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A Refugee Called Mahyar

June 16th, 2020

Categories: Blog

I want to tell you a story about a Grade 4 boy called Mahyar. He went to a school that I worked at in Sydney. He was the same age then, that my oldest daughter Isla is now. But first, I need to tell you how I got to meet him.

In 2012, I moved back to Sydney with my family. I’d worked for a decade as a Project Manager at Monash University in the department of IT, but I needed a change. I decided to work with kids with special needs, so I went back to study.

My first job was at a school in a low socio-economic suburb in the Western Suburbs of Sydney. I expected to be working with kids who were living with autism, Down Syndrome and other special needs, and I did.

But what was different about this school was that it was located right next to Villawood Immigration Detention Centre. Under International Convention, ‘all children have the right to an education’, so many asylum seeker children were sent to the local primary school – my school – Granville South Public, for their education.

The school also had a high population of refugee children from countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. Because of that, I found myself working with a group of children who had a different set of needs, like dealing with the trauma of being a child soldier, displacement and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

So that’s how I met Mahyar. He was from Afghanistan, and he was 10 years old.

One day, while walking to Choir practice for the School Spectacular, Mahyar and I got chatting and he started to tell me his story. If I’m truly honest, from the minute he started talking, I felt like I had a good sense of where he was going. I watch the news.  Julia Gillard was Prime Minister. The ‘stop the boats’ debate was still in full swing.

Mahyar told me how he lived in Afghanistan and how he loved it. He told me how he loved his house and living with his mum and dad and baby brother. How he shared a room with his brother, and his mum and dad were in the room next to his, which he liked because he knew they were close by and he wasn’t scared during the night. He told me how one day, after weeks of not being able to buy simple food like bread, milk and eggs because the Taliban had hiked up the prices of everyday items. Eggs became the equivalent of $90 Australian dollars.

His parents came to him and said that they were going to leave Afghanistan and move to a beautiful place called Australia. A place where his aunty and uncle had already moved, a year earlier, and loved. His father had told him that the journey there would be an adventure – riding in trucks and boats. The boat ride to Australia, his father said, would be magical.

The reality of that trip, was far from what he was told.

His story started in Indonesia where he spent the first night sleeping on the kitchen floor of some lady he’d never met with his mum, dad and brother. There was no pillow or mattress and it was uncomfortable. But he didn’t complain, he just told me that matter-of-factly.

Then in the middle of the night they were woken up and driven to a waiting truck, somewhere on a dirt road, with no street lights.  The truck was so crowded that they had to squish in and find a place to sit, on the floor, knees drawn to his chest and his arms wrapped around his shins.

And then they drove, and drove and drove and drove……for what felt like days. They had limited food, it was extremely hot and stuffy and it smelt. They only stopped at night for the toilet, so if you were busting, and it was during the day, you simply went where you were sitting. He told me how he remembered wondering why they couldn’t roll up the canopy of the truck to get fresh air. But he didn’t dare ask. Nobody spoke.

After what he said felt like weeks, they arrived at the water where the magical boat was to be waiting. It was night time, and when he looked out at the water, he couldn’t see any boat. Off shore, about 200 meters, he saw some faint lights on a rickety fishing boat, but that was all.

It turns out that was the magical boat they had driven all this way to go on. The boat that his father had spent months and months saving for. And he couldn’t swim. And neither could his mother or brother. So, one trip after another, his dad swam his mother, his brother, and then himself out to the fishing boat.

All their belongings packed into a couple of plastic bags got soaked. Just like the truck, there was limited space to sit on the deck of the boat, so he resumed his position – knees drawn to his chest and arms wrapped around his shins.

At this point, I was expecting the story to be all about a crowded boat ride, rough seas, the boat being intercepted and the asylum seekers being taking to the Christmas Island Detention Centre. I know that all happened, but it turns out that wasn’t the point of his story.

His story, was about the beautiful whales that he saw as he sat on the deck of the boat. His story, was about how they swam next to the boat for almost the entire trip, from Indonesia to Australia –  diving and disappearing and resurfacing almost like they were guiding him on his adventure.

His story, the story he was telling me, was about how lucky he was to have been able to see and experience this.  And when he finished telling me ‘his’ story, he looked at me and said:

‘How lucky am I miss?’

Mahyar’s story, and my pre-conceived idea of what he wanted to say, is at the core of my question to you.

How do you put aside what you think someone is going to say and learn from their actual experience?

When someone is telling you a story, if you are truly honest with yourself, how often do you assume that you know what they’re going to say and why they’re going to say it? How often do you sit there thinking about what you’re going to say next, rather than listening to the words that are being spoken to you?

Four years later, I started working for a not-for-profit organisation called Stand Up – running programs for Sudanese refugees.  In my job application for that role, I started by talking about my experience of the children at Granville South Public School. Understanding their experiences helped me get that job – and the one that I am now blessed to have at Little Dreamers. If I hadn’t listened to stories like Mahyar’s, I would be working somewhere else.

So, what happens when you chose not to focus on learning from actual stories and experiences?

Take the racially charged misconceptions of the Sudanese community broadcast in the media and political debate. These news stories and political sound bites are not the lived stories of the actual Sudanese community that I’m lucky enough to work with. They are stripped of complexity and understanding.

This is how the wrong perception of the Sudanese community have become the normal.

These simplistic and stereotypical characterisations do not tell of their incredible stories of their lives back in Sudan, the degrees they studied at Uni, the jobs they had, the family units they belonged to, the cousins and parents they are still supporting back in Sudan and South Sudan, the struggles of a new country, culture, language, education system. The difficulty they have advocating for their community. The feelings of powerlessness.

If only those controlling the public debate, particularly politicians and parts of the media were to listen to their story and learn from their actual experience.

So, I ask you the question:

How do you put aside what you think someone is going to say and learn from their actual experience?

And what will you do when you truly hear them?

Article by Laura Rood, Education Program Manager at Little Dreamers

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