse around refugee children in peril was confoundingly negative. The more I investigated that and interrogated that, often in the middle of the night, the more I thought I wanted to engage. Not only the spare time and the energy that I had as a storyteller, as an actor, as someone in the public profile who perhaps has a platform on which to discuss things which are complex and nuanced – but I also wanted to engage my children in that, so that they twinned their own sense of the future with the future of children less fortunate than themselves and their hopes and dreams. So I suppose that’s a very long-winded answer to your question.
MF: You actually answered a number of questions that I was going to ask you towards the end of this podcast – like what keeps you awake at night?
CB: There are many more things that keep me awake at night. The list is long.
MF: I am sure but that is a big one. You made a decision to involve your family and particularly your children in this cause and you’ve actually travelled with two of your sons?
CB: I went with Iggy who’s now 10 on the second mission to Jordan with UNHCR. It was his birthday and we were ourselves in the process of moving from one country to the next. The other children were in school and much further advanced in their education, whereas we thought he was portable and so he came with us to Azraq and Za’atari. And it was quite a profound experience for him.
MF: Just to paint the picture, these are refugee camps, very barren in Jordan.
CB: Yes, two quite different camps in Jordan, unlike the mission we went in Lebanon, where the refugees are in an urban setting and perhaps in a way more fragile, because it’s harder for them to seek and access help. And that’s where UNHCR is so wonderful in building those bridges for them. But in Jordan you have two camps and one of them is completely barren it’s almost like a moonscape. Iggy thought we were sort of in the desert and he couldn’t believe that anyone was surviving there. And then we came across all of these tents…
The interesting thing about children and about watching him move through that experience is that the synapses haven’t connected. So there’s a kind of this trench of curiosity that still exists in children.
We had this extraordinary lunch with an extended family that had been in the camp for quite some time. They had many children and they went all out and gave everything they had to put on this extraordinary lunch for us. It was a bit like a Sunday lunch at our place, except that we were on the ground and obviously we hadn’t been to a supermarket. Looking at the desert landscape, Iggy was wondering where they had found all of the fruit, all of the vegetables and I said: “Well, this is everything they have and they’re sharing it with us.”
One of the boys was going out in the back to play soccer. And there was a 13-year-old boy, very engaged, very cheery, but he didn’t go out to play. Iggy, who is quite an inclusive, excitable young boy, said: “Well, why doesn’t he want to play? He’s the same age as his older brother?” I said that he’s got a wound in his foot and he said: “Oh, what’s wrong with it? It doesn’t matter. We can just kick and throw the ball.” I explained to him that he had shrapnel in his ankle. He said: “What, from a bullet?” And then I said: “Yes, as he was shot on their journey here.” And, the colour just drained out of his face and you could see him trying to put those pieces together. And then later on, we were out in one of the UNHCR jeeps and I could just see Iggy looking at him and trying to find a way to include him and eventually, they did end up throwing the ball around, because he just couldn’t believe that this boy couldn’t do something as simple as playing soccer and I think, that’s really… It sounds very banal, very prosaic, but it really affected him.
MF: That was the moment that he understood what it means to be a refugee?
CB: Yes, I think so. The hardships that children take it in their stride. I think, if you told him in abstract or he’d read it in a newspaper article, he would have thought about the boy being in a hospital bed, being incredibly depressed and you could see that this boy was still full of hope, still full of great good cheer. One of the most painful things to see as a parent is that children are always looking for the opportunity. They are still planning and hoping about the future in the same way that he is on a day-to-day basis. They don’t dwell on the hardship and I think that that is one of the most moving things that I found, and it really did strike a chord with him.
MF: Did that experience change Iggy?
CB: He doesn’t talk about it to me, but children never do talk about those things to their parents, it’s always when you overhear them telling somebody else. Those experiences sort of sit in the foundational aspects of their personalities, I think, and I don’t try and separate the children from those experiences. Obviously, going to Bangladesh, I didn’t take the children on that mission, because I knew I was going to encounter a lot of girls and women who had experienced great trauma: torture hardship, rape, things that perhaps you need to filter or your child needs to be older before they understand what those women have had taken away from them. But for him to experience the other children and see the profound generosity of these people, I think made him slightly more generous.
