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Monday, 25 June 2018
Page: 6267

Mr BOWEN (McMahon) (12:07): It is right and proper that this parliament recognises the events of this great humanitarian crisis inflicted upon the Armenian people and others at this time—and I congratulate the member for North Sydney and the member for Hunter for ensuring that we do so. Of course, it's particularly important to recognise the humanitarian efforts of Australians, which were, perhaps, the beginnings of those links of friendship and comradeship between the Australian people and Armenian and Assyrian people and all those affected by those terrible, terrible events.

Australian soldiers had a chance during World War I to interact with the Armenian people in particular. Many Australian soldiers who were taken prisoner were billeted in the former homes of Armenians—that is, Armenians had been expelled from their homes, and their homes had been ransacked, pillaged and, in many senses, almost destroyed, and Australians were put up in them. One Australian solider, Thomas Walter White, described the scene he witnessed. He said:

A number of Armenian women and children of all ages sat outside the church on bundles of clothing. They looked very sad and miserable, and little wonder, for their menfolk had been killed, their houses and furniture confiscated and now they were being turned into the street from their last possible sanctuary.

Of course, those Australian solders were particularly keen to be generous in providing any support they could when they saw what was happening to the Armenian, Assyrian and Pontic Greek people.

There are many great people named in the motion. In particular, I want to mention Stanley Savige—I've met his descendants at commemorations, and they are very proud of Sir Stanley—an Australian Army soldier who served in the First World War and the Second World War. In 1918, Lieutenant General Savige served in the campaign in which he was instrumental in protecting thousands of Assyrian refugees in particular. Following the capture of Urmia, Savige discovered tens of thousands of fleeing Assyrian refugees. He deployed a small group of volunteers from his own force, along with the refugees, to form a rearguard to hold back the Persians and Kurds in this great conflagration.

I know other members will have covered the matter of the Armenians, but I want to make particular reference to the suffering of Assyrians at this time. The Assyrian people, the native Christians of Iraq, Syria and Iran, obviously feel these events very closely today. It is considered that 750,000 people died, with hundreds of villages burned and churches destroyed. The Assyrians have a word for these events, 'Seyfo'. I've been to the Seyfo commemorations on many occasions. The Seyfo covers not only these terrible events but also the 1933 massacre of Assyrians at Simele by Iraqi government forces, in which 3,000 Assyrians were killed. Seyfo means a lot to the Assyrian people because it was one of the starkest examples of generations of suffering the Assyrian people have encountered.

The week before last I visited Iraq. I had lunch with His Holiness the Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East in Erbil. I met with many other leaders, including the Chaldean patriarch in Baghdad. I will report to the House separately on my visit to Iraq. It was important for me to see the state of minorities in Iraq as we speak, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Yazidis and others. Our work is not yet done. As we focus on tomorrow and on the oppressed people of Iraq and providing refuge to so many thousands—as we have done and should continue to do—we should also recognise the importance of historical events, which this motion does.

The average Australian in 1918 would not have heard of Armenians or Assyrians or Pontic Greeks. The average Assyrian or Armenian probably would not have been able to tell you where Australia was. Yet these bonds of friendship were created at that time. I think that, in some ways, it's why we provided such refuge—particularly to Assyrians but also to Armenians and all people affected—so many years later, in the 1980s and 1990s. Even today, my electorate office deals regularly, on a daily basis, with assisting more refugees being settled in Australia. I welcome them myself sometimes at morning teas after their arrival from the terrible devastation of Syria or Mosul in Iraq.

There are few greater pleasures I have as a member of parliament than holding those morning teas, welcoming those refuges. I do so in recognition of the longstanding support that Australia has given to the people affected by these terrible events: the gut reaction, the on-the-ground immediate reaction of the Australian soldiers, which was followed up by charity efforts afterwards at home. I commend the motion to the House. (Time expired)