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Fadak Alfayadh is a refugee advocate
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Conversations
3 June 2019

Fadak Alfayadh is a refugee advocate

Interview by Lizzie Marton
Photographs: Supplied Fadak Alfayadh (Woodrow Wilson)

LIzzie Marton speaks with Fadak Alfayadh

Fadak Alfayadh spent her childhood in Iraq—a country that shifted from one world to an entirely different, “unliveable” one seemingly overnight. 15 years ago Fadak sought refuge with her family in Australia, where they received little support from the system but were welcomed by their community in Dandenong, Victoria. Today, Fadak is paving the way for the refugees who have arrived in her wake. Her “Meet Fadak” tours combat the misperceptions that the Australian community holds about those seeking asylum and the narratives we so often hear in mainstream media, while her work as a community lawyer helps support and settle refugees so they can have a more supportive experience than she and her family did. Fadak is on a mission to help Australia realise that the presence of refugees is not a threat, but something that strengthens and enriches this country.

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I’m so interested in your story, and you’re offering a different narrative to the one that we often hear in the media about refugees. I’m curious to know where your story started growing up in Iraq.

Well, I loved to play soccer a lot with my cousins! I have two sisters and my dad had left Iraq when I was about five or six. Growing up in Iraq was interesting, I mean as a kid you don’t really see the complexities that I see now. Especially in school—we were very much indoctrinated with the dictatorship’s propaganda. If you’ve read 1984 it’s a lot like that. Things like, memorising quotes from Saddam Hussein’s party, having their photos in every classroom and everyone sort of paying respects to them constantly. Memorising songs, like patriotic songs, and as children, singing. It’s really intense practices—about sacrifice and dying for your country. I mean when you’re a kid you don’t really think of it that way. It’s just like “Oh everyone’s doing it, this is fun.” We were always cautious about being watched and having our behaviour monitored in case of rebellion or disobedience to the regime. Even as children, we were often encouraged to not even think thoughts of doubt or disrespect to the regime—almost as if our thoughts were also being monitored.

I’ve had a good life and I owe it to my mum, she was quite an independent woman. She was surrounded by a patriarchal environment, but she always protected us and looked after us. And usually in Iraq women aren’t seen to be as independent as men. They’re often seen as like they can’t look after themselves, they have to have a man, that kind of stuff. But my mum was quite the opposite. Actually a lot of her sisters as well.

So my family is from the Shia Muslim minority. In Iraq it’s not a minority but overall in the Muslim world it is, and they were sort of the most rebellious group against the regime at the time. They were heavily repressed, we were not allowed to practice cultural practice, celebrate religious holidays, that kind of stuff. And people knew that they were always being watched. That your neighbours might dob you in or report you for doing something. And sometimes there was a risk and a possibility that if someone has a grudge against you then they might just make up something and you can’t really stop it. And if people did rise up against the regime, they’d literally be picked up one night and then you’ll never see them again. These people were often forgotten and not spoken of again. We feared to mention them so as not to be associated with them. Or you might see them but they’re different because they’ve been tortured so intensely that they become different people.

I’ll always remember growing up with Dad’s side of the family who were very political and they wanted to topple the government at the time and that’s really what resulted in my dad leaving—he left Iraq when I was about five or six without telling us because if he did then we would be implicated as well. And he wasn’t allowed to leave because he was called to join the army as doctor, he was a surgeon, and he would have been asked to commit torture and other similar that he didn’t want to be a part of. So he escaped without telling us. And he left a letter behind to tell us that he’d gone. And he’d actually given the letter to someone else—again, so that we don’t get in trouble—who gave it to us when things had calmed down. My mum told me a story recently where she had a woman who was a spy pretend to be her friend, and befriend her at work. And it wasn’t ’til years and years later that she found out she was there to figure out where Dad was. My mum didn’t know.

Wow. So your parents opposed the regime, but you’re learning all these songs in school and things like that, how did they navigate that?

