Updated: Mar 11, 2021
"We are one; we are many; we’ve come from all the lands on Earth. For those who’ve come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share."
- Mariam Hamid as a 9 year old, singing ‘I am Australian’ and the national anthem together
Australia, the sunburnt, patchwork quilt nation. Throughout much of it’s modern history, Australia has been a beacon for people from all over the world. A haven for some, a new beginning for others. A working man’s paradise, a chance and a promise.
In the late 1990s people came from the Middle East, and the 80s saw migrants predominantly from Cambodia, Vietnam, and Southern China. In the 1970s people came from East Timor and Indochina, and we beheld the debut of the term ‘boat people’, coupled with assertions of an ‘invasion’ and ‘flood’ of migrants. Following World War II, Australia became home to approximately 2 million of Europe’s displaced people. In the late 1800s, South Sea Islanders are recruited to work on sugar plantations in Queensland, Afghan cameleers help explore the Outback, and Japanese divers develop the pearling industry. In the Gold Rush of the 1850s, thousands of Chinese people come to Australia and make it their home.
Throughout the late 1700s to the 1850s approximately 200,000 English, Irish and Scottish migrants came to work as agricultural workers or domestic servants. Between 1788 and 1868, the British Empire transported over 160,000 convicts. In 1770, a man named Cook, his friend Banks, and the crew of the HMS Endeavor anchor on the Australian east coast, and purposely and incorrectly label the land as Terra Nullius. In actuality the land had been the home of a rich and varied culture from at least 60,000 BC with over 100,000 tribal, clan and language groups in the area that would later become New South Wales alone.
With each wave of people, we’ve gone through the same cycle of benign xenophobia and outrage.
“We don’t have any room!”
“They will just bring their problems with them here!”
“But… but… THE ECONOMY?!”
“What will happen to our way of life?”
There is no need to speculate and hypothesise about what will happen to the ‘real’ Australia with every new influx of people, because we already know. Migration and seeking refuge, or a new beginning, have been a part of the Australian story for hundreds of years now. It is a continuation, rather than a deviation, of a national tradition. Individuals will come, and they will grow and change, just as the country will grow and change with them. And slowly ‘them and their stories’ will give way to ‘us and our stories’. This identity of Australia is something I only realised when I began to travel outside of it; when people asked me to describe what it was like, I kept coming back to, “It's the land of migrants, and it’s the land of stories”.
In this piece, I interview three people who are emblematic of what it means to be Australian. When I originally began this piece, I had a very distinct idea. I would talk to people that had come here as refugees and then I would share where they were now, ten or twenty years on, thus proving that they had a right to be here by showing what they’d contributed. But as I began to talk to the three incredible people featured in this piece, I realised that somewhere along the line I had begun to miss the point. I interviewed three people who are emblematic to me of what it means to be Australian. These stories are worth sharing because they are incredible stories of resilience, strength and resourcefulness. They are unequivocally a part of this society, but by writing with the intention to prove their right to exist here, I was just feeding into the narrative that we have to fit a standard, a mould that was assigned by people who don’t have the right to assign in the first place.
These are only three Australian stories, of so many thousands.
A powerful presence in the Western Sydney community. She is a caseworker, migrant advocate, domestic violence prevention officer, artist, mother, playwright, actress and founder of the pioneering organisation ‘Afghan Women on the Move’. These facts about her are not things that I was aware of when I asked if she would be happy to share her story. I just remember that when I was young, she was always one of the most vivid and charismatic women in the Afghan Australian community, she brightened every room she entered and I wanted to be just like her.
We shine together. I have chosen to shine in my own space. With the choices that I make, I make sure that they are visible. A lot of people may say that’s its showing off, but its not. Somebody has to show that it’s working. If I don’t show that’s it working, nobody will know how things can happen. You need examples.
I was in Pakistan for five years after leaving Afghanistan. It was a time of hardship, but I survived. When I came to Australia, I was twenty. I came with no prior education. They said I had to go to adult education. And I understood, I mean I was an adult, but I told them, “No. I never got to go to school. I want to go to school. I want to be like a sixteen, seventeen year old.” I knew I had to go to school, it was very, very important for me. For someone to be able to acknowledge, and have a fire for that kind of freedom, they need to have faced some kind of deprivation or war or something that had taken away your rights.
You see, I would see it when I enrolled my younger siblings in school. They were making friends, and having lunch, and getting to wear a uniform. But again, I wasn’t given permission or rather encouragement to have that kind of normalcy, because of my age. But I went to a school, Mitchell High, and I asked to be taken straight to see the principal. I went and explained my situation. But he looked at me and said, “Maryam, my oldest student is 18, and you are 20. There is no way.”
