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.



REFLECT: It takes a village to raise a child

Six weeks after the complicated delivery of our first child, I had an appointment with my paediatrician. As I was leaving, he asked whether I’d started my Mothers’ Group yet, and I replied no, not yet, and to be honest, I don’t really have time for new friends. He wisely cautioned: ”Never underestimate the value and potential of your Mothers’ Group. If you’re anything like my wife, you’ll develop a lasting bond with those women. Remember, it takes a village to raise a child”.

Fast forward 10 years, and his words sound prophetic. Recently, our Mothers’ Group celebrated the combined 10th birthday of our oldest children – a date that marks not only their much-anticipated arrival into the world of double digits, but also signifies 10 years of parenting, with all its ups and downs. And also – 10 years since we all met, at our very first group session with the Maternal Health Nurse. A tentative bunch of new mothers, who happened to be living in the same little pocket of Hawthorn. 

Looking around the room on that first day, it seemed our only common link was our babies. But over the hours we spent together in those first few months, we pulled back the layers and discovered other things we had in common. Remarkably, most couples in the group had at least one partner who had immigrated to Australia. We had an English couple, an Irishman and a Welshman, a Canadian and a Russian. Perhaps this drew us closer – our reliance on each other for practical help and support, given only one set of grandparents and fewer long-term friends around.  

As far as Mothers’ Groups go, we were fairly committed. We hosted weekly meetings at each other’s houses, and regular park catch-ups. We even ventured out at night – swapping tea and coffee for wine and cocktails – and started a book club. The fathers had a pub night, or two. Often, groups dwindle when second children arrive, either because homes struggle to fit so many young children, or because parents are reluctant to host them. But we soldiered on, and relocated our growing brood to a local church playgroup.

There, we lounged on the comfy sofas – feeding our newborns, keeping a sleep-deprived eye on our toddlers, and enjoying luke-warm cups of tea with an occasional Tim Tam. We continued to discuss the issues that keep mothers awake at night – pumpkin or apple puree to begin? How to shift the post-baby weight? And last, but by no means least, sleep. So much for the expression ‘sleeping like a baby’ – we had now realised that cliché was a much-researched, sought-after achievement. Piercing daggers for the playgroup mother who smugly announced her newborn was sleeping through the night (but how do you define ‘night’? Is that 12 hours, or eight?). On we went, fingers crossed that it would be our turn next. Meanwhile, another hit of caffeine and more biscuits.

We were living our version of Groundhog Day – a fixed routine of sleeps, mealtimes, park trips and activities – and would often say, with mostly sarcasm and a touch of mirth, that we were ‘living the dream’.  Thankfully, in hindsight, our first-born babies were all healthy, without medical conditions or allergies, and met all growth and development milestones on time – and as such, it really was our privilege that we could afford to dwell on these issues, and nothing more serious. Over time, and with the arrival of more children, this would change.

Our friendships grew, and so did those of our children. We branched out and met other local families, in the parks or at playgroup. Happy days were filled with play dates and fairy costumes, hide & seek and picnics in the park, themed birthday parties and Christmas concerts. Looking back, we were absolutely living the dream, and so were our children. Our village was a happy one, a healthy one, a safe and secure one.

Our babies grew into toddlers, the toddlers became pre-schoolers, and finally they started school. School! Surely that was the hardest part done? They were all toilet-trained, dummy-free, eating raw carrot without choking and successfully putting themselves to sleep in their own beds.

Yet with school came other concerns – anxiety, bullying, friendship issues, fitting in, keeping up. The realisation that once you become a mother, you never really stop worrying, and you never truly reach your destination. Life is a journey, and each stage brings its own highs and lows, its own set of challenges and rewards. But you wouldn’t swap it for the world.

Time passed, the years rolled on. A few families moved to other areas, and one overseas. A core group remains and we continue to live our lives with, and around, each other – but differently now. Life is busier, with more time in the car, hectic schedules, work commitments, and always, the needs of our children. There are still many cups of tea and glasses of wine, plenty of laughs and a few tears, too. Our children are becoming confident, caring, capable people, and of that we should be proud.  The hours we spent worrying about sleep routines, toileting and tantrums now seem fruitless, compared with life’s bigger issues, but they were part of our story and our journey.

And so, we all came together again to celebrate our 10-year milestone. Our children have grown, but we’ve changed too – older, wiser and touched by the realities of life. In 10 years, we’ve lost beloved mothers & fathers, a sister too. We’ve grieved for a stillborn child, suffered miscarriages and the despair of infertility. Each loss is immeasurable and the pain is not far from the surface.  We’ve supported each other through life’s ups and downs, and our bond is now much more than our babies. We are richer for it, and so are our children. I understand the meaning behind the words of the paediatrician, and completely agree: I’ll be forever grateful for the bond with these mothers – and for the village that's helping to raise my children.