I remember one time I saw an uncle make fun of a holiday that we had, it sounded funny but it was like a battle where people implemented a warfare technique where they crawled so that they wouldn’t be seen. So the holiday was called, in Arabic, “The Big Crawling Day.” [Laughs]. It sounds funny. And he was making fun of it. So I, as a kid, started repeating the joke. And my mum was very angry with me that day. And very angry with the person who said the joke in front of children. Because as a child, obviously you repeat it.

There have been instances where children have said something like that at school or swear at the regime in school or something, not knowing that’s a deadly offence. And their family would get in trouble. There’s a book called The People Smuggler which was about this guy who came to Australia as a people smuggler. But he was from Iraq as well. When things went bad for his family, he actually also said a joke in school, something that his dad had said at home. And then his dad was taken away and tortured for months and was lucky that his life was spared…

And so for you and your mum and sisters, why did you come to Australia?

We found out Dad was in Australia and we would call him every now and then, when we could, and sent letters. But we never had a plan to come here, it wasn’t on the cards at all. We had a good life with our family in Iraq so it wasn’t something that we wanted to do. But it wasn’t ’til the invasion started that we became internally displaced people and found that it was unliveable and deadly to remain in our house. Where we lived, there were a lot of government ministers who lived in our suburb. Which meant that it was heavily targeted by bombing and fighting in general, because the Americans were looking for those ministers. And we didn’t want to be caught up in it. Our house was damaged. So we left to live with another family in a city in Southern Iraq where it was safer for us for sometime only, and then we came back a couple of months later and things were a bit quieter. We tried to go back to a normal life but things were just really, really difficult—there was continuous resistance to the Americans, constant bombing and targeting communities by the Americans and ally troops and life was never the same again. We were surrounded by danger and death. As bad as life was under the regime, life after the invasion was much worse. It was unliveable so we came to Australia on a family reunion visa. And that was also supposed to be temporary [laughs]. We just thought, Oh, well things will get better. We’ll be able to go back to Iraq. Being in Australia’s not on the cards for us.

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]

[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.

Mmmmm.

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.

I’m sure part of that comes from this narrative that we often hear in the media, about who belongs here and who doesn’t, and who decides what those definitions are. You know, “Go back to where you came from, stop the boats etcetera.” Like my father for example came here as a refugee when he was a child from Hungary. This was in the late fifties in Australia, and he said it was lucky, very lucky, that his surname sounded more Anglo. ’Cause if it didn’t he’d probably get beaten up everyday. That was the difference between two kinds of childhoods he could have experienced—his surname.

And when we’re hearing these stories in the media, we need to think about who says it and to who. A lot of time it’s white Anglo Australians who feel like they have the right to say it to also other people, especially to people who are brown. And how Australia came about and that, historically, who does it belong to? And that group of people giving and feeling like they have the right to tell a certain people to go back where they came from. I remember the first video for the campaign that we released, it was sponsored on Facebook by Maurice Blackburn, the law firm. And it would have been targeted to their audience, who would have been different to my audience. And I just remember getting so many negative racist comments. People focusing on something that I didn’t even announce—like, “Are you Muslim? We don’t want Muslims here.” If you knew me you’d probably know that I’m not a practicing Muslim. Nothing about me says that I am. It was really sad at the time, I was shocked. It was like, “Okay, maybe I shouldn’t do this. Maybe I shouldn’t be putting myself out there. ’Cause there’s obviously a lot of hate.” But then the speaking tour started and the reality was a lot more positive.

And I think so often it comes back to the voices that we hear in the media and the narratives that we’re told that this is how it is. Especially with where politics are at right now. And for me, one of the main ways we can counteract that is by telling other narratives, which is exactly what you’re doing through Meet Fadak. Do you want to tell me a bit more about it?

