What was the time around the invasion like? Did it happen quite quickly for your family? I mean did your life change overnight kind of thing during that time, or was it a slower process?
It was probably a bit of both. There were lots of rumours and talk. See news wasn’t the way it is today and there was absolutely no social media. We didn’t have access to internet. And news channels were only state news channels. So they were all controlled by the party. We couldn’t really tell what was happening and how big the invasion was going to be, there was a lot of political rhetoric. On the local news we were seeing, “Iraq is very strong, this invasion will never happen. We have a strong leader who’s not going to let us die.”
We did anticipate it but not to the same extent that eventuated. And you can also say that things also did change overnight. I found myself in an environment like bombings and fighting, hearing gunshots, and going outside and seeing the damage or seeing soldiers on the street. So it was definitely a big change. Not being able to go to school, not having a phone line, knowing that every night people just moved, either left the country or went somewhere else; all of this, was difficult for a child to experience.
When you did arrive in Australia, how did you navigate what it was like here in that time compared to where you had come from? I mean it’s such a vast difference, on so many levels. How did you navigate the cultural references I guess when you arrived here?
It was really hard especially because I didn’t speak any English! We were learning English in school, but coming to a country where people are actually speaking with it is very different! [Laughs.] I remember seeing a kid, I was with my family in an icecream shop and there was a little boy speaking English and I thought, Oh my God! This little kid is so amazing! But without realising, that’s actually his language! He was born speaking English. [Laughs]
But for me, it was the cultural differences. Not only in language but at the time Iraq changed a lot. I was always used to being very cautious and, for example for a long time I was very scared of thunder and the noise that it makes. And I would jump straight up just because it really does sound like a bomb. Not as loud or shakey. Getting over that trauma—that’s as a result of that. But now I really appreciate the cultural differences and although it was very hard at the time, I think as a young woman being in Australia life is so much better. I can have the independence that I wouldn’t have back in Iraq. Even though Iraq is modern, there’s that ancient tribal mentality that it is very, very contrasting. I mean, considering my area of work now, obviously Australia is not a hundred percent when it comes to women’s rights and independence, nowhere near that, but it’s significantly ahead of Iraq. Thinking back I don’t know how I would have survived. I think about how much my mum had to fight to just have her independence. Thinking, Well how much would I have had to fight to have that as well? To fight for rights like not to be pressured into marriage just because I was of that age or to do a certain job, to live in a certain place, to have kids.
Mmmm. I read that when you first arrived one of the only supporting institutions that you had during that time were the teachers from your school. It’s incredible to think that there weren’t other places that you could turn to. And I’m curious about what that was like. But also if things have changed for refugees arriving in Australia now, if there are more kind of formal places they can go to, to get that support?
Well I think so. I used to work in settlement services helping people seeking asylum who had only arrived. There’s definitely a big improvement from when I came to Australia. I don’t know why we didn’t get that support. Maybe it was just the time. Maybe we were isolated. Or the fact that we came on a family reunion visa just meant that we had family here, maybe the system thought that we were fine. Although I don’t think that’s the case. There wasn’t that much support in general. But we had an Iraqi community when we arrived to live in Dandenong, which was a highly diverse suburb. I think our biggest support was them just helping us navigate our way around. What schools to go to, what company to go with for electricity, that kind of thing.
I think things have definitely changed. They’re far from perfect. Especially now. There’s a recent policy called the SRSS cuts that refugees are experiencing, so they won’t be getting any income support at all. They’re having their Medicare cut as well. These are people who are in community detention, the numbers are at a few thousand at the moment in Australia. These cuts are really unfortunate because those communities are often also not allowed to work. If they are found to be working, they will be deported automatically. It doesn’t make sense how these people will get help or be able to survive.
Recently I met with a group called “Welcome to Eltham” who welcomed Syrian refugees in Eltham in Victoria. It was just amazing to see the community spirit and how much interest there is to welcoming people. I remember asking one of the founders, “Why? Why do you do this?” And she said, “We do this for whoever moves to Eltham, if someone’s your neighbour or someone who lives in your street, it’s just a community thing to get to go and take them a basket of something. Give them muffins and just welcome them.” And that this wasn’t any different. Just because they were from a different country or they were escaping war, that doesn’t make them any different from other people who move to Eltham. That was a really beautiful act to witness, it was just another way of welcoming people into the neighbourhood. I definitely wish I had that. To an extent, not having that was okay because living in Dandenong is such a diverse space. I remember I was so bad at English that ESL class was too advanced for me [laughs]. And I remember that class had people from literally all over the world. It had me and my sister, people from Serbia, Afghanistan, Iran, the Congo. And I remember us communicating with each other, I don’t know how we communicated because none of us spoke English. But we were able to communicate and become friends, and I’m still really close friends with one of the girls that I met in that class. Despite not having those structured welcoming spaces I think the Australians are generally very welcoming and that’s the welcome that we got.
I’m also interested in knowing what the idea of home means to you, I mean, having the Iraqi community here, did that help you transition in between the two spaces, the two cultures?
It’s interesting ’cause I remember meeting an Iraqi family who’ve had girls my age and to me they were very Australian. They had cool jeans and they didn’t speak any Arabic and I didn’t speak any English. And I remember their mum wanted us to be friends so they could improve their Arabic. Which is really funny because I thought, “But I want to work on my English!” [Laughs.] And the community that we were meeting didn’t really have a lot of kids our age, it was really small, just a few families who got together every now and then, and they had been in Australia for longer. So it made us feel that we also can stay here and that we can have a life here. And it was good for my mum and for us to have someone there to share that mourning that we had for Iraq and for what was happening back there, what our families were experiencing. Otherwise we’d just feel so alone watching the news and having left your family behind. Living safely in Australia comes with survivors’ guilt. Especially being so new and you don’t know where to go to if you wanted to help your family. It was hard being a teenager here and being stuck between two worlds. And obviously being stuck between my cultural background and what I saw in school. And sort of trying to navigate between the two; for instance to please my family but also fit in and be like the other kids.
But I wasn’t alone in trying to negotiate the two cultures. It’s interesting because I don’t feel like I belong in Australia or in Iraq. I don’t feel that full sense of belonging. When I went back to visit Iraq, I was seen as the Australian. But when I’m here I’m not really seen as Australian. So it does affect how I feel about both places. I love being here when I work. I wouldn’t be anywhere else. Because, you know, I’ve got a life here now. But that sense of belonging doesn’t really exist.
And things like self-expression, what language I use to express myself, how words really come in, they change the choice of words I mean. The words you’ve got available that you can use to express yourself about something, about anything, but especially about something that’s really traumatic or an intense experience. Not speaking Arabic as often as I used to and forgetting lots of words or mixing between the two languages when I have conversations, it’s an interesting dynamic. It really questions your sense of belonging and identity and who you are and how you really fit in either culture. When I came back from Iraq one time I wrote this piece just for an Arab blog, it was about going back home and having a certain idea of what home was like before I went there. And thinking a bit that it was the same. And that I’d be going back to what I had left. The reality was completely different. It had in fact changed a lot. The people changed, the street that I grew up in had changed. The culture and the environment has changed a lot. And to the worse, to be honest. It hadn’t really gotten better, especially for women. And it was interesting because before going back I thought, That’s where I belong. I’m going back, that’s my home. But the reality was far from that. Home for me probably doesn’t exist in the sense that I had imagined. So I think forever displaced is the answer.