MF: Do you do you think you experience the situation differently seeing it through his eyes?
CB: Definitely. Simply by being a mother you form a greater empathetic, immediate connection to the experience of refugee mothers and what they will do, the lengths they will go to try and normalize their experience as fragile as it is for their children.
MF: In a diary entry, I think it was after that visit to Jordan or one of the visits to the Middle East, you said, “As a mother I want my children to go down the compassionate path.” Why is that important to you?
CB: I think we’re really at a fork in the road where everyone is so fed a discourse of fear, which makes us close up very quickly and I think the compassionate path is the path of solution. And so, you know, just on a daily basis with my children even when having an issue with someone who is acting out at school, I try and get them to see things from their perspective, not just from my own child’s perspective so that they can try and understand the mind of a bully or try and understand the mindset of somebody who is perhaps doing something that my own child perceives to be unjust or cruel or unfounded or unwarranted. If you try and understand someone else’s position, you can work together to find a solution. It doesn’t always work in our day-to-day lives. It’s not perfect. But the refugee experiences were being sold as the “other” experience and there’s so many points of similarity and, as a mother, I try and encourage compassion in children, particularly in boys.
MF: How about you? How has this experience of working for UNHCR, visiting with refugees, altered the way you see things?
CB: It has been one of the great privileges of my life, actually. You know, as an actor I see my role as an empathetic and compassionate one. I never look for the points of similarity to a character and myself, I am always looking for the points of difference. And it’s certainly been that way, working with UNHCR, going into the field, but also reading things that the refugees have written, whether it’s a first-person testament or whether it’s books that they have written or artwork – children’s artwork is profoundly revelatory you know. I’ve realized how important hope is and I’ve taken that into my own daily experience, so it’s been a privilege encountering those stories. I think, when you hear those stories, when you encounter the human face of the human detritus from the lack of political will that seems to be around the refugee situation and global displacement, you feel impelled to communicate that. And so I think it has altered my day-to-day experience in a very, very deep way. It’s like the sounds that a dog hears. I feel I can hear higher-pitched noises now, in terms of suffering. You learn to read behind what you read in the newspaper or online. But you also learn to read behind, perhaps, the fearful responses that people have to the stories that they’re being sold about human displacement. And I think, that’s what we have to really try and address, because behind that is fear and lack of information.
MF: I want to come back to that, but first, on the subject of hope. Were you struck that this was something that refugees retained even though they were living in really, as you described, very difficult circumstances in exile?
CB: Yes. When we were at Azraq, I encountered a young schoolteacher whose child would now be three, but then it was a month old. It was incredibly hot. It was in the desert and they’d made their tents…
MF: No trees, right, I’ve been there.
CB: No trees, nary a tree, nary a bush. You think, how do they even get water? But he and his wife had made a home out of the tent that was provided by UNHCR. He took me into a courtyard and he had planted a little tree for his daughter. He would walk for a long time every day to get enough water to feed this tree. And it was little, it was like the rose that the little prince had planted on the moon. Just the love that he was pouring into this tree. He wanted it to grow and he knew that he would probably be in the camp for quite some time. He was talking about how this tree would grow and it would shade his daughter. And it made me want to weep because I thought it was like the quintessential image of hope that a father has for his daughter, that he wanted to her play under there.
And also the way he was turning his own hopes and ambitions of being a scientist like… Marie Curie was his great sort of shining light. He wanted to be a scientist and he had an incredible mathematical mind. It’s very difficult for children to get education, obviously, when they’re displaced refugee children. You want them to have access to educational resources, so that eventually one day, when they can return as they all want to do to their homelands, they can rebuild Syria or wherever they have been displaced from. And he knew he couldn’t realize, because of his own displacement, his own desire to be a mathematical scientific genius. So he was taking every waking moment, when he wasn’t watering the plant and tending to his family, to give math lessons to girls and boys that they could keep their own minds ticking over, so that their mathematical brains could be fed. He was very conscious of the next generation not losing access to their own intelligence and their own sense of their own futures. It was a great act of hope. He wanted to concretely build those bridges.
