Mothers and Sons

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By Peter van der Sluijs (Own work)  via Wikimedia Commons

Tomorrow morning, I shall bid my seventeen-year-old son farewell as he travels to another city to begin his undergraduate studies. These past weeks, as friends have learnt of his move, many have peered me and asked, ‘How are you doing?’

‘I’m fine,’ I bravely reply. ‘I feel that this is the best opportunity for his future.’

There are moments when nostalgia seizes me and tears threaten, but intellectually, rationally, I believe the time is right for him to leave home and experience the wider world.

It made me reflect on a vastly different farewell that I have been writing about. Remember the Sri Lankan asylum seeker I wrote about previously? Let’s call him Suthan. His father was killed in 1989 and his older brother disappeared in 1995.

In Suthan’s words, this is how it happened: My mother was very sad so she decided to send me away. She knew very well that I wouldn’t join the Tamil Tigers because I am not interested at all; I was a frightened boy. But my mother wanted to keep me safe, so she decided to send me to another country. I didn’t want to go; I really felt like shit. For one month I couldn’t cope.

What, you may ask, compelled Suthan’s mother to surrender her only remaining son, and an exorbitant sum of money, to people smugglers? The only answer, in my mind, is that the alternative was worse.

Indeed, in 1995, in Sri Lanka, it was very dangerous to be a young Tamil male – a potential recruit to the Tamil Tigers and a deadly threat to the predominantly Singhalese army. Therefore, Suthan’s mother sent him away even though he was only nineteen and there were no guarantees, no certainties. She was buying hope and the chance, however tenuous, that her son will survive.

I used to see migrants as different to refugees. I am writing a story about them, not about me. But more and more, I see it as a spectrum, with the forced migration of refugees on one end and my voluntary migration on the other.

But the commonality is that we move because we hope for better things. It is only human to act on hope.

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Seeing life through the lens of death

Since moving away in 2001, I have returned to Malaysia and Singapore each year to spend time with family. As the years passed, I have noticed loved ones growing old, often witnessing one year’s worth of ageing in a single visit. Chinese New Year celebrations this year were tinged with sadness. My uncle and cousins were still in black, mourning the recent passing of their beloved wife and mother.

Leo Tolstoy
Rees Leo Tolstoy

While I was in Singapore, I read Tolstoy’s The death of Ivan Ilyich. Without sentimentality, Tolstoy describes the various stages of pain, panic and depression that beset Ivan as his unnamed disease progresses. It is painful to read, but the most wretched moment is when Ivan realises that he has spent his whole life on things of inconsequence: societal approval, salary increase, house decor. Why had he not instead sought out those rare moments of genuine human connection he had experienced early in life?

So, 2017 has arrived. I have been working on this book for more than three years. I’d like to think that it is very nearly complete. In fact, I printed out all 168 pages today. I am usually miserly with my printer toner; it’s a big step for me. Having given myself the last two and a half weeks off for travel, I will, starting tomorrow, read it through from beginning to end and mark the places where the prose and logic are found wanting. So I continue working toward the hope of publication.

But if I regard my interviews with refugees and migrants primarily as a means to writing a book, would I, like Ivan Ilyich, have focused on professional competence and missed the moments that truly mattered? So I recalibrate my mindset: the journey is about the people first; the book is a by-product. People before projects. Always.

Foreign workers, foreign languages

Each time I return to Malaysia, I eat dim sum, or as it’s known in Australia, yum cha. Pushing trolleys of bamboo steamers and plastic plates, waiters and waitresses call out har gaw (prawn dumplings), siu mai (pork dumplings), dan tat (egg tarts).

Jen
Jen

Without looking up at their faces, I cannot distinguish if the speakers are Chinese or Burmese, so perfect is their pronunciation. As I travel through Singapore and Malaysia, the language acquisition of foreign workers never ceases to amaze the English teacher in me. In class, my worksheets and role playing exercises cannot achieve the same results.

It was with lofty ideas of learning how to improve resettlement services that I embarked on this story collecting journey – forty years of refugee resettlement and six stories, the stories winding through thirteen countries. But as I near the the end of it, I realise my folly.

Heck, I’m not even an hourly paid instructor at TAFE anymore. What hope do I have of improving the delivery of English in Australia? To persuade employers to give migrants a chance? Use an apprentice system, perhaps coupled with tailored English lessons. Language has to be used to be acquired. Classroom teaching alone will never deliver.

