Refugee Week Ambassadors are individuals who are either from a refugee background or who have an interest in and understanding of refugee and migrant issues in Australia.
I arrived in Sydney in June 2015, after my family and I were forced to leave Syria because of the war. We were part of the revolution against the Bashar Assad regime, which meant we lived in constant fear. It was commonplace for people like us to be harassed, arrested or simply disappear. I was working as a teacher, preparing for my Masters degree and mentoring in the community. Every morning, I left the house, not knowing if I’d come back. One spring day, I was in the city doing paperwork, when a big bomb exploded – just like that. I wasn’t hurt, but it was shocking to see, first-hand, how a split second can change your life. As the war wore on, we didn’t have electricity for days and didn’t know when we would next see light. There was no phone coverage. I now look at the Syrian people as 18 million heroes, for having lived like this, day in, day out. To make matters worse, my father went to prison, where he was beaten and tortured. Today, he suffers from a bad back, as a long lasting reminder. My brother was also at risk of imprisonment because he was an activist. We desperately needed to leave.
First, we moved to Lebanon. But the people didn’t accept us as refugees and treated us badly. We had to work very hard for long hours, so we could afford basic life needs. We registered with the UNHCR, then applied to many countries, including America, European nations and Australia, where we had extended family. After months of waiting, we were accepted by Australia. The day we found out, I wept for joy. Then, I held on to my phone all day, waiting for a call about the next stage of the process! It sounds extreme, but, at that time, a phone call could be life changing.
We landed in Sydney on 18 June 2015 at 7:00 am. Coincidentally, the city was celebrating Refugee Week. It was helpful that I already spoke two languages: Arabic, Assyrian. The Australian people welcomed us with open arms. We felt blessed. I couldn’t wait to get a job and start paying taxes, to repay their hospitality.
Making a difference
I’m now working for the Refugee Council of Australia in a communications role. I’ve also volunteered in community organisations, including Auburn Diversity Service, Settlement Service International (SSI) and Sydney Alliance, where I’ve helped refugees to transition to life in Australia and engage with their communities. To progress my career, I’m studying Business Studies at Swinburne University. I plan to continue sharing my knowledge and experiences with ‘newly arrived’ families, to help them realise their potential. Through my journey, I’ve learnt to be strong and resilient. I’m forever grateful for the love the Australian people have shown me. I truly hope that the future holds positive change for refugees and people seeking asylum – people just like me.
Download Rnita’s story here (PDF 345kb)
I grew up in Iraq, in a loving Assyrian-Mandaean family. But, by the time I was nine, things had become dangerous for us because of the war and political persecution. So, my parents made the difficult decision to leave. In the dead of a freezing night, they carried my brother and me in their arms to the border, which took 15 days to reach. We escaped to Iran.
Hopes and hardships
My parents were hopeful that we’d pursue a better life in another country. But we faced many difficulties – from language barriers to violent situations. We also spent four years in and out of a detention camp, where we were given just enough food to survive. We endured hunger, sickness, loneliness and isolation.
Moving to Australia
Eventually, when I was 13, we moved to Australia – to Fairfield in Western Sydney. Unfortunately, because I hadn’t received an education, I found that I was a long way behind my peers. But I’ve done so much since then!
Helping others with their journeys
Today, I use my experiences of surviving and thriving as a refugee to help other people. For nine years – from 2006 to 2015 – I worked at the Fairfield Migrant Resource Centre, where I helped refugees and migrants to transition to life in Australia. Most of my clients came from traumatised backgrounds and many were dealing with the grief of losing family members. Helping in any way was so rewarding. Things that seem small can impact so greatly on someone’s life.
Building community and enriching education
Today, I work at the Refugee Council of Australia, where I coordinate Face to Face. This national education program aims at building community harmony, while increasing awareness of – and understanding about – refugees through face to face presentations. We facilitate them in schools and community groups, and as part of professional development.
I’m passionate about advocacy. I’ve represented the Australian Iraqi community at various NGO consultations and at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva, Switzerland. I also sit on a number of advisory and management committees, to ensure that there is an adequate voice for people from a refugee background. Australians are such intelligent people, but many still have the wrong idea about refugees. No one would flee their country for no reason. Usually, it’s because of victimisation and persecution. We’ve got to look at the bigger issues and deepen our understanding.
Download Deena’s story here (310kb)
UN and photography In Afghanistan, I worked for the United Nations for seven years – in a pretty precarious job. I talked and negotiated with local war lords, to convince them to give up their weapons and join the Afghan government. This work took me to some of Afghanistan’s most remote provinces. Everywhere I went, I took photos – of mountains, villages and local people. I wanted to capture a side of my country that had been hidden from the world. My images have been exhibited in many nations, including Afghanistan, Australia, US, Canada, Holland and South Korea.
Meeting a Taliban blockade
In December 2012, I was driving with my family from Kandahar to Kabul, when the Taliban stopped us. I knew that, if someone recognised me from my work, we would be in great danger. My heart was in my mouth. I decided, on the spot, it was time to leave Afghanistan. The next day, we drove over the border to Pakistan – to Quetta, where I’d spent my childhood, as a refugee. But, a few days later –on 10 January 2013 – a bomb blast near our home killed more than 100 people and injured hundreds. We sold all our belongings and left for Indonesia, to seek asylum.