Written by Carmen  


REFLECT: Where is the FUN in running?

If you’re like most people, you’d probably love to lose a few kilos, tone up, increase your energy levels and have a more positive outlook on life. Sound familiar? There are so many messages out there, telling us how this can be achieved – and new diet and fitness trends keep emerging. Plus there are the ‘boomerangs’ - the not-so-new trends that have been rebranded. Ultimately, though, they all claim to provide weight loss, vitality, and an all-round healthier body & mind. Think Weight Watchers, 5:2, Liver Cleansing, Quit Sugar, Paleo… the list goes on.

And there are just as many trends in the world of fitness – at the moment, CrossFit and ‘tabatas’ are two of the buzzwords, but I’m sure you recall the days of Step Reebok and Cardiofunk? Personally, I think I’ve tried all of these diets and many fitness fads – probably achieving results. However, they were neither life changing nor sustainable. So, how is it possible to achieve the health benefits that I described above?

Let me tell you my story. About a year after I gave birth to my third baby, I decided to get back into shape – to be fitter, stronger, more toned and more energised. So I started running.  To be clear – I’d never previously been a runner. I’d had my fair share of gym memberships, but at this stage in my life, I needed flexibility: no angst about running late for classes, and minimal time spent commuting. Running seemed the best option.

So I started by attempting one lap of the Tan. Hundreds of people run this track every day. Why couldn't I? I started with 1km and then walked the rest of the lap – and I did this a couple of times a week. Then I kept adding distance. Before I knew it, I was running half a lap, then ¾ of a lap. And then, within a few weeks, I did it - I ran my first lap of the tan without stopping. The sense of personal achievement was addictive. I soon discovered that running gives you vitality. It encourages you to eat well. You’ll lose weight. You’ll have a healthier body and mind. The really good news, though, is that the results are instant. The endorphins kick in, and you’ll discover a zest for life that you knew existed, but couldn’t obtain. You’ll never tire of the sense of personal achievement.

You’re probably thinking, “Oh, but I just don't do running. I’ve never been a runner. Don't you have to be super fit to run? I'm too old to start running…” Trust me, I’ve used all these excuses and more.  Of course, some people have physical constraints and may have been advised not to run – but for most of us, the battle is purely with our mind.

So this is my advice: just give it a go. You don’t need a special skill for this sport – just like you can walk, you can run. The trick is to start with realistic goals and build your fitness. Make running part of your life and the fun will follow. It’s free, so you’ll save money. It’s outdoors, so you’re breathing in fresh air. There are no class times – so it’s easy to fit into your busy schedule. You can do it anywhere – which means that you don’t waste precious time in peak hour traffic, or looking for a car park. All in all, you’ll save time and money.  Plus, you can adjust your run depending on time restrictions and how you’re feeling:  fast, slow, flat or hills. On a running track or just your local streets. You can run alone, or with a friend, or perhaps with a group. You could run to and from work, or even in your lunchbreak. Run to music or enjoy the silence (or the sound of your heavy breathing).  And there are yet more options available: map your run, time it, or just go with the flow. No one cares – this is your personal journey.

With good eating habits and regular running, I had my pre-baby body back in no time. In fact, I’d never felt so slim, strong & healthy – even in my life before kids. With 3 kids under 5, I was time-poor and often exhausted, but I could always find time for a run. It's not a gym class that runs on a timetable, so you don’t put yourself under added pressure – one of the key benefits of exercising is to release stress, so it doesn’t make sense to create extra stress in the process.  

So as you can see, there are many clear benefits – but perhaps you’re not yet convinced about the ‘fun’ in running? Depending on your journey, it can appear in so many ways. It's fun when you…

  • Achieve a healthy mind and body
  • Make new friends from running
  • Prefer to eat healthy food as a consequence of feeling fit through running
  • Shop for clothes when you’re happy with your new body shape
  • Have the energy to keep up with your family’s demands
  • Can actively play sport with your kids
  • Inspire your children by being a healthy and fit mum
  • Participate in your first ‘fun’ run
  • Discover different parts of your local neighbourhood through running
  • Maintain running when you go on holiday
  • Run with a friend and then grab a coffee afterwards
  • Challenge yourself with your running by joining a running group
  • Complete your first 5/10km run
  • Train and complete a half marathon (or perhaps a full marathon – still on my bucket list!)
  • Run your own race

Just do it.

Written by Helen

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