MF: It’s not an internal thing, is it?
CB: No, it was an action.
MF: That symbolized so much hope.
CB: We can all sit late at night feeling despair, our hope can very, very quickly turn to despair, but there are positive things that we can all do to keep that hope alive like watering a plant. We’ve all got skills. We’ve all got networks, we’ve all got the power of language and we all have hearts. I think that the greatest act of hope at the moment in the world, whether you’re thinking about global displacement or the nuclear rearmament or climate change, is to keep in the minds of our children actively thinking about what can we do on a very small daily basis? What can you do with the skills you already have as a 10-year-old to do something to change the mind or challenge the prejudices that you encounter in the playground, when they’re talking about children who have fled South Sudan or the Congo or Syria? “Iggy, you have been to the field, so challenge that in the playground!”
MF: You’ve been to many refugee situations now in this role. What frustrates you most about seeing the conditions people are living?
CB: Going to Bangladesh last March in 2018, seeing the monsoon preparations that were taking place with UNHCR and their partners and the incredible generosity of the Bangladeshi government and people who have very little themselves opening their borders and then their land and a space to provide shelter to the human tsunami that was coming across from Myanmar. Just how fragile their day-to-day existence was. How with just a heavy rain everything that they’re building could be washed away in one mudslide. And then you return and you will encounter at a dinner party someone talking about how it’s all a bit too difficult to do something about it. It’s when you return home and see the hardheartedness of people. Not all people by the way.
MF: Is it hardheartedness or is it indifference or is it this kind of condition which social scientists call psychic numbing? They just feel like the problem is too big and they don’t know, what they can do.
CB: Yes, it’s the flip side of “there, but for the grace of God, go I”, isn’t it? It’s that “I’ve got to protect what I have.” I’ve realized this as a mother, when you go from having one child to two children, you think –well, I did: “Gosh, I love this first child so much, how can I possibly channel as much love into the second child”. I haven’t got any more love. But as soon as the child is born, you realize that, as soon as you experience a profound love or you do something as generous, it’s like the Grinch, your heart does grow! And you find greater reserves of love and of energy. The only way to live, and maybe it is part of the reason why I wanted to be an actor, is you are changed and you grow through encountering difference. It’s when you shut down that membrane between you and what you perceive to be different and therefore threatening, you atrophy as a person. What I love about the theatrical experience is that you open up every night to a new set of people and you’re in a conversation, not a monologue. It’s a conversation.
MF: Has this changed the way you approach theatre or your acting as an artist in any way?
CB: Yes. Well I think, you always grow through your experiences and I’ve always seen art as a provocation, where you ask questions and therefore try and open up people to ask different questions. I think we tend to ask ourselves just one or two questions that are very close to the communities and the experiences in which we live. And it’s always the things that I find the most difficult or most confronting or most repugnant or most brutal in art, that I then think about the longest. The more you think about things the more questions you begin to ask. It’s a more rich way to live.
MF: But you also created art around the refugee cause, you helped organize the reading of Jenifer Toksvig’s poem “What They Took With Them”. How can works of art like this help solve some of the big intractable problems of the world?
CB: That poem was actually read by a group of actors at the National Theatre. A lot of different voices. It’s a very, very interesting poem. And whenever we’ve read it in public, people were always really moved by it, because of its relentless rhythm and what the poem details. It’s called “What They Took With Them – A list”. And it is a list of things that people took when they fled. And it could be as simple as a toothbrush or food, a bottle for the baby or a passport.
House keys, house keys, house keys; house keys to a house that no longer exists. And in answer to your question before, I remember hearing someone say in a café, they were talking about their own iPhone and how important it was to them. They were saying how expensive they are and that these refugees have really expensive phones and if they can afford a phone like that, why should I be giving them money. And you think, well no, a phone is not just a receptacle for getting texts and using your Instagram feed. When I went to Azraq camp, there were a whole lot of people along the line of fence, young boys and girls and I thought, what are they doing? What are they looking at? Wow, this camp must be really fascinating! And I got inside and realized they were trying to get onto the Wi-Fi to use WhatsApp, because that is a way for them to stay connected to the people, their brothers, their sisters, their mothers, their children, that they don’t know…
MF: …if they’re back in Syria, or maybe have moved on somewhere.
