We are living through one of the biggest refugee and displacement crisis of our time. I don’t have a lot to give so I thought I would share my stories. These are the moments that shaped me.
The Sudanese refugee camp
I was eight when I trundled through a refugee camp on the outskirts of Khartoum, Sudan. Someone had placed a child on my lap and I struggled to keep him seated. His skin was hot from the afternoon sun. He kicked and struggled at every bump of the road.
Houses lined the road. The more sturdy dwellings were made out of mud but most were constructed from food sacks decorated in United Nations blue and white.
We were given flatbread and peanut butter that had been ground in a rough mortar and pestle on the floor of the shelter. The smoky fire inside stung my eyes but I understood that it was important not to complain. I would be heading home in a few hours, keen to drink a glass bottle of cold strawberry milk. I had peanut butter that came from the supermarket in a jar. Air-conditioning. A shiny electric stove that didn’t burn my eyes.
I was here by choice. They were not.
At nine, I wanted to be a safari ranger. I had complete outfits of khaki and my t-shirt collection sported the Big Five. I dreamed of the open savannah and kept a notebook that detailed the tree house I was going to live in- I always struggled with where to put the toilet. I dreamed of going on safari in Uganda or Ethiopia, just a stone’s throw away from Sudan. Beige, sandy Khartoum was completely devoid of wild animals and vegetation of any kind.
Our driver, Abraham, was from Eritrea . How envious!
He would invite my family to his house, serving up black coffee and big chunks of bread. I would play with his daughter, who wore her hair in twisty knots on top of her head. In between big bites, words from the adult conversation going on above us would flutter down and come to rest in my growing vocabulary.
‘We walked for days’
‘We carried what we could’
I was a child. I dragged my feet when my mum called me to walk anywhere at all. I had never held a gun.
‘Did you see any giraffes?’ I said.
The house in rural Queensland
The family’s skin was darker than most. We used to giggle together at the photos we took at night. Their bright white smiles stood out from the darkness. I didn’t see their colour- I knew them for what they were: friends. And a grazed knee revealed what I had known all along.
We rattled through the empty house together located on a empty street in a quiet suburban area. The grass was a yellow and sickly. Their belongings were a mismatched collection of ‘oh, I don’t need this anymore’ and ‘this has a stain’. We ate ful from scratched plates (donated) and doughy balls with sugar.
Someone had attacked the father and he had nearly died.
But here in the empty streets of rural Queensland, no one wanted anyone dead.
That was good.
Stop the boats
The boats had been stopped. No more bodies washing up on Australian shores to scare good Aussie kids in rash vests and stripes of zinc. The sea always seemed to flip its victims face down like they were snorkelling. We were supposed to be grateful the boats had stopped- No more deaths at sea.
The boats didn’t stop. The journalists stopped.
It took me a few years to realise that.
And during that time, they started putting people into jails.
The girl and the turtle
My grey shirt and long skirt stuck to my skin with sweat. The heat in Greece was sticky and suffocating that summer. The men I was serving ate big handfuls of food like people who knew what it was like to be hungry. A single-minded concentration mingled with a sharp sense of shame. Chicken, flatbread, cucumbers and dill.
Rationed out by people who didn’t know what hunger was. Who didn’t understand that portion sizes needed to be fair. Ladled out by me who didn’t know it was a matter of life and death to ask – ‘Where are you from?. Iraqis, Afghans and Iranians all sitting side by side with hands slick from the plates of chicken. How had the people sitting before me gotten here? Overcrowded boats, long walks, leaving mothers, fathers behind. Fractured families. Sisters in Sweden. Brothers dead. Faces scrubbed clean from the saliva of a well-aimed spit from people on the street. Welcomed as criminals.
Told to go back. You’re not welcome here, rapists.
‘Do you miss Afghanistan?’ I asked.
‘Yes, but they kept dropping bombs on my house’ said the little boy. Ten years old and clutching a soccer ball.
And amongst it all, a teenage girl fed chunks of watermelon to a tiny turtle on the table. She had smuggled it in her pocket from Afghanistan. It was all that mattered to her in that moment.
She loved that turtle.
Broadcasting from Lady Cilento
The newspapers the next day reported that the protesters stormed cars carrying sick kids going to and from the hospital. They said we were frightening. A bunch of hippies.
They didn’t mention our silence. Our respect. Our peaceful, courteous way to take a stand.
The guards who escorted them were going to take the baby back to Nauru and we weren’t going to let them. I sat on the side of the road next to two African women who were refugees themselves.
I held a sign that said ‘Real Australians say Welcome’.
Welcome. Welcome. Welcome. Welcome.
That’s what my heart beat to. What my mind echoed. My mouth said.
You are so welcome. I hope you’re welcome here.
But really, you’re not.
Not one single refugee on Nauru or Manus was to be settled in Australia.
‘I lost three babies when I had to walk’ She said
How old are you?
It took me a while to notice her soft bump. A new life after the ones lost. She was wearing a dusty pink cardigan that bought out her beautiful complexion. Her name was Maryam and she was from Afghanistan but now we were sitting in a safe house in Budapest. I was only there for a day. A tourist and a spectator. She showed me her pictures. Her mum who had been left behind.
Maryam blushed when she got to the pictures of her husband; he was handsome. Her one bedroom room was up three flights of stairs and we asked to see it. Someone had painted positive slogans on the wall of the dark stairwell.
One read: ‘Nothing is impossible’.
She had to stop halfway, puffed.
Nearly 60 million people around the world were displaced from their homes because of war, conflict or persecution last year, a level not seen since World War II. We are living through one of the biggest refugee and displacement crisis of our time. I condemn and distance myself from Australia’s horrific and inhumane treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. If you do too, then here are a number of links to help-
Support a more welcoming Australia- https://www.welcometoaustralia.org.au/donate/
Providing food aid and medical help – http://www.redcross.org.au/donate.aspx
Rescuing refugees at sea- https://www.moas.eu
Doctors without borders- http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/support-us/donation-faq