I didn’t have the language, but I had the emotion and motivation. I told him that if I wasn’t given this chance to recover all the things I hadn’t gotten when I was 10, or 12 or any of my childhood, then how was I supposed to ever recover. I told him that if he didn’t give me this chance, I knew I wouldn’t get it anywhere. I had to start school. And he said “Yes.”
And so, I started high school from year 11 and completed year 12. I can’t recall everything, but I remember I was just so happy. I didn’t get a 99.9% ATAR or anything, but I did ok, I wasn’t failing anything. I tried my best, and I enjoyed it, I got to go and sit with the other students in the Senior area. But some days it was very difficult, I had to play a lot of different roles all day. I was a big sister, a caretaker, a student, a friend. I was always so tired.
As the oldest sister, with three younger siblings at home to take care of, I was responsible for paying the rent and the shopping. So, night times and weekends I would be working at the kebab shop. Sometimes, I would be sitting in class asleep, or I would be there at my desk but completely switched off. Also, I didn’t have the language to do the assignments, or to even understand what it was that I was supposed to do. I remember, for a while there, I didn’t know what to get for lunch, and so I avoided it. I didn’t know how to make lunch, or what to make. Because, you know, you don’t get to have those kinds of experiences in war.
I would go to the canteen, and get those big round cookies, I only knew those because they were always in the front in those big glass jars. I would point and be like "This! This!". But I couldn’t go to order something else because I was scared; what if I made a mistake? What if they asked me extra questions and I couldn’t answer them? But a good thing happened for me at school, I got counselling. I would encourage all students, and everyone else as well, to seek help. I would see a counsellor every week. Every single week for two years. I wouldn’t have survived without them. And now, I’ve even studied mental health counselling.
To choose your own peace is not to be free of all problems. To choose your own peace, its your voice, choose your own thinking. When I question things that bring me peace. I am not and have never been a person who accepts everything. I can influence people, but I can't change them. To me to have my own peace, I need to work on my own terms.
These women that I am now connecting with, we are bouncing ideas back and forth, and creating momentum that things can change if you communicate. If you hide it, if you don’t say it, and you just suffer so much in this life thinking that you will have a better life in the next, then you are not acknowledging and recognising the God-given opportunities in this life; I mean look at the beautiful blue sky, the coffee and the freedom.
A Palestinian Couple
The following two stories are from a beautiful Palestinian couple, a mother and father. When I asked to interview them originally, they were happy to help, but didn’t view their story as particularly interesting or unique. As you will read, they are both among the most resilient and resourceful people I’ve met. They live by their convictions and values, proud of their heritage and humble in their achievements. Unfortunately, due to some of the policies implemented by the Israeli occupation, the couple requested to remain anonymous to ensure that this telling of their stories would not impact their visa applications when they went back to visit Palestine. I have changed their names here as a result.
I had my conversation with Ibrahim after he had just returned from work. He’d had a long, and tiring day, but you could hardly tell. From the clever spark in his eyes, and his jovial greeting you knew that this was a man full of character and personality.
I started my life seriously. My mum died when I was nine, and I was the oldest of three boys and one girl. We are not soft like now. Sometimes, I laugh at this generation when they start to whinge. If my situation was different, and someone help me, maybe I would have continued studying. I wanted to study more. I wanted to study anything. I like to know everything about anything. Because you know there is no limit for knowledge.
I studied for two years after high school, and I get my diploma in Accounting. I finished and I started to help my family. When I come to Australia, I did not work as an accountant, you had to be qualified here; but at the same time it is not easy to go and study because you have responsibility to your family. You have to go direct to work, so that you can cover. Because you are not by yourself. You are not single. If you start to study, how will you look after your family. So, when I came here, I had to work in the convenience store. And now everything is good for us.
My attitude in life is to discover. I love to discover places. And now that my second son is to be married next year, and my youngest is finished with university, my plan is to, Insha’Allah, every two years go somewhere. Somewhere, anywhere, everywhere. I am very interested in different countries, in geography. My wife and I will travel, because you know, we have completed our mission in life. We looked after our kids, and now that they have got independence, our support is enough for them. Now, it is our time. Maybe we’ll travel to North Africa first.
The life in Palestine is generally struggling, you know. Struggling because of all the regulation, the control, the checkpoint. And in the same time, you can't have a plan. You can't make a plan for the long run, you know. Because all the time accidents, all the time struggling.
