Ben Quilty's Afghanistan appeal will give much-needed cash injection to UNHCR

After meeting hundreds refugees during the Syrian war, Ben Quilty felt desperate to help in the current crisis in Afghanistan. Photo: supplied
After meeting hundreds refugees during the Syrian war, Ben Quilty felt desperate to help in the current crisis in Afghanistan. Photo: supplied

As artist Ben Quilty watched the scenes of terror and despair in Afghanistan in the last few weeks, he felt desperate to do something.

Having travelled to the country in 2011 as an official war artist, and then - while part of a World Vision awareness-raising trip in 2016 - met Afghani refugees in camps all over the Middle East and into Europe, he felt their distress deeply.

"I felt helpless," he said from his home in Robertson.

"I wasn't eating well ... some of my best friends are veterans, and I've seen thousands upon thousands fleeing Afghanistan through the Syria war, and I just needed to act."

So he did some research, spoke to the experts, and on Monday launched a fundraising appeal on behalf of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), who have been mandated with supplying emergency shelter, food, health, water and sanitation support and cash assistance in the country.

Late Friday it stood at almost $850,000.

"It's blown me away, the generosity of people," Mr Quilty said.

What's more, Sydney tech-billionaire and Atlassian owner Mike Cannon-Brookes and wife Annie threw their weight behind it, promising to match the funds dollar-for-dollar, up to $1 million.

Then on Friday, two more donors came on board with the same promise - private philanthropic organisation The Wilson Foundation, and Atlassian co-owner Scott Farquhar and his wife Kim Jackson.

So every $50 donated becomes $200, meaning $4 million is on the cards when the goal is reached.

"There are 550,000 people in the care of the UNHCR in Afghanistan," said Mr Quilty.

"The least we can do is support them - our collective governments have abandoned these people after 20 years over there."

Additionally, author and friend Richard Flanagan is auctioning his precious copy of The Narrow Road to the Deep North (presented to him on the night he won the Booker Prize in 2014), and fellow artist Angus McDonald is auctioning his Archibald Prize portrait of Afghan Australian anti-Islamaphobia campaigner Mariam Veiszadeh. Both will donate proceeds to the appeal.

Mr Quilty said the donation will be welcome relief to the organisation, but doesn't go far.

"I've asked how long that keeps things going and it's weeks, not months, so it looks like we'll keep (the appeal) going in the future," he said.

"We have abandoned these people, we need to stand up now - it might be months if not years that we have to support them, to provide safety and education and shelter and dignity ... people, through no fault of their own have lost everything, but the crushing bit is losing their dignity and being under a piece of canvas in a camp."

Ben Quilty and author Richard Flanagan visited Middle Eastern refugee camps with World Vision in 2016.

Ben Quilty and author Richard Flanagan visited Middle Eastern refugee camps with World Vision in 2016.

Mr Quilty compared government action in this crisis to the 1970s, when Australia accepted 60,000 Vietnamese refugees who have since become "part of the very fibre" of our society, and called on the government to allow refugees from Afghanistan to become citizens.

"Instead of keeping them on temporary humanitarian 449 visas, the least we can do is let them become Australian," he said.

Mr Quilty said that despite the pandemic lockdown, he'd been heartened to see that people were able to look beyond their own circumstances, and urged them to continue to do so, near and far.

"The response to the appeal I set up shows that people aren't just thinking about themselves, which is easy to do during lockdown," he said.

"Reach out to people, use the rules and parameters and connect with people who are on their own."

This story Ben Quilty's Afghanistan appeal on track to donate $4 million first appeared on Southern Highland News.