I started my life in Baghdad, Iraq, where I grew up in a close extended family, as is our way. Even with all my countries problems I was afforded a good education, learning English from Grade 5 onwards and obtaining my degree in statistics from Baghdad University in 1989. After finishing university I had the option of working for the government on a fixed wage to pay back my educational fees or to find a job in private enterprise and pay the debt that way. With my training I was lucky as I thought I could earn more money working privately. My first job was as a clerk, I then moved into hospital reception.
But life was not all good, there was a lot of suspicion and as some of my family had the Iranian stamp on our Iraqi citizenship papers our loyalty was in question. In truth this stamp just meant that at some stage in history a parent was from Iran and wished to maintain that link, but after the 1979 war caused a split between the two countries, people with Iranian sympathies were seen as avoiding their responsibilities to Iraq.
My uncle was a religious writer who had in the past wrote articles that did not agree with Saddam Hussein's policies. He was jailed for nine years for voicing these opinions. Upon his release he was escorted to the Iran border and told to leave, not to look back, just keep walking.
His wife and four of their youngest were also repatriated. One of my uncles nine children Ali, was my love. It isn't against our beliefs to be betrothed to one's cousin and Ali and I planned to marry, except this would have to wait as in 1980 Ali was perceived also to be not of good character and was jailed. We were allowed to visit family and therefore remained in contact through fortnightly visits.
On his release he was also taken to the Iranian border.
Another of Ali's brothers fell foul of the Iraqi system and was taken into custody but was not so lucky. He was apprehended when he allowed travellers into his home after they had requested a bed for the night. It is considered impolite to turn travellers away but in this case they were being watched and the whole family was taken away to be questioned, this questioning included torture which was conducted in front of my sister in-law and their four children whose ages ranged from two months to 11 years. My brother in-law died at the hands of his prison guards.
My sister in-law was taken to the Iranian boarder but the children who only had Iraqi citizenship were unable to leave. It took until 2004 when we were allowed back into Iraq to find out what had happened to my nieces and nephews. The oldest boy had died in custody at the age of 14 during an uprising in 1989. The other children were also tracked down, the youngest girl now being a mother herself with three children.
It was at this time, 1989, at the age of 20 that I also left Iraq to be with Ali in Iran. The boarder with Iran was closed so I knew I would have to travel through Jordan. It is unfavourable for women to travel alone so my father escorted me across the Jordanian border and settled me with family before returning to Iraq. Again I was unable to go directly to Iran. It took approx 6 weeks to move from Jordan to Syria it was relatively easy but I knew that once I got to Syria I couldn't return to my home as the Iraqi government would consider me a traitor, this would lead to me being jailed or worse and it wasn't just me who would be endangered. I knew only too well by my personal experiences that the tactics used by the Iraqi government could be anything from dishonouring you and stripping you of all assets to brutal torture and with the American war against terrorism escalating Iraq would not be the safest place to be.
Though leaving my home and some members of my family behind made for a heartbreaking and soul-searching trip, I was heartened by the anticipated reunion with Ali and I knew I was leaving the ingrained politics of mistrust, poverty, tyranny, corruption and intolerance.
After another six weeks getting permission to leave Syria to enter Iran I was at the airport when my departure was once again delayed. Even though I had been investigated many times, as I was travelling alone I was unaware that I should have been processed within days of my arrival. Upon my impending departure they noticed I didn't have this paperwork, so they separated me from my family escort and took me into the catacombs of the government offices. I was frightened, nervous and feeling very much alone, knowing that I had told fibs about the real reason for my travel plans. Only I knew the truth about my engagement and I had to keep my true motives for travelling secret. It was better to remain with the story of reuniting with my mothers family. My travel plans where verified and I was given the missing piece of paperwork and allowed to continue on the last part of my journey.