CB: It’s a way of maintaining connection, which is so vital. But it’s also a receptacle for photographs. They’ll show you pictures of their children. You’ll be sitting with them on a dirt floor in a tent and they will show you a picture of their brother and childhood photos and you can see the longing in their face. The memory of that is so important and that memory is what keeps them going day to day. And so a phone is really important. So this poem details all of these lists and it gets people thinking “if I had to flee with maybe only 90 seconds, I can hear the bombs coming or, you know, you have to run, what would I take with me?” Sometimes it’s a headscarf, sometimes it’s a piece of jewellery, it’s a wedding ring.
MF: Have you thought about, what you would take with you?
CB: Well, apart from my children, I think it would be documents. But sometimes you don’t even have time to find those documents, because of course, we all put our documents, our identities in very, very safe places and those safe places are often hidden under floorboards or in a safe and so often what you have time to get is a child’s toy. And so you end up with something very impractical. And then, when you read an article or a blog or a tweet that talks in disparaging terms about how these refugees can’t self-resource. “Why didn’t they take their passport with them?” “How could they be so foolish as to not take their documents or why did they take their house keys?” Please think, if you had 60 seconds, you may not even be able to get your child. It breaks my heart. It just breaks my heart, the judgment. You’ve got to place yourself in those people’s experience. And it is heartbreaking!
MF: I feel it myself all the time. It’s tough listening to these stories.
CB: It is, it really is! Of course, not everyone can go to the field, but talking about what keeps you awake at night: When you’re lying in bed, allow yourself just to think about someone else’s experience and allow that to filter into your dreams and then somehow maybe in that twinning, in that imaginative dream space, as you’re falling asleep, maybe those points of connection can be made! Just allow yourself to think “if my child was on a boat”. What drives a person to get on a boat? Don’t judge that, place yourself in that impossible scenario!
I do think a lot about that Warsan Shire poem as well: “Nobody leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark” and it really does talk about what drives people to make those impossible decisions.
I was sitting in a community centre in Lebanon with a group of people who were designated community leaders, because, of course, as we were saying earlier, there are no camps there. They’re in urban settings and quite displaced. So they would identify someone to come in and talk about how important it was to register births because many children are born without papers, without documents. And so this particular meeting was held in the community centre so that they could go back to their own individual communities and say ‘Register the birth!’. It’s a difficult process in Lebanon but it’s very important so that your child has documents. So when you do return home, they have a nationality and identity and therefore access to education to medical services, because of course, when you’re stateless, when you don’t have those identities, you don’t have access to those very, very basic things. So I went round the room and asked all of these Syrian refugees, what their professions were: doctors, pharmacists, architects, lawyers, teachers – many of them were very highly educated people. And one woman, an architect who had three children, was saying: “I just wanted to flag that I won’t be here next week to follow up on this.” We asked why and she said: “Oh because I’m getting on a boat with my children to go to Greece to try and meet my husband in Sweden.” And the room fell silent and they said: “You know how dangerous that is.” And she says: “I have no choice! My children have been out of school. I have no choice!”
MF: How did you react to that?
CB: I didn’t know what to say. I think that the people from UNHCR then were speaking to her and counselling her and trying to come up with other strategies for her. But she, an educated woman, who was fully, fully aware of the risks, knew she couldn’t return, her children were in limbo and her husband was in another country on the other side of the world. And she was prepared to take that risk. Often for people who get on boats, it’s not the first point of trauma. They’ve experienced starvation. They have been shot at. They have travelled miles without any medical aid. Their children are at their wits’ end, already traumatized, when they get on the boat. These are not ill-informed, unintelligent, reckless individuals. They are doing this, because they are thinking profoundly about their children’s future. They are the people who are being washed up on the beaches. Just think about that, as you’re drifting off to sleep, you know.
MF: Maybe back to that hope, when there is no hope, where exile is only about survival. It’s just so compelling.