Indonesia: opening the first refugee school
We lived in Cisarua, a district in West Java, around 70 kilometres south of Jakarta. Around 5,000 Hazara Afghanis were there, who, like us, had fled the Taliban. When we arrived, everyone felt stuck and scared. We didn’t know what would happen to us or how long we’d be in limbo. So, we started to have meetings. We decided that, instead of waiting for someone to help us, we would be active and solve some of our problems ourselves. For example, we could open a school, where our kids could learn, and our educated women could teach. That’s how we started the first ever refugee school in Indonesia, the Cisarua Refugee Learning Centre. Today, there are ten refugee schools in Indonesia, with 1,500 students. We also decided to record our life in Cisarua – myself and another refugee, Khadim Dai who was 17 at the time. We worked with Australian filmmaker, Jolyon Hoff, who produced and directed our film, The Staging Post. It’s about refugee resistance and agency – about what is possible and what refugees can do with the help of friendship.
Australia: touring and studying
We were recognised as genuine refugees in 2013 and moved to Australia in 2015. In 2017, during Refugee Week, we launched The Staging Post, then we toured, screening the film more than 140 times in major cities and rural towns. We wanted Australian communities to know that refugees aren’t a threat. We are the victims of violence. We face the same threats that Australians do. We run away from Al Quaeda. We run away from Taliban. We run away from extremism. And we have agency. We have the ability to represent ourselves. Today, I live in Adelaide with my family. I am co-manager of Cisaura Learning, a registered charity, with Jolyon Hoff. I’m also studying at the University of South Australia. When I finish, I hope to return to Indonesia to work with refugees.
Download Muzafar’s story here (PDF 676 Kb)
My full name is Habiburahman. But I’m well known as Habib. I’m a member of the Rohingya community, from Western Burma – also known as Myanmar. Since 1982, the Government has refused citizenship to us. We aren’t allowed to say we are Rohingya or report what happens to us to the authorities. We are the unspeakable. I’m over 35 years old now and I’ve been stateless for my entire life.
Selling bread on the bridge
I was 19 when I fled Burma. I’d been harrassed, arrested, tortured and forced to work against my will. First, I crossed into Thailand via the Golden Triangle. One day, in January 2000, I was selling bread packages and flowers on the bridge between Malaysia and Thailand, when I was called over by a Malaysian Border Force guard. I had to cross the border, to reach him. He asked me for my passport. I said, “No, I left it at home. I’m selling bread on the bridge.” He said, “No, you have come into our territory and you are illegal here.” Border Force put me into a Malaysian detention centre for the first time.
I spent a total of ten years in Malaysia – from 2000 until 2009. I worked with Rohingya organisations, Burmese political opposition groups and local NGOs. I was detained in detention centres five times and deported to the Thai border on three occasions.
A boat to Australia
In 2009, I decided to go to Australia, by fishing boat. After three and half days of sailing, not knowing where we were heading, we were found by an Australian aircraft. Within an hour, the Australian Navy had saved us. I spent 32 months in detention centres, before being released in Melbourne by August 2012.
Founding the Australian Burmese Rohingya Organisation
When I arrived, there was only a few Rohingya people in Melbourne, but many more have come since. I wanted to raise the voices of our oppressed Rohingya people. So, I founded a Rohingya organisation, called the Australian Burmese Rohingya Organisation. We began by engaging our people in English classes. Then, through Refugee Survivors and Ex-Detainees (RISE) and Monash Wholefoods, we provided food banks and support for accommodation. We’ve also cooperated with local NGOs, communities, activists and the Immigration Department, to ask for help to release our people from detention centres. I work casually as a support service coordinator at (RISE) and serve as Secretary of the Arakan Rohingya National Assembly (ARNA), an international Rohingya organisation based in the UK.
‘First they erased our name’
In 2017, I published a book, First They Erased Our Name, which I co-wrote with French author Sophie Ansel. It’s an updated version of my first book, Taboo Burmese, which I published in August 2012, while in detention. It’s about my life and the story of my people. The book was launched in the European Parliament in February 2018 and Maria Arena, a Belgian Member of the European Parliament, invited me to speak. I was unable to attend, because of my visa restrictions in Australia. If I leave the country, I won’t be allowed to re-enter.
Download Habib’s story here (PDF 538kb)
I don’t remember much of my life in Khartoum (Sudan). I was only five old years when I left, with my mum, brothers and sister. But I do remember living in Egypt. We went there first, for two years as refugees waiting for a humanitarian visa. I remember the hardships our family faced and the amazing moments of triumph, such as when Australia granted our visas. We moved to Adelaide.
First impressions of Australia
I was eight when I came to Australia, so I pretty much grew up here. It was interesting at first. It was a very different society. The first thing I couldn’t get over was how cold it was! The food, too, was really weird. I could not get over Vegemite and how much Australians loved dogs.
Poetry and writing
I am a writer, I write poetry and in May 2019 I launched my debut book, Tomorrow’s Dream: A Poetic Anthology, at one of my favourite spots in Adelaide: African Village Centre Restaurant in Henley Beach.
As a Pan Africanist, a lot of the activism work I do is centred around the beliefs I have as young African woman who has grown up in diaspora. I believe in a free, self-reliant and self-defining Africa. My activism embodies arguments that deconstruct present day neo-colonial regimes. These beliefs are not just for myself but also for the greater network of African refugees and migrants pushing for self-determination and a well-defined agency of self. This year I was a guest speaker at the Refugee Alternatives Conference, run by the Refugee Council of Australia. It was an important event, because it provided a platform where we can talk about our experiences – without those experiences being defined or compromised, to fit a story or label, and where other people can be progressive in our journey.
‘I don’t want to be saved’
Australia is a great place for refugees and refugees contribute to Australian society in so many great ways. But it’s not just important for Australians to welcome refugees economically and socially – because we all know the benefits of that. We’re also fighting for acceptance, fighting to be recognised and fighting to be seen as human beings. I don’t want to be saved, I have already survived. Many refugees are tired of being told that they are being saved. I just want to survive, like everybody else – and you can be part of my survival.
Download Flora’s story here (676 Kb)