INTERVIEW: How Different Are We? A Dance for Refugees

Imagine this scene. It’s a crisp, blue-sky afternoon in July. Crowds are milling around Federation Square – a mix of tourists and locals. Suddenly, the music starts, and four people in the crowd begin to dance – gradually others join them, increasing to a group of 40 or so. It’s a seemingly random act, yet it’s been choreographed and rehearsed by the dancers. To anyone watching, it’s a disparate group – a mix of ages, shapes and sizes, racial backgrounds and dancing abilities. The crowd is watching, engaged, recording the routine on their phones. Once the dance is over, the group disperses into the crowd, and people resume what they were doing.

I recently participated in this flash mob dance – my first ever. To be honest, I’m not much of a dancer, so it took some courage to sign up, especially knowing the potential reach via social media. In the end, though, I was swayed by both the purpose of the flash mob, and my inspiring friend who organized the event. Plus, my 10-year-old daughter was full of enthusiasm for the idea.

A flash mob is usually performed for art or entertainment – but in this case, it was an innovative way of communicating a serious message about the treatment of refugees. It was instigated by Melbournian Deb Hitchen, as an opportunity for Australians to think about the refugee crisis in a different way – contemplative, rather than through political slogans and messages underpinned by fear. The dance was filmed, and brief interviews were also included in the youtube clip, to add some context – then released via social media, for people to view, absorb and reflect. Although it was my first time, the event has been running for two years.

It’s always inspiring when people dream up original ways of communicating their message – but even more so when the message is a tricky one to deliver. Talking about the plight of refugees can be controversial and complicated – because there’s a range of different perspectives, based on our own experiences, beliefs and fears. We’ve become somewhat immune to news updates, television images and the regular catchphrases. Almost daily, we hear the words “asylum seekers” or “refugees” in the media – and it’s easy to tune out, to think there’s nothing that one person can do. It’s in the ‘too hard’ basket.

But for Deb, there is something that can be done – and the first step is to ask ordinary Australians to consider refugees as actual people, just like you and me: to put ourselves in their shoes. Through Deb’s work in the refugee sector, she’s met many people from refugee backgrounds, and heard first-hand their stories of struggle and survival. She also realised that their aspirations are no different to our own. In the end, the most important things in life are the health, happiness and safety of our loved ones – regardless of where you’re from.  Our core values and basic desires are aligned – hence the name of her project became: How Different Are We?

However, Deb was quick to clarify that this doesn’t mean difference is bad. “Difference is great, and we should celebrate differences between people and cultures. It’s just saying that our core needs are the same – we all want safety for our family, a doctor or medical service nearby, and a school to send our children”.

When I asked about the specific moment of inspiration, Deb described a frustrated moment on the couch: “If things went horribly wrong in Australia and we had to flee to another country, how would we hope to be treated when we arrived there? We wouldn’t expect to be greeted with indefinite detention – we’d expect to be treated with compassion and for there to be a fair and humane process for assessing our claims for asylum”.

So that was Deb’s impetus to do something – to create an opportunity for people to ‘put themselves in someone else’s shoes’. But what is particularly inspiring about Deb is the gentle, respectful way that she broached a difficult, sensitive issue.  There were no protests or placards, no more slogans. Instead, she chose the creative medium of dance – a positive and therapeutic experience for people of all backgrounds. “Dance can be very powerful. It’s a great way to celebrate, and it’s also a great leveller. It doesn’t matter where you come from, or how much money you have – people have an innate response to music and dance”.

And for Deb, there was a very personal connection, having spent many hours immersed in dance as a younger person. As further testament to Deb’s strength and selfless approach, she forged ahead with her vision of an inclusive dance, despite the fact that she can no longer dance herself, due to the lasting physical effects of a serious illness she experienced in her twenties. She was driven by compassion and by her belief that inclusiveness benefits our community in so many ways. For Deb, combining dancers from both refugee and non-refugee backgrounds expressed visually just how vibrant and positive our life could be, when we’re all integrated – when a community is open to anyone and everyone.

So although the topic is a heavy one, Deb’s approach was light and accessible. How Different Are We is about showing people an idea, loosely putting some words around it, people viewing it on social media, and then giving people space to think about the issue.

As Deb explained it, “you can talk about this issue from an economic perspective, a moral perspective, a humanitarian perspective, and whichever way you look at it, it doesn’t make sense to keep people detained indefinitely. They’re all important discussions to have. But sometimes people need to have more space to listen, to process an idea and form their own opinion”.

Throughout our conversation, Deb is respectfully insistent that she doesn’t want to speak on behalf of people from a refugee background – they have their own stories to tell, and heartbreaking stories at that. Instead of speaking on their behalf, Deb suggests: “it’s about being a concerned, compassionate citizen whose government is doing the wrong thing by these people. We’re doing something light and supportive, with a ‘gently, gently’ approach, but our message is strong: we don’t believe in indefinite detention”.

To clarify, no refugee advocate is calling for ‘no process’; however, the process should be humane, fair and quick. Furthermore, a person who arrives by boat seeking safety and asylum should be free to live in the community while their protection visa application is assessed. This works effectively in other countries. Deb feels strongly that the biggest frustration is the misinformation in the community. “Let’s be sensible about this issue, start engaging properly, constructively, rather than talking in slogans, with language that induces fear”.

One of my lasting memories from the flash mob experience was overhearing a participant speaking to Deb – a human rights lawyer who works in detention centres, where she witnesses the devastating impact on detainees. She thanked Deb sincerely for the chance to do something creative and uplifting about this issue, and described the whole experience as extremely therapeutic. And to top it off – she’d driven almost 2 hours each way, from regional Victoria, to take part in the rehearsals and performance.

If you, too, have been inspired by Deb’s vision, click on the links below to see footage of the “How Different Are We?” flash mob dance. If you’d like to hear more about similar events in the future, contact




Deb lives in Fairfield with her husband and three generous-spirited daughters. Interview by Carmen.