CB: It’s the impermanence. I see that with friends and colleagues who have had long-term unemployment. You know what happens to your pride and your sense of self and you’re being able to plan, not only for yourself, but for your family. It’s very, very hard to keep that alive and that’s akin to the refugee experiences.
MF: It’s human nature to want to just keep going.
CB: Yes, you move day to day and you can do that for weeks, you can do that for months, you can do that even for a few years. But when you have children…
MF: … limbo is a very painful place to be.
CB: It’s a very, very difficult place to be.
MF: I just want to come back to that concept you flagged, when you spoke the first stanza of Warsan Shire’s poem and that is about home. Have you thought differently about home, since you’ve started encountering refugees and heard their stories?
CB: Yes, I have. I’ve been so moved by how quickly the refugees I’ve met, will go to make any shelter feel like home. And home is so much about family, it’s not about objects, it’s actually not about a building, it’s about a spirit and it’s about a coming together of people. And then I’ve met so many refugee families who were cobbled together. A home also doesn’t exist in isolation, it exists within a community. And so it was a series of homes. And how much the refugees were helping each other. The newest influx of refugees were being scaffolded not only by UNHCR and their partners, but by the refugees who had been in the camps for several years, because they knew intimately the experience. So, it’s about the village. It was not so much about the physical environment, but about the spirit within the tent or the building or whatever it was that the home was.
MF: And very much linked to that, you’ve also taken a particular interest in people who are stateless.
CB: Yes, I met several and they all responded in quite different ways. I think it’s obviously very difficult in quite masculine cultures. And which culture isn’t masculine? Let’s face it!
MF: There are very few matriarchies in the world.
CB: But it’s very difficult for men when they’re unable to confer nationality onto their children. And frustrating for mothers, when they’re not able to, because of the cultures that they find themselves in.
MF: Which is the bigger phenomenon.
CB: Yes, of course. And it’s very frustrating, I think, for me and I suppose for a lot of people working with stateless people that it’s often just a very few simple words in the Constitution that need to be changed in order to allow a mother to confer nationality upon her children. But I met an extraordinary girl in Lebanon who was so bright, her English was extraordinary, and she wanted to be a baby doctor. I think, she might have been nine and her father had an incredible voice and he had had a disease that meant that his limbs were atrophying, so he didn’t have any legs and his arms were in peril. She was wonderful and still spoke with great hope about wanting to become a baby doctor. And she was so intelligent and she was still trying to keep up her education, was voracious about what she was reading. I was sitting in this bedroom, but really, it was just a closet with very little air. And she was stateless.
It’s very difficult as a parent when you can see a child with immense talent. And also she didn’t want to become a model or a movie star. She wanted to do something to help people. And that is so frequent actually, not only in the stateless children that I’ve met, but in refugee children generally. When you ask them what they want to be, they want to be teachers, they want to be doctors, they want to be lawyers, they want to be engineers, all professions that are about rebuilding and helping and giving back.
It’s very hard, I think, statelessness. I know, it is on children, because it’s a major impediment upon them actually forming deep roots into any culture, the temporary country that they find themselves in or into their ability to return. Because if you are stateless and don’t have an identity, don’t have papers to prove who you are, then your access to very basic life-giving services is impossible.
MF: Which most people take for granted.
CB: Yes, and of course, a lot of refugees themselves are stateless.
MF: So does the issue of or your experience with statelessness have some kind of connection for you as an actor, because statelessness does have a lot to do with identity?
CB: Yes, it does. It has everything to do with being able to prove your identity. I mean, as an actor you’re constantly trying to form a sort of a psychic as well as a concrete physical manifestation of another human being. You start with an outline and then, as you move further and further along the rehearsal process, you fill in the outline so that the person becomes a full living, breathing person that other people can truly believe in. But when you’re stateless, you don’t actually get to become anything more than an outline. So it’s very hard for the person to develop a deep, true, rich sense of themselves, when they can’t even get to first base to connect the dots. It’s a bit like those children’s drawings, when you’ve got a series of numbers, but you can’t get to number 19, let alone number 47, to complete the picture. And it’s very hard to maintain hope, when you can’t prove, who you are.