My brother-in-law rang me, and asked me to come to Australia. I said if your sister agrees, we are coming. And my wife she agrees. I stayed here two years by myself before I could lodge the paperwork for. It was not easy for me, to be by myself for two years, without my kids, without my wife. But in the end, you have a target and you have to reach. I feel here safe, comfortable, I feel nice. I am proud that I'm Australian.
Australia is like my second country. Here we can tell the truth about ourselves. The Occupation changes the truth about us, my people. People must be educated, they must know the truth. If they want to help, they need to know. They need to search about the Palestinian problem. How it happened? How many refugees are there? What are the refugee camps around the world? Even I am here, I explain to people the Palestinian situation. And they say to me, you know more than the foreign minister. Because I am interested. Because it is our responsibility. To know. This is our responsibility. Palestine is our land. That is why I come here. Because our message is here.
When I met Fatima, she had prepared a significant spread for me, complete with both a pot of Arabic qahwa and Palestinian tea, and that was the way straight to my heart. As I began to talk to her and hear her story, I was taken aback by the quiet strength and perseverance of a woman who raised four children across two continents, fostering in them the same sense of social justice and pride that she possessed. She then went on to create an Arab sweet business, sharing the legacy and memories of her people through culture and food. She is the person that shines so brightly, yet chooses to direct that light to highlight others, and illuminate their path.
My parents are originally from Palestine; they sought refuge in Jordan in 1948. That's how I came to be born in Jordan. I lived there until I moved to Palestine after getting married. I had seen Palestine before moving there, but it was mostly on short trips. It was very difficult to go to Palestine because of the way permits were distributed. The Israeli Occupation controls the permits and they are very strict. When I was growing up, Palestine meant a lot to me, both because of the people and the land. Because in Jordan, I lived in a city, but my grandparents’ house in Palestine was in a small village, with old homes, and farm animals. I was always eager to be there. It felt like home, but there was always this underlying sadness because we knew we were restricted in the amount of time because of the Occupation. It was like we were finally home, but we had to count the days we were able to spend there.
We moved to Palestine because during that time, there was a policy in Jordan that if you were to remain there you had to give up your Palestinian ID, or you had to participate in the Jordanian army. My husband did not want to give up his ID. No one else from my family had to take that step because they did not have Palestinian IDs. None of my siblings have a Palestinian passport. See the way it works is that when a father has a Palestinian ID than it automatically gets passed down to his children, and so my children now have a Palestinian ID because my husband has one. But when my father left Palestine, his ID was taken from him and so none of my siblings have one.
See, to show you the connection between the history and today, my daughter has a Palestinian passport, and an Australian one. The Israeli occupation know she has a Palestinian passport, but as long as she enters with her Australian one they can't take it from her. The Palestinian passport can stay with her but she can't use it to enter her country. See, because when you enter as an Australian with an Australian passport, you get a Visa, which means that you can go anywhere in the country, to Haifa or Tel Aviv, but as a Palestinian she cannot. She is not allowed to enter without a permit. And that’s just with luck, sometimes you get through to places. But even if you have an Australian passport, regardless of the power of your passport, they control where you get to go. That has been consistent.
[On the Occupation] There was no control. And I would always have fear. When my oldest son, Mohammed, would be playing outside I would have fear, because I knew they were always around the village. And with the weapons they have and the no control that we Palestinians had in terms of how they would use these weapons, I always had fear. There would be raids sometimes on a daily basis, sometimes on a weekly basis. The reason would be they are looking for someone or they coming to take someone. Say you are sitting, or you're sleeping and someone would just come. That’s the reality. And it is impossible to say no.
The Hawiya is the only document that all Palestinians must have anywhere they go in Palestine. This the only powerful document we have to identify that we are Palestinian. The sad thing is that this Green Card has been established by Israel. The Occupation has given this document to identify people as Palestinians or not. This is just like here in Australia, the Aboriginal people need to get certain documents that identifies them as Aboriginal. The Occupation controls your identity. Not everyone gets one of these. Not even if you are Palestinian. Even if you left Palestine in 1948, and you are fully Palestinian. Palestine refugees in Lebanon for instance do not have this document. Stateless. Unidentified to a state. But they are Palestinian.
We left Palestine because there was no safety, and there is no freedom. My husband was restricted in terms of the type of work he could do. He was restricted because sometimes they would focus on certain people that are intelligent and smart, and request for them to work for the Israeli occupation. And if you say no to them, they don't give the permit to work elsewhere. The decision [to come to Australia] was also based on fearing for the future of the children. Fearing not just for their education but for their safety. I knew it would be safe. It would be the right place for children. Even before coming here it meant freedom.
Lead editor: Palwasha A.
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