What would you do if you and your children no longer had a future to live for?
For a long time, I didn’t understand or engage in the ‘boat people’ debate. After watching factual programs like Go Back to Where You Came From on SBS, I realised that parents, no matter what country they came from, will do anything to keep their children safe. Here, one refugee mother and her now 21-year-old daughter recount for us their passage to Australia.
Where were you both born?
Mum: Kabul, Afghanistan
What was your childhood like?
Mum: I went to school and played with my siblings. Family life is of the greatest importance in Afghan culture. It’s usual for our extended families to remain together for life. When women become mothers, they are highly respected and all the generations support each other in day-to-day life.
From which country did you flee and how old were your children?
Mum: We fled from Afghanistan when I was 26 years old. My husband and I had three small children: our five-year-old son, three-year-old daughter and a baby in my arms.
Why did you want to leave your home country?
Mum: There aren’t many reasons people would leave their country, life and family. All our lives were threatened. There was a war, bombs were dropping everywhere, you couldn’t sleep at night, food was scarce – life was becoming terrible. We were very afraid for our family.
How long did the journey take you, from leaving Kabul to arriving in Australia?
Mum: Two years. I didn’t know the language of all the countries we went through, so it was lonely. I missed my extended family and couldn’t speak with them. It was always uncertain about where we could go and how safe we would be.
What were the hardest parts about that journey?
Mum: We had to live in some really bad places – we slept on the floor of old, bombed hotels. We couldn’t celebrate a lot of the important milestones in my children’s lives – my daughter turned three when we were leaving Afghanistan, and I remembered it was her birthday while we were escaping in a van.
Why did you choose Australia to live?
Mum: Australia was the only place that would accept us. We were sent from the airport to the detention centre for over a year. The children’s dad was in there for many more years.
How did you feel when you were placed in detention?
Mum: When we arrived, it was dark and we didn’t know where we were. In the morning, my children went out to walk and they came back and told me, “There’s no way out, it’s all fences.” I took my baby girl and went out to look for myself and at that point it was mostly confusion. I spoke to some of the ladies there and they said they were there for years. I was shocked and completely speechless – I couldn’t answer my children when they asked, “Why are we in here?” Day by day, it became harder to feel positive about our future.
Daughter: I just wanted to get out; it was confusing and scary. We were separated from my dad, who missed out on seeing us grow up. It was a never-ending form of mental torture for him.
What was life like for you day-to-day in detention?
Mum: There wasn’t much I could do – we weren’t allowed to cook, so I washed the clothes, cleaned the one bedroom apartment and took care of the three children. We tried to be patient and dignified, despite the conditions and hardship. Back then (unlike now) there weren’t any beatings or that sort of violence. Usually when people protested or went on hunger strikes, the guards would handcuff them and take them away. We were hoping that by cooperating, and working with legal and immigration people respectfully, our papers would be processed smoothly.
Daughter: I went to a makeshift playgroup where I learned a little English and played games for an hour or two. I mostly played with my brother or stayed in our apartment. Sometimes there would be a protest, a hunger strike, or outside protestors clashing with police. We were forcibly taken away from my mother once, I’m not sure why, but they took us away against my mum’s wishes for a day or two. We were with strangers and I had to take care of my baby sister. A happier memory was a group of Muslim visitors who we didn’t know who asked for my measurements and made me a dress for Eid (our celebration), and I loved it so much that I still have it. Once we left the centre, about a year later, the rest of my childhood was spent in a sort of limbo, visiting my dad in the centre one day a week after school and constantly going to the lawyers.
How did you feel when you were allowed to leave detention?
Mum: I was happy and confused at the same time – why was I allowed to leave, but their dad had to stay? What would I do when I got out, how would I support my children, where would we live? I had no family support, I couldn’t speak English very well and didn’t know what the customs in Australian society were. In my culture, the husband/father is the person that provides for the family, but my husband was kept in detention for a very long time, so I had to be mother and father to my children.
