BMRSG members John Hockney and Phil Voysey organised a series of interviews with three refugees which was held in five high schools during Refugee Week. George Winston (BMRSG secretary) had the privilege of attending a session at Springwood High School at which the speaker was Najeeba and he had tears in his eyes much of the time. John has provided the following account:
Refugee Week became the focus for the BMRSG, ‘Conversations with a Refugee’.
The project featured three refugees; Najeeba Wazefadost from Afghanistan, Mye Aye from Burma and Noel Zihabamwe from Rwanda.
Mye Aye, pronounced (Mee-a), presented at Winmalee Grammar School, the first of our school programmes.
John Hockney created Powerpoint visuals to support Mye’s story whilst Phil Voysey asked the questions.
Mye was a student at University in the last year of his physics degree when the student revolt against the military began. He participated, becoming a leader but consequently had to flee Burma to save his life. Travelling down the coast on a small boat Mye reached Thailand and headed for the border refugee camp. He knew if he could travel to Bangkok he may be accepted by the UNHCR as a legitimate refugee. UNHCR granted Mye refugee status, but he had to remain in hiding with other Burmese because Thailand frequently sent Burmese refugees back across the border. Thailand is not a signatory to the UN convention.
Luck came along when Monash University in Melbourne was granting free degrees to Burmese students who qualified. Mye was accepted and majored in Social Studies. He now works in Social and Community affairs for Wesley Mission Family services in Penrith.
He could not contact his family to let them know he was safe in case of reprisals.
Najeeba Wazefadost left Afghanistan when she was twelve. She is a Hazara. The Taliban had destroyed her village and raped the women. Her best friend was raped and as Najeeba passed her house saw her friend’s mother crying over her friend’s body found on their doorstep. Women were not educated except in the Koran. If they did not wear full burkas they would be killed. Najeeba’s father wanted his children, all his children to be educated, that too was part of the decision to leave.
They sold all they had: their farm and their cattle, taking only what they could carry. Walking at night so as not to be seen by the Taliban became slow progress with Najeeba’s mother seven months pregnant and younger sisters to sometimes carry. Eventually reaching Pakistan, it was here a ‘people smuggler’ made contact. Refugees are easily identified and vulnerable to smugglers.
The place Australia was mentioned many times as a paradise and it was far away. However, not one of Najeeba’s family had ever heard of Australia, never knew it was a continent.
They paid all they had, US$30,000 except for some kept to look after her mother when she gave birth. The family was flown to Indonesia, taken to a room and told never to go out. Their daily nourishment was yoghurt diluted with water that the family devoured at every opportunity.
Najeeba’s mother began to get her birthing pains and insisted she leave the room and be taken to a hospital. Because they could not speak the local language the doctors refused to treat her as she had no identification and very little money. Through an interpreter they managed to have help with the birth: a little brother for Najeeba. They were happy the mother and the baby were well, but angry that at this time they had another mouth to feed.
Soon after the birth they were told to pack quickly as a boat was leaving within the next two hours. When they reached the wharf the boat was already full. It was a fishing boat. They argued they had paid their money and should have a bigger boat as they had been told. “It is now or never, this boat takes you to a bigger boat where everyone will be comfortable”, they were told.
The journey was a nightmare. There was never a bigger boat, they sailed for 10 nights eventually reaching Australian waters. By this time the boat had sprung a leak but Australian coast guards told them they must turn round. They had to back track until they were out of sight, then turned again this time reaching within sight of Darwin. Again they were apprehended but this time they were allowed to travel onto the coast.
Each person was searched, photographed holding a number in front of them and then they were taken to Curtin Immigration Detention Centre near Broome.
Najeeba recalls it was the desert. Nothing but parched earth. Three sets of barbed wire were set between the front gates and refugee accommodation. For children this was especially difficult. There was nothing to do except watch a television fastened to a wall. One day they were given an Oxford English dictionary. Having never had the opportunity to learn English they didn’t know how to handle the book, or how to read the words. No lessons were provided.
Two years later they were given their freedom and flown to Hobart. Because they had flown over water they did not think they were still in Australia.
At the airport a woman came to them, She wore a broad smile and was the turning point for the family. She helped them through the difficult time of settling into the community.
However, the family moved to Sydney. Najeeba went to school. She studied English using every moment to learn. Remember she was twelve years old.
Now at the age of 24, she speaks English fluently, passed her HSC, went to University, got a degree and is now studying post grad for a degree in psychology. In twelve years she took the opportunity for education with both hands. Her father said, it is now time you gave back to Australia.
Najeeba is certainly doing that.
After she appeared on Q&A, she went home to be confronted by fifteen Afghan men who told her to stop decrying Afghan women.
She took no notice, but these are the risks many refugees who speak out have to contend with. She loves her freedom.
Noel Zihabamwe is from Rwanda. His mother and father were murdered after he and his sister fled to the Kenyan border with his godfather. The war was devastating to Rwanda. The radio broadcast daily bulletins encouraging murder. Though so many had lived together in harmony, neighbours turned against neighbours. You could trust no one. They marched with thousands of others to the refugee camp, eating whatever they could at the wayside. Their time in the refugee camp was Spartan and difficult.
Sanitation was very bad. Shelters had earth floors with one mattress to each shelter. All the refugees in camps rely on foreign aid otherwise they would not survive.
Infiltrators mixed with refugees so people were cautious about sharing stories.
Food lines could take hours to receive their daily meals, by the time one got fed it was virtually back to the queue again.
Eventually because of their ages they were put into an orphanage in Nairobi.
When Noel was 18 he applied for refugee status which was granted. He was given the option of choosing USA, Canada, or Australia. He chose Australia because it was the furthest away.
Once Noel arrived he also used education to improve himself. He took a degree and now works with community and refugees with St Anthony’s Family Care at St Mary’s. He has been informed a brother is alive. His motto is THERE IS NO FUTURE WITHOUT FREEDOM.
The project was successful beyond our wildest dreams. Teachers and students hearing first hand experiences were moved by the courage and determination of the refugees. Some students had never really considered the issues until they experienced face to face contact and questioning of the truth.
One school the headmistress stayed for the sessions and arranged a lunch with a Human Rights forum of students. If this is the reaction we can expect from the project of “Conversations With A refugee” the future shows definite hope.
We thank Mye, Najeeba and Noel for their courage and humanity to others all making a big difference to the country we share, Australia.