Arriving in Iran was in many ways a culture shock. The war between Iran and Iraq had finished two years previously and the government was trying desperately to rebuild their country, but with 4½ million refugees opportunities were limited. As Ali and I were classed as refugees we were living a green card existence. This doesn't allow property or business ownership and limited access to education as even though in theory you could you could go to university, the citizen first policy meant that all places were taken by Iranian nationals as citizens had priority over refugees in not just education but also in housing and employment. There was also the knowledge that there were spies, loyal to the Iraqi government in the streets of Iran, a very unsettling thought for people who were fleeing the scrutiny of that regime.
But as they say life goes on. Ali and I were wed and our first child was born. Ali was employed first in the building industry as a labourer, the work was hard and the pay low, he later found work as a clerk for a publishing firm, the pay was still low but it wasn't as backbreaking. Then 46 months after my arrival Ali had a chance meeting while walking down the street. It was a reunion that would change our lives once again. He had bumped into a fellow with whom he had shared a jail cell and departing for Australia in one month. It was suggested that it would be a good place also for Ali and myself. We had tried to look upon a future in Iran but saw very few opportunities and as we could have no communications with family in Iraq, it was unsettling for me being so close yet separated from family. This continues to bleaken my psyche. So when on arriving in Australia our friend didn't forget us and sent us the papers to gain entry as refugees into Australia we were thankful, as life for us in Iran would only be a drab existence.
The application for us was an eight-month process and was handled in a very efficient manner. Ali was only re-interviewed once to verify names and locations, facts that will be forever etched into his memory. One week after this interview a visa was granted and tickets supplied by the UN.
I had never thought that I or any of my family would have the chance to live in a country so far away and given that we had learnt English, we gave no thought to cultural differences and looked forward to being happy and safe in a culture that respects tolerance and equal opportunities.
In March 1996 we arrived at Melbourne airport at four o'clock in the morning and were greeted by a government official and an interpreter. We were taken to a furnished unit that had been stocked with food; this gave us a three-month window to find our feet. A whirlwind followed, Mary introduced us to where the medical center, bank, Centrelink and school were located, we were also introduced to another family and three single brothers that had also been housed in the Springvale, Dandenong area.
It didn't take long for our confidence in our English skills to be shattered as Mary took us to a local supermarket and asked us to concentrate real hard and identify any words that we could understand. It didn't matter how hard we tried we couldn't understand a word. Our English, although good, hadn't prepared us to tune into the Aussie lingo. Three days after this funny experience we were enrolled in school, I at level One, Ali at level Two; after about a month it all started making sense and in three months we had finished. I was then given work experience at the Primary School.
As we had no family in Australia, the first person we rang was Ali's friend, it was he who helped us get a unit in Preston. It was not up to expectations, the major problem being mould on the walls, after six months of trying to cope, friends helped address the problems with the unit but by then our baby boy had already become sick. A specialist opinion was sought; he suggested a change of environment. After some research we came upon a place called Shepparton, at this stage there were only five Arabic families in the area but after a visit we decided that once again it was time to move. This is how after two and a half years in Melbourne we came to move to Shepparton in 1998 hoping that the weather, being more like Iraq's would be beneficial for all our health.
One month after arriving in Shepparton the Arabic population had expanded to 30 families. The government at this time was seen as wanting bilingual people to connect between communities, government and other service providers. I found myself in a position to be both student and teacher. At this early stage TAFE was holding English classes in a woman's home, distance education and other forms of home education were investigated and utilized. Eleven months after arriving I was teaching multicultural education, at three schools, I also worked with the police, childcare workers and the hospital to increase cultural awareness and as a certified official interpreter.
Among other things I have also trained with the Cancer Council to be of help with community health issues. All of which is to garner a better understanding for all involved as to the basic attitudes, habits and ways of life that make up our society.
Ali and I now have three children and we are happy to call Shepparton home and to continue our work in the field of multiculturalism.
Source: Suitcase Full of Dreams (Reproduced with permission)
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