Story of a true refugee
– by Dilini Eriyawala
It was another first day of another semester. The cold dry winter had made the whole state lazy and slow. We were expecting late attendance of students as the public transport services were not at their best either. I waited for the seats of the lecture room to be occupied by at least twenty five students. There was a handsome young boy sitting all by himself. According to my past experience and living in a multicultural state of Australia, I could guess that this young man was from Sudan. He might be from Kenya too. At a glance I realised that his mind was not in this world.
‘hi, how are you ?’
‘Call me by my name….. And what’s your name?’
‘You can call me by my name…. and what’s your name?’ I repeat. The student looks puzzled. He takes few seconds to think.
‘My name is hard to pronounce. Call me Andrew’
‘This must be your first class of the degree’
(The student takes his time)
‘mmm… errm… yes’
‘Are you from Sudan, Andrew?’
‘Yes, I came as a refugee’ Andrew smiles. The eyes smile too. His teeth are not very white nor are they in line. But the smile is perfect. Transparent. Honest.
I realised that Andrew will need a lot of learning support as he progresses in studies. I advised him to meet me after the lecture to talk to him a bit more and direct him to the learning support department, hoping that he would enjoy the benefits of learning to the fullest. Andrew knocked on my office door shortly after the lecture. I welcomed him in.
‘I thought I should talk to you to see if I can provide any extra support for your learning’. I could see that honest smile again.
‘Thank you very much. I know how to read and write in English. But I don’t get to speak much English’.
‘Are you new to Australia?’
‘Oh no… no…’ Andrew thinks. His smile is no more on the face.
‘Do you have time? My story is long. I’ll try to make it short’.
‘Yes, I can spend a bit of my time listening to you’
Andrew gives me a smile that fades instantly. Avoiding my eyes, he stares at the glass window behind me. I give him time. After about five long minutes, Andrew starts talking. In broken- English. He tries hard to use the right words and sentences. At times he becomes successful and at times he fails. I struggle but try to understand what he says. Andrew, my new Sudanese student, opens himself up in front of me.
* * * *
My life was one of many thousands of kids whose lives had been permanently marked by decades of civil war in Sudan. When we were in Sudan, all I saw every second was my father’s worried face. When we were out on the road he looked worried. When we were inside the house, he looked worried. Even when we were sleeping my father was sleepless and looked worried.
‘why are you so worried all the time dad’ I asked him one time. I was four years old then.
‘I worry that security will arrest us for no reason and when we ask why, they don’t know either.’
Few months after that conversation, my dad was arrested and released. And arrested again. When enquiring for a reason from the Sudanese authorities, they bluntly told my mother that they didn’t know the reason either. They said that it was a security dilemma. I heard my father whispering to my mother that they might even kill him and say that they didn’t know the reason. I realised that my father was right. But what should we do? Where would we go ? We knew only Sudan.
Fearing for our lives, my father made the decision to flee Sudan with my mother, myself and my two younger brothers. It was hard too. The five of us started running in the nights. We were holding each other’s hands as the only clear sight was the moonless sky with stars. We hid ourselves during the daytime. Some nights we ran through the bullets as the civil war was at the peeks. We couldn’t even guess where those bullets were coming from. I had no idea where my father was taking us either. But I believed that he was doing the right thing and heading the right direction.
We escaped to Egypt, carrying only a few clothes and leaving behind my grand parents and relatives. We applied for refugee status with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Cairo. They rejected the application. We had no protection. The United Nations didn’t protect us as they didn’t believe our story. My father taught us prayers and hymns. We placed our lives on God’s hands. We had no refugee camp to stay. We had to face racist and violent acts. My mother was forced to sleep with few men who promised that they would get us refugee status. My mother had to do it for the sake of our lives. It was the only time I could see my father crying so loud. Even after all that, we received nothing. But we could not give up hope and turn around. We stayed in Cairo as asylum seekers for four years. My father reapplied for refugee status in Egypt which we obtained in our fifth year there. We felt very relaxed in a refugee camp after that with United Nations’ protection.
One day a large truck arrived at our refugee camp. Five officers called us all and said,
‘you must decide whether to live in Egypt or leave to a different country where there is no war.’
Almost everyone wanted to leave. They asked my father if he wanted to go to America, UK or Australia. My father had no idea about any of those countries. He said that he would go to any country that an officer picks for him. One officer picked Australia. Tasmania was our first destination. The day we arrived, it was drizzling and freezing. No dusty roads. There were buildings everywhere. I was amazed. It was year 1998.
I attended a school with some other Sudanese kids like me. We were scared of white kids and adults. We thought they were like the people who arrested our parents for no reason. At schools, the other kids didn’t want us to play with them. We were kind of abandoned again. We all were used to such negligence. So we kept that pain to ourselves. But we were lucky to have the same education as any other kid in Australia.
The teachers were good. I wanted to learn. I was not ambitious as I had no idea about the social acceptance of a profession. The only ambition was to do the right thing and appreciate what is given. So I studied hard. Eventhough I scored high marks I was not recognised as a smart kid at the school. I sat for the scholarship exams and gained high scores. I was selected to a better college for higher studies in Melbourne. The bullies at college forced me to change my original name, which I refused to do. But everyone at school including teachers called me Andrew. Eventhough I did well in studies I could never have my confidence built up to use English in public. So I became a very silent person. I know English well, but my communication skills are not as sharp. Please help me to improve that skill if you can. I have realised how important it is for me to improve in it now than ever before.
* * * *
I directed Andrew to the university’s learning support department and fortunately, I could observe the clear improvement in Andrew’s communication skills. Andrew completed his Bachelor degree in Accounting two years ago and currently doing a PhD while working part time as a social welfare officer for Centralink.