”Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Leonard Cohen, Anthem

 Last week, as part of my journey to understand belonging, I went to see a place with a difference.

I smiled as I drove up to the school and saw Leonard Cohen quoted on the billboard: ‘’There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in’’. Anthem is Cohen’s call to us to take responsibility, to search out those people or things that help us contribute and build meaning, to acknowledge and embrace the brokenness, the cracks in ourselves and in the world around us.

As I park my car under the shade of a leopard tree and head to the office, I sense a quiet excitement in the air. The students are getting ready for their exit parade. When I say students, I mean kids. Kids from all over: kids from detention centres, refugee camps, offshore processing centres, kids who’ve been driven from their homelands by war or rape or torture or threat of death. For some their only hope was a boat of escape, a journey on foot to a neighbouring country. Many have only one parent left. Some have no one.

That is until they arrived at this school, a compassionate place of learning for refugees and migrants. The school is much more than a high school and, oddly enough, it doesn’t seemed to be overwhelmed by teenage animosity or angst. I see that right away. I feel it. It’s an oasis for children who’ve never been to school and others whose schooling was cut short. Here in Brisbane they learn to read and write, they master English, they learn how to use washing machines and computers, about sanitation and hygiene, about how things work in a western country, and about how one makes their way in this strange land of Australia. It’s a kind of settlement and learning centre.

It’s a sunny spring morning and I’m not sure what I’ll find when I’m led to Jane’s office in one of the low level school blocks. Loud rap-type music and teenagers laughing and joking and dancing is not what I expected. It’s cracked all my stereotyped ideas of what this place, whose students have seen so much horror, would be like. I realize now that I had prepared myself for an atmosphere of anxiety and anguish and anger. Instead Jane introduces me to teenagers from all over Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Afghanistan. They greet me with open-faced smiles and genuine curiosity, they look me in the eye when we meet and they call me Miss.

Jane takes me to her office with the raised sandbox she uses for art therapy in the middle of the room. A couple of books from 826 Valencia students — one of which is a collection of letters to President Barack Obama Thanks and Have Fun Running the Country — sit on top of the wooden cover of the sandbox. American author and publisher Dave Eggers, who set up the non profit 826 Valencia to help students master writing skills, gave Jane the books when he came to learn about her art therapy project a few weeks ago.

light coming through trees square photo
As I sit in Jane’s room cluttered with hope and possibility, I wonder if Dave Eggers felt what I’m feeling: did he sense the weight of words in the books and binders looking down on him from sated shelves? Did he take in the walls perfumed with drawings and pictures from her kids?  Does he remember where her desk is? I can’t picture it now but I know it must be there sitting quietly under a pile of folders and notebooks and her dedication to her students.

Jane’s room may be small, but it’s a big step up from her first art therapy trolley that she pulled around with her when she first set up the program 10 years ago. And it’s certainly bigger than the cupboard that she was later promoted to. Now, HEAL which is Home of Expressive Arts in Learning, combines art and music therapy for the students and I’m here to see how I can contribute.

Jane takes me for a casual tour under the palm trees and the eucalypts, past the ”art for relaxation” class and through the library and vegetable patches. Everyone seems to feel connected here, the atmosphere is relaxed and friendly and yet the kids are focussed in their studies. Jane greets every student by name and introduces me.

”This is a great place to continue your study of belonging,” Jane says.I have to agree with her. This is not only a great place to learn about belonging but it is also a place of great beauty: the beauty of the human spirit when it is allowed to flourish in an atmosphere of love, acceptance and compassion, the beauty of the potential we all carry inside us, and the real harmony that we can build when we are surrounded by respect of diversity.

Sure, this school isn’t perfect but it isn’t striving for perfection. To me it looks like a place where people openly acknowledge the imperfection of our world and of Australia’s refugee policies and try to move beyond that one child at a time. It’s a place where the wandering stateless find connection and belonging, where the ostracized find acceptance, where the fearful find a voice and, above all, where children are allowed to be children and teenagers can be teenagers.

Before I leave I watch the kids prepare a dance for the exit parade and others practice the lyrics they’ve written to a song with the music therapist. For some students, the exit parade marks a transition to a new high school where they can learn alongside their Australian peers. I can only hope that these refugees will be made to feel as welcome as I’ve felt here in their school but I have my doubts.

Australians today are more afraid of refugees than willing to accept them. A recent poll found 59% of people think most boat people aren’t genuine refugees and 60% want the government to ”increase the severity of treatment of asylum seekers.”  Who will these young people turn to when their confronted with the reality of living in Australia with its racism and prejudices?

As I make my way off school grounds I’m greeted by a young woman. She smiles so broadly I almost forget I’m an adult. ”Good morning Miss,” she says.

As I drive off, I think about the brokenness of belonging and how we must admit and accept our fragmented view of the world and our vulnerabilities and imperfections to find a true sense of connection.

And I think about the refugee kids at the school. There is so much I can learn from them that it makes me wonder, have I found my place of belonging?