Yeah sure. And you’ve summed it up really nicely. It was essentially about breaking down the negative stories that we are hearing about refugees from our political leaders, but also from media. And although there are lots of positive stories of refugees out there, there isn’t something that’s structured and put in a plan. I’ve always done speeches and international advocacy, just like bits and pieces here and there. To do something structured and to put a name to it too essentially, that’s why I have a tour so that it can be something that people can look forward to, and can meet me. We’ve just gained lots of really good feedback—we sold out the launch event. We raised just a little bit over our target for our crowdfunder. And we’ve just received so much community and media support. It’s just been amazing. And I know that people, Australians at large, don’t see refugees in a negative light. But the loud minority is actually the one that’s out there saying all the bad things. And if we let that continue I think it’s going to really feed into our public discourse a lot more on an individual level. Because we’ll just start believing it, because policy affects how we think and how we think affects policy. So I think it’s just a circle that we have to monitor. And I used to be of the camp that I really wasn’t about telling my story. ’Cause I felt like I shouldn’t have to justify my humanity, my right to respect and safety and dignity, something that absolutely everyone deserves no matter who they are.

It’s something that everybody deserves. And to actually have to justify it. Beg for it. But I think we’ve reached a point in our public narrative that we need that story of hope. And not just my story. I’m really passionate about collecting stories of communities that welcome refugees like what we did with “Welcome to Eltham.” And lots of regional metro communities that have really teamed up with each other to welcome people in their community and to show the positive change that refugees and freedom have.

I’ve heard so many beautiful stories like “Welcome to Eltham” where people open their hearts and communities to refugees, and yet what we see in the media is often a completely different story. The reality is so often much more hopeful than what we see in the news.

We have to think about who’s benefiting from this, and who’s benefiting is certain people in politics. Although there are corporations that benefit from detention centres, I don’t think it’s that alone—just because we don’t have that many that are operating right now. So I definitely think that corporations and people with deep pockets have an influence. And it’s about politicians wanting to keep power. It makes me think about living in Iraq. Dictators have to create fear to show that they are protective of people. Because then the people are like, “Oh we need you.” And I think a very similar thing is happening here. People are like “Oh these boats are coming”. Right? And then he can show he’s there to protect our borders.

“He’s doing his job.”

Yeah. And protecting our sovereignty. And now it’s just a thing that all politicians say: you have to be tough on borders in order to stay in politics. It’s an election-winning topic to be honest. And it’s really unfortunate because it’s not about borders. Actually Australia has very safe borders. We’re an island. Right? And the whole people smuggling topic, obviously a lot of people take advantage of vulnerable people by giving them safety. But for example around World War Two, people who helped other people escape, that’s seen in a positive light. But now they’re seen as the enemy—the people who are helping other people escape.

I hadn’t really thought of it like that. And it’s so true. Your mission through Meet Fadak is to welcome 44,000 people here.  Why that figure?

At the moment our annual intake of refugees is around 13,000. But we’re able to do a lot more than that. There are lots of parties asking for 50,000, not political parties, but advocacy groups. The 44,000 comes from a research piece Oxfam did. And they looked at our population growth, our GDP, landmass, lots of different factors. And that was really like the minimum—44,000 is the bare minimum that we can do per year. And considering that in the context of migrations, annual migrations, we have hundreds of thousands of migrants come into Australia each year to work or study. Personally I want to advocate for bringing people into detention centres onshore as part of that number. Helping people who are in transition countries like in Indonesia or Malaysia at the moment who were making their way to Australia but are…

Stuck?

Yeah. And I think the number really says a lot about who we are as a country. And who we want to be portrayed as. Unfortunately at the moment when you travel and you’re talking about Australia, a lot of the time “refugee” also comes to mind. It’s that thing that people think of when they think of Australia and do we want to be that country? Do we want to be correlated or connected to that? Or do we want to be seen as a country that’s welcoming and tolerant and embracing of people who are in need of safety, a lot of the time who are scared about their resources and the economy. But it’s not about that.

And the moment we start talking about money then we are letting go of our values, our values of diversity, of that welcome.