Daughter: I felt happy, but scared because they made a deal where only my mum and siblings were allowed out. My dad just kept saying goodbye and pushing us to go. It was meant to be a happy moment I suppose, but really I felt happier when, on my first day of high school, my dad was finally let out.
How has being detained affected you and how have you dealt with this since being released?
Mum: It made me depressed in a way, I felt lonely because I had no one to talk to about what was going on and how I felt. While in detention, it got so bad I didn’t want to leave the apartment – I got sick and just stayed there. The doctor would come to check on me, but could do nothing. It was tough after being released, it’s not something you can get over, and it takes a lot of time. What does help are quiet times and places where I can relax, as well as talking to my family overseas.
Daughter: It affected my sister when she was older and saw her friends with their dads, she didn’t understand why she couldn’t be with her dad too. For me, it meant being behind in school when I got out of detention. I’m not sure to what extent the violence and protests affected me, but I have avoided going to any protests because of what I saw in detention. In some ways, this experience has made me mature faster than others my age – I had to help my mum with translation and forms throughout primary school, took care of my siblings and at times cooked for them when my mum had to go to the lawyers or to court for my dad.
What were your hopes and dreams for your life in Australia?
Mum: A good future for my children, for them to study and get a good job. I didn’t really want anything for myself.
Have those hopes and dreams been realised?
Mum: Yes, my children have been able to study and have a good childhood – hopefully they will get good jobs.
Daughter: I graduated from university this year and have just been accepted into medical school. While I was at uni, I realised that being a refugee has its disadvantages – my peers were much better off and had previous knowledge and family support with studying and getting a job.
What is life like for you now?
Mum: I’ve worked very hard to learn English and study for my childcare diploma. I have learned about the customs in Australia. I’m proud of my children – they are strong, work hard and they look after their parents and each other.
Do you feel Australians understand and empathise with the journey and motivations of refugees?
Mum: Some of them yes, some of them not so much.
Daughter: I can’t generalise the Australian community, there are those who do understand and who work to help refugees, and there are those who don’t understand and who inevitably look down upon refugees.
Do you feel supported and valued in Australia?
Mum: Some people do support me and make me feel valued, but I don’t feel like this from Australia as a whole.
Daughter: I know complete strangers gave my mum help when we came here, and I am always thankful for them. As a child growing up with a refugee status, I never felt alienated, but I never felt supported either. I don’t want pity, I would rather people ask me questions so they can learn about detention centres and refugees, then perhaps educate another person or join a group who help refugees.
Do you have or desire Australian citizenship?
Mum: Yes, I have Australian citizenship – I wanted it for the certainty, to know they will not revoke our visa and kick us out one day, so my children and I can be active citizens and call somewhere home.
A Volunteer’s Story
About 16 years ago, I became very concerned about the community hype and anger at the arrival of asylum seekers to Australia. I wanted to visit the local detention centre to verify stories about their conditions. On one of my first visits, I met the husband/father of the family interviewed above and was drawn to his dignity and the uncertainty he was experiencing about their future. Together with several other visitors, I offered to link up with his family and provide practical support. The family were coping, but life was difficult and stressful. The volunteers often felt helpless in the face of tremendous bureaucratic processes, legal hurdles, endless delays and repeated knock backs. The family’s citizenship ceremony and their eventual reunification with their husband and father are standout memories. I am proud to see how their lives have settled, though that is not to say things are easy. The parents have had to accept that their lives are forever changed, but their children are well on their way to contributing to their adoptive country, which they now call home.
Want to Help?
If you can spare an hour to share a skill from cooking, knitting or speaking English to entertaining toddlers or just hanging out, Women Empowering Refugee Women welcomes your help at refugee playgroups at Parramatta and Lakemba in Sydney, go to Women Empowering Refugee Women
To boost social and learning opportunities and relieve anxiety of children in detention, become a pen pal. Befriend a Child in Detention will put your letters, colouring pages, puzzles and mazes in the pages of hundreds of books donated by a group of Melbourne publishers, one for every child in detention, more at Befriend A Child In Detention
This article appeared as Stolen Lives in the November 2015 issue of CHILD Mags