You know it never has been easy
Whether you do or you do not resign
Whether you travel the breadth of extremities
Or stick to some straighter line
Joni Mitchell, Hejira
People’ll tell you where they’ve gone
They’ll tell you where to go
But till you get there yourself you’ll never really know
Where some have found their paradise
Other’s just come to harm
Oh Amelia it was just a false alarm
Joni Mitchell, Amelia
How sweet it is to learn new things – to walk new streets, to look through new windows. Working lately as a volunteer with the Humanitarian Settlement Services progrmme, I have had that opportunity. The HSS’ mission is to assist newly arrived refugees to settle in Australia, participate in our way of life, access services available to us all, and to develop the skills and knowledge needed to begin a new life in our country. The following pieces recall two days in my volunteer life. They are a sequel of sorts, and indeed, a happy ending to my recent post No Going Home in which I endeavored to imagine the refugee journey.
Hejira is an Arabic word that commemorates specifically the flight of Muhammad from Mecca to Medina in 622. But it also refers to any emigration or flight, and this is the context here.
I wait at our tiny airport for an Afghani family coming to Australia from a refugee camp on the Pakistani border. They have come here straight from Iran with but a short transit in Sydney. The plane is a little QANTAS Dash 8, and the passengers walk down the gangplank. The day is hot. Young girls in short shorts and skivvies disembark, and young men in shorts, tees and thongs (the sandals, that is). There a few suited businessmen, and retirees in nondescript array.
Our new arrivals are last off. Mum and two teenage sons. She wears a hijab and Iranian dress,, and the boys, jeans and tee shirts. They step onto the hot tarmac and walk, tired and nervous, to the arrivals lounge. We are with the welcoming party – a family of Afghanis who settled here a short while ago, two young girls, their mother and their auntie. They too are dressed in salwar kameez – they came here from a camp in Pakistan. The ladies dwelt there for twelve years, and the girls were born there.
A young Hazara serves as our interpreter. She is dressed like a fashionable Iranian muhajibabe in simple and smart attire – for it is indeed Iran that she and he family sought shelter from the Afghan storm. She is eighteen, and arrived with her mother and siblings two years ago. Her English is excellent – she wants to be an interpreter, and is working towards that goal at TAFE. And this is the thing. These folk have all come here on 204 visas for women at risk, the sole carers of dependent families. Their husbands are either dead or decamped in Afghanistan or in the border camps.
And then there are we three Aussies. The tireless Humanitarian Settlement Service caseworker, a lady from community services who wanted to witness an arrival, and myself, working for the HSS as a volunteer, likewise bearing witness to what is quite a powerful scene.
The meeting and the greeting is done with salaams, embraces (the Afghanis) and handshakes (we locals). The first minutes in their new home in the sun. I help the lads load the suitcases on to the bus, and my work done, I bid them all “khoda hafez” and take my leave. They are driven off to their new digs, an Afghan meal, the first of much paperwork, and then sleep.
But not before they are taken to the headland, from where they will view the Pacific Ocean to the east, hills covered in banana plantations to the west, and beyond them, below the cloudless blue sky, the blue-green foothills of the Great Dividing Range. On the other side, far to the northwest, their landlocked, shattered home is 11,353 kilometers away.
Our mission today is to move a Hazara family from their first, interim dwelling, to a permanent home on the other side of town. A mother with four children. Three of these are at school today, and the eldest, a sparky eleven year old, has stayed home to help mom move house and help us with translation. Although she has been in Australia for just six months, her English is astonishing. She later tells me she can speak five Afghan languages, Urdu, and a bit of Hindi. Nothing is going to hold this one back.
Their bags and boxes are ready, and these fill the bus. So off we all go to their new home. Two Afghani neighbours greet us on arrival, with two young girls and a tiny boy. Three ethnic groups, three languages, and two religions, and they are getting along famously.
“Why do you think that is?” asks the caseworker. “Because there are no men around”. No men. No controllers. No patriarchy. No rules. No tribes. No prejudice.
In Sydney, in Melbourne, with the larger Afghan and Muslim communities, with the mosques and madrassas, imams and ideologies, the self-appointed and self-perpetuating mullahs and muftis, male control would be asserted, with their restrictive rules and regimentation. All the old baggage that was left behind would be brought in and unpacked – the tribal loyalties and enmities, the specious theological diktats on dress and demeanor, form and function. And the patriarchy.
But not here, in this northern, sea-side town. Just women doing their best to get along and make the new life work for themselves and their children.
What will the future hold for these women taken out of their homes, their culture, their society, and asked to craft a new life and identity for themselves and their children in a new and strange land? How will they go with the language and with life in general? Will they make new friends, find rewarding work, and “fit in”, or will they cling to their old lives, lonely and isolated, their children the sole interface between themselves and the world?
I wonder about the young girls – and particularly the bright and outward-going ones I have met. Will they build successful school and professional careers? Will they make long and lasting friendships with their Australian and other peers? Will they let go the costumes, conventions, and constrictions of their parents’ culture?
I wonder about the young boys, and the young men whom I greeted at the airport. How will they fare in their matriarchal domestic world? How will they adjust to their new life here with all its challenges and temptations? If they remain in this regional city, who will be their role models? Will they become more Australian than Afghani as they grow up and mature amongst their north coast peers? Will they complete their education, and find work in an area with a very high level of youth unemployment? Or will they be isolated and lonely, dislocated and discontented? Will they be drawn to the capital cities with their diverse Muslim communities. And into which circle will they be drawn? To the moderate ones who just want to get on with their lives in an Aussie world, to the pious and unassuming who see jihad as an internal spiritual quest, to the criminal and bikie gangs that we hear so much about, or to the radical proselytizers who view our culture and values as anathema to the word and will of God?
All this is in the future, and as these folk might say, in Gods hands. But in reality, it is in their’s and their’s alone. But I am glad to have been able to play a small part in setting these new arrivals on their path.