For example what I do now in preventing violence and how family violence wasn’t on the radar as it is today like a few years ago. And when it really came down to our values as a country and wanting to say “no more,” it didn’t matter how much money we had and how much sacrifice we had to make in order to fund preventing violence against women or crisis centres and all of that sort of stuff. At that point it was about our values, it wasn’t about resources. As soon as we get to understanding that it’s not about what we have and don’t have, it’s about what we want to do. I hope that’s what it can get to. I just want to bring the voice of people who care about refugees to be louder and to be emphasised so that people can realise that there are others like them who care about refugees as well. People are very exhausted and isolated feeling that they’re the only ones who care about the issue. Our leaders have done a really good job at isolating us.

And you must get people who ask you all the time, “What can I do on an individual level?” What do you say to that?

I know lots of people are very exhausted. And that they’ve been campaigning against detention centres for a long time. I would say that your vote is very powerful. What you do with it, that’s what politicians want from you—your vote. So if you show them in any way you can that you don’t approve of what they’re doing, whether it be with refugees or environmental policy, how we treat other minority groups. And also the grassroots stuff really matters. So get together with a community group. Creating change on a grassroots and small community level is very, very powerful so don’t underestimate it. I’d also encourage people to meet a refugee if they haven’t already. And that’s why I’m putting myself out there so that people can have access to someone who they otherwise might not meet.

Get to know the story of the person, the humans behind those headlines that we hear about all the time. Our leaders have done a really good job of distancing us from refugees.

And I think once we break down those barriers and talk to each other, that’s when change can really start to happen. Refugees aren’t aliens, they’re just human like you and they have the same lives. They’re just looking for safety and that’s the only difference.

So maybe we can talk about community and what makes a good community. And what does a good Australian community look like from your experience and what you’ve seen?

I probably would give the scenario, like Eltham, just because it was so closely knit. And I’ve seen that sort of vibe in regional towns. It was just amazing to see it happen in a metro area. ’Cause you think that people are so busy here, everyone’s running around nine to five, there’s no time for neighbours or community. And that’s an example of who we are as a country. It’s just not really talked about as much.

Mm.

And it was an exchange of cultures as well. They had community events, where people would introduce their food, vice versa. Teach each other recipes. Building things together. It was just really nice to see that was happening, just a beautiful community spirit. And it can get very lonely for people who don’t have that sense of community and a big family there for you.

I’m also interested in talking to you about Australian values, and what defines Australian values, who gets to say what they are. I was reading the Australian Values sheet from the Department of Home Affairs, which you have to sign if you’re applying for a visa to Australia. It lists values like compassion, equality, respect for diversity. Like, they’re talking about all of these things that I think really do define Australia. And yet there’s this disparity between those values and how we’re acting as a nation.

The immigration department has changed a lot. Around the time when my family came, and a little bit before that, the behaviour matched the words. And it was really about inclusion and making sure that people are welcomed. And that came from the government. It’s the complete opposite now. Now it’s just about bureaucracy, it’s about borders. And there’s a lot of interesting pieces to read about how the department has changed. Before starting this campaign we did do a lot of research and we had an external messaging expert who talked to me about what I can really emphasise in my story. And from looking at different research pieces and questions that were asked of people we spoke to, like, “Do you think we have a good migration number? Do you think we should be doing more?” From my perspective, it was all positive answers. It was more like, “Yes we should be doing more. Refugees should be offered a fair process.” All those sorts of positive answers. And I think they’re definitely not reflected in media and in our policy. And I guess that’s something that I want to bring to the floor in this campaign. Emphasising those values of that embracing, of that welcoming diversity that really make up Australia.

Lizzie Marton

Lizzie first fell in love with storytelling and journalism when reading Pamela Bone’s columns as a teenager, and hasn’t been able to keep herself from writing ever since. In her spare time you will most likely find her listening to, talking about and editing podcasts.

Photographs: Supplied Fadak Alfayadh (Woodrow Wilson)

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