I think, it takes a great toll on a person’s spirit. As an actor, I think you’re trying to create and fill in that spirit. But as a stateless person you don’t want that to be extinguished simply because of an article in the Constitution that won’t be changed. You know, words are very important. I know that first-hand as an actor! The language around which we discuss not only the refugee issue but the words that we can simply change in our parliamentary documents, they’re very simple, but they’re very, very important.
MF: You come from Australia.
CB: I do!
MF: It’s been very much in the news related to treatment of refugees. But have you had any criticism for your decision to work on behalf and for the cause of refugees?
CB: I think when you’re in the public eye, if you step into an arena that is seen to be political, you’re told that you are working outside your pay grade or you’re not an expert. And I think as a Goodwill Ambassador, I’m certainly not an expert, but I’m a witness and I think that the hardest thing, the hardest hurdle to overcome is to completely and constantly reinforce that the global displacement crisis at its very heart is not political. It’s human. And my job is an empathetic one. It’s a human job to describe the human experience in order to evoke an empathetic reaction in an audience. I don’t see my role as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR as being any different. But, one’s contribution to that discourse can be described and sidelined and criticized as being entering into a political arena. But I don’t see that as being my job.
I’m very full of shame in my own country, when it has been so positively built. And then, the national character has always been seen to be as open and welcoming and outgoing and generous that those adjectives are perhaps less able to be used en masse for Australia’s woeful treatment of refugees and particularly offshore in the last decade.
MF: Growing up you experienced something quite different.
CB: Totally! When I was at school the brand Australia was always multiculturalism.
MF: And it wasn’t just a brand. It was actually true.
CB: Totally! And you know, it started with food. When you think of the food that my grandmother cooked – cause I grew up with my grandmother – with mashed potatoes and things boiled within an inch of their lives and then suddenly, you were eating Vietnamese food, but also prior to that, you were eating Italian food, you were eating Greek food. And so I think, it’s just on a simple day-to-day cultural level what refugees have contributed to Australia. It’s massive! There are so many different cultures in Australia. Why is it now that we’re thinking of shutting the doors and changing our national character? It’s bewildering to me.
MF: Is there anything that you’re particularly proud of that? You feel like you’ve maybe changed some minds or some attitudes or even just one person’s view?
CB: I think, I’m proudest when I hear my children speak to their friends, when they know I’m not listening. Because this is a very sideline thing to talk about. You know, how no one smokes anymore, although everyone started vaping, which is even worse. I remember, when the kids started school, there was this huge campaign in schools about how terrible smoking was for you and what the children did, is they went home and shamed their parents into stopping smoking. Just hearing the children wanting to talk about that in schools, I’m very proud that they’re trying to change their own networks. Oftentimes you can feel that you’re preaching to the converted. But I also feel buoyed up by the amount of actors, of writers, musicians, people who are dealing with, I suppose, with the fringes of our imagination. That’s where the artists work, they think about what’s coming next.
The amount of artists who have been curious about the work of UNHCR and wanting to know about my experience in the field and what can they do to help. Because I feel that unless we talk about these things, not in an agitprop way, but in whatever way feels natural to those people, then it’s going to very quickly slide off the human end of the conversation. Because the political end of the conversation is, as you say, very, very loud. And toxic! And it doesn’t need to be. There are very simple things, very simple barriers that can be broken down in whatever way feels natural for people to express that. I feel very buoyed up by the creative community who I think are quite fearless. I mean look, you have to be a moron to get up on stage and cavort in front of other people. So your skin is quite thick. But also as an artist, the membrane between your own experience and the experience of others has to be quite thin. So it’s, yeah, I’ve been very buoyed up by that, I think.
MF: So, what do you tell your friends, your family, your circles, when they ask you: “What can I do to help?”
CB: Well, first of all, I give the most enormous hug and then and I say: “What is it that bothers you most about the global displacement crisis? What is it that touches you most about the refugee experience? What is it that you’ve read lately or heard lately that has driven you to ask, what can you do to help? Because it’s when you find your own point of personal connection that you can work out what bit of the puzzle you can help put into, to complete the picture.”
