A Tribute To Michele Harris OAM
by Dr Lionel Bopage 4 June 2015
I met Michele in January 1991 for the first time, when I came to assume duties at the Patents Office in Canberra. At the time, The Torture Rehabilitation and Network Services ACT, which was renamed Companion House in Year 2000, was located at the Griffin Centre in Civic. A mutual friend, Marina Prasad, introduced me to Michele as a Sri Lankan in exile, who sought political asylum while working in Japan. Michele and I had a little chat about the work they do and I had an instant attachment to the cause. Since then, I had a very close association with TRANSACT until I left Canberra in 2004 and Michele had become a very close family friend of ours.
As the Executive Director of TRANSACT, Michele was whole heartedly dedicated to providing services to rehabilitate and resettle survivors of torture and trauma, who had arrived in Canberra from the four corners of the globe. With the able guidance of Digby Habel, Michele was the major influence that enabled TRANSACT to represent torture and trauma survivors from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds as a single affected community. Under her guidance TRANSACT programs continued to expand incorporating children’s programs, medical programs, and the training of health professionals.
Michele worked tirelessly to make the Australian legislators, bureaucrats and the ordinary people aware of the nature and the intent of torture that sadly is a world-wide occurrence. She insisted that torture was used to instil fear into communities as a means of imposing social and political control. We used every opportunity to show case the fact that the Australian community would find it hard to really appreciate what it is like to have been subjected to torture and abuse, to have undergone physical and psychological injury at the hands of torturers, and to have lost family members through civil wars, internal strife and ethnic and religious conflicts.
Michele took the initiative of launching many publications to assist the development of an integrated service to assist the survivors of torture and trauma through community involvement. To an extent, this helped health professionals and the general community to better understand the problems faced by those affected by torture and trauma and to develop better ways to respond to their needs. Michele’s services were sought after for advice from the upcoming mental health organisations that were coming up in the Philippines and Bougainville in the PNG.
In 1999, Michele was awarded Order of Australia Medal in recognition of the extraordinary contribution she was making to the affected community through TRANSACT. At the end of 1999, Michele left TRANSACT to solely concentrate on the Kosovo safe haven program based in Wodonga, Victoria. At a time when funding was pretty uncertain, she led the path for establishing the Bandiana Camp in Victoria to continue to provide torture/trauma services to the Kosovars, who had been deeply stressed by their experiences and also by the possibility of being sent back to Kosovo.
Michele went out of the way to assist those who were in real need. All those who came to her for assistance considered her a saviour. When Michele retired, she had left behind an asylum seeker community which was far better off than it would otherwise have been. I was fortunate to have such a close association with Michele, who had been truly dedicated and committed to the provision of services to those who were in genuine need of assistance. To all and sundry she was kind and gracious.
When Michele was seriously ill, she temporarily settled down in Melbourne to seek medical treatment for her vulnerable conditions. Being ill, had not stopped her struggle for justice. Michele continued to play a leadership role with the group ‘concerned Australians’ emphasising the need for the governments to directly engage with local leaders and Elders of the Indigenous communities for their advice. She advocated that planning for the future of Aboriginals from Canberra will never be successful. Michele argued that good decision-making will grow out of local knowledge, respect, and cooperation with our first citizens. This will only be possible when Australia is able to value differences, to rejoice in the cultures and languages of the land, and to recognise that it is the role of good government to restore the rights over, and control of, their land to Aboriginal people. Michele wanted Australia to return to the Paul Keating’s Redfern speech to remind the role that had been played in the gross violation and dispossession of Australia’s Aboriginal peoples. She demanded us as individuals, communities and as a nation to engage appropriately and fairly with Aboriginal people.
Michele also extended her moral support to the activities of Friends for Peace in Sri Lanka, conducted in Canberra. She appreciated the role the diaspora could play in promoting peace in Sri Lanka across the ethnic divide based on a deep commitment to human rights.
I take this opportunity to salute her for her unwavering dedication and commitment to fairness and social justice for all communities. I also take this opportunity to offer our condolences to Michele’s family and friends. We will miss her so very much.
May she achieve peace according to her beliefs!
Your energy, passion, idealism and practical experience in the human rights arena will be sorely missed. On a personal level, we will miss your great friendship and wise counsel.
Good bye dear friend!
Article published with kind permission of the author.^ TOP