In interviewing people and writing their stories of forced migration, I was, I think, at a deeper level, looking for an excuse to seek out such stories because my students had made my predictable life more interesting. They were unemployed, being paid to attend math and English lessons, but they made me laugh and put my daily inconveniences into perspective. I felt more alive, more human, more in touch with the world for having known them.

Harmony Day Celebrations

Ethiopian Bread Basket
Ethiopian Bread Basket

Last Sunday, at the Migration Museum in Adelaide, Anette and Zaid demonstrated how to make Injera, an Eritrean/Ethiopian flatbread. They have kindly agreed to share their Eritrean flat bread and beef stew recipe here. Anette became a mentor to Zaid as part of the Fuse Mentoring program, run by Baptist Care, where new arrivals are paired up with volunteers who help them find their feet in Australia.

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Outside the cooking demo hall, under a gazebo, an articulate young lady from Congo was delivering a speech to a small crowd. She described her experience of arriving in Australia as ‘landing on the moon.’ Bryan Hughes, the Fuse Mentoring coordinator later said that having a friend is a real lifeline for new arrivals, who might have little or no English skills.

The Australian Refugee Association (ARA) and Welcome to Australia  were partners in this event. All these organisations welcome volunteers. Various other groups in Adelaide also do their bit to help new arrivals, such as holding free English classes and coffee mornings. It seems timely to put up an  information page where various refugee resettlement resources in Adelaide can be listed in one place so that resources and needs can be more easily matched. I have therefore set up a page on this blog – Adelaide Asylum Seeker & Refugee Support – where groups providing services to refugees and asylum seekers can share their contact details and say a bit about what they offer.

If we work together, we can achieve more.

Ancient civilisations meet

Lamia with pizza - Iraqi style
Lamia with pizza – Iraqi style

When I drove across Adelaide for my first interview with Sabah and Lamia from Iraq, I had fanciful ideas about 5000 years of Chinese civilisation meeting 5000 years of Mesopotamian culture. You might remember Sabah from my previous post as the playwright, who discovered, taught, and fell in love with his leading lady, Lamia.

I took off my shoes at the door, as Chinese people do (and probably Iraqi people too judging by their bare feet) and exchanged greetings, and saw that Lamia had laid out a feast on the coffee table – a three-tiered plate of nuts and Ferrero Rocher chocolates, a six pack of coke with Italian crystal glasses to drink from, three kinds of cake and a platter overflowing with fruit.

At the end of the first interview, the family invited me for a biryani lunch the following week before the second interview. I foolishly declined. I was thinking of all the cooking that Lamia would have to do. You see, I used to teach Lamia English and she used to come into class tired from all the cooking and cleaning she had done in the weekend, and I wanted to spare her that. But as I drove away, I realised what an opportunity I had squandered.

I turned up mid-afternoon instead for the second interview. This time I met their grandson, playing on an iPad. Lamia gave me a tour of their home, I saw their fruit trees, the pergola they built, and she showed me a newspaper cuttings of their youngest son who does gymnastics and Parkour. Their younger daughter, Ranin, joined us mid-way through the interview, munching on a cucumber, and I found out that she has her own personal fitness business. Some of the before and after photos she showed me were spectacular and I wondered if I should sign up. I reflected on the many similarities between our families – chess, gymnastics, guitar strumming, picky eaters – and just by observation, I thought that both Lamia and I, as mothers, spend a lot of time shopping, cooking, and serving food.

The second interview was much more relaxed than the first. In fact, we were just chatting towards the end and Sabah said, ‘We’re going off topic.’ But it was in the chatting that I dropped my writer’s hat and simply became someone making new friends. And it was in that moment that I think I got closer to understanding what it cost them to flee Iraq, and what life is like for them now.

I’ll be spending the next few weeks writing up their amazing story for the book, Place of Refuge – a collection of creative non-fiction stories of displaced people who have made their home in Adelaide.

Sabah has kindly supplied the photos below.

Lamia Alkhad on the stage
Lamia Alnashi on stage.
Chess is a favorite game in my family
Chess –  a favourite game of the family
My family in Morialta 2015
The family at Morialta, 2015