I had friends in a small country town in Australia and they held this feast in the middle of a street to raise money. They had a big, big, long table. There was a whole lot of different types of foods. And so the conversation, through food of course, went to the refugee experience.
Sometimes the thing that bothers them most is a certain word that has been used. And I said: “Well next time you overhear someone saying that, you say, I just heard you say that word. What do you mean, when you say that? And ask them with a desire to genuinely know the answer.” Because often, when you want to help around an issue, our voices get really shrill. We panic that we’re going to be misunderstood. It’s as Rachel Cusk says – it’s such a brilliant line, “an argument is an emergency of self-definition”. You’re not trying to define yourself, when you’re asking someone a question or challenging their assumptions, you’re trying to work out, what is it about themselves that they’re so busy ready to define and if you break down that self-definition and work out, what they’re worried about, then you can find a group definition. So I ask people: “What’s your skill base? What are you good at?” Okay, we’ll use, what you’re good at. If your skill set is working with children, maybe you could do that. We all have a skill set, as small as it may be. Maybe you’re very good at writing or maybe you’re good at making people laugh. Laughter is a great tonic, as we all know, and there’s so much laughter, too. You sit down with refugees and you get them talking about where they came from or their own childhoods and/or their favourite baklava shop and all of a sudden, their eyes light up and you’re laughing together. So it’s not always about preaching to people.
MF: And it’s not all despair.
CB: No, it’s not all despair. And as we say, hope is really important, and it’s hope in the people who are in the privileged countries as well. You know what, if you give a little, you don’t need to be despairing that you’re going to have less, because by giving you actually receive.
MF: How do refugees react to you, when you go visit them and how do you approach them?
CB: Well, of course, like a lot of people, I initially thought: “What can I do to help?” I’m so privileged, I’m a white woman who works in the film industry, what on earth can I say to these people who have gone through such terrible journeys and torment and suffering. Then you think, my gosh, that woman’s got one earring, why is she not wearing two. I say, “That’s a really beautiful earring” and you find a very banal point of connection. And then you find out she’s lost the other earring because she had to give it away to pay someone to get across a border. You’re already into a dialogue with them. Sometimes it depends on the experience of the woman. One woman could see me walking in and we had a videographer with us and so she was very suspicious. She pointed at me and she said, “I want to talk to you!” And she said, “Why are you here, what do you want?” She was quite defensive and then I had to tell her that I was an actor and that I was here to listen and that back in my country, I was very distressed, the way her own experience and people like her, the way it was being talked about. So I really wanted to hear her story, so that I could go back and I could talk to people in my own community to tell them the real story. And then her suspicions started to dissipate and we were already in a conversation. So sometimes, it’s with trepidation and sometimes, you’re met with someone who just wants to talk. Sometimes, they see you as being a life raft, sometimes it’s simply sitting down holding somebody’s hand. The human touch is a very, it’s a very important thing.
MF: Cate, thanks so much for being with us here today and sharing your thoughts on how to make the world a better place for refugees.
MF: Thank you for listening to Awake at Night. We’ll be back soon with more incredible and inspiring stories from the field, people working to do some good in this world. To find out more about the series and to see pictures of Cate in the field do visit unhcr.org/awakeatnight/. Find us on Facebook @UNHCR and on Twitter we are @refugees and I’m @MelissarFleming. You can spread the word about the series using the hashtag #awakeatnight. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and please do take the time to review us. It helps more people find the show. Thanks to the fantastic design and studio teams here at UNHCR, and to my producers Bethany Bell, and Laura Sheeter of Chalk and Blade. The sound design was by Pascal Wyse and the original music for this podcast was written and performed by Nadine Shah – and produced by Ben Hillier.
This was the last episode of Season Two. I have been so inspired and moved by the people who have shared their stories with me – and I hope you have been, too. Thanks to them – and do join us soon for Season Three.
Cate Blanchett visits Rama, a nine-year-old stateless girl in Lebanon in May 2015. ©UNHCR/Jordi Matas
Cate Blanchett meets with young Rohingya refugees at a temporary learning centre in Kutupalong refugee settlement in Bangladesh in March 2018. ©UNHCR/Hector Perez