(*names have been changed to maintain privacy)
There is a significant amount of misinformation and misunderstanding surrounding asylum seekers (in particular ‘boat people’) and refugees in Australia. In response, a number of people outside of the mainstream media have highlighted the need for refugees’ stories to be presented through mainstream outlets. My personal experience as a teacher of refugees and migrants has allowed me to see the human side of the refugee issue by hearing about the stories of people who have been granted asylum in Australia.
Below is a reflection I wrote after a numeracy class I had with a group of refugees and migrants in Brisbane in 2013.
We had our tests today in numeracy. I gave them the shopping docket test and the one on the ANZAC biscuits recipe. Attendance was good. I spent the first twenty minutes pre-teaching vocabulary and reminding the students to show their working on the test paper. When they started the test, a hush of concentration fell over the room, and I kept a lookout for anyone who needed help. Some students, especially the younger ones, worked quickly, only needing a little help with concepts and the wording of questions. A couple of the mature age students, Afghan men, lagged behind and needed a lot of explaining, although their maths skills were quite good. Hassan, who seems around seventy, laboured faithfully over his paper, scribing his working and answers methodically and accurately. Several times, when they were speaking to each other in Dari, I had to remind Hassan and Mustafa, a man in his late forties, to ask only me if they had any problems, as it was a test. I sensed their frustration building, but I had to keep it fair for all students and maintain the standards of the process.
I ended up spending another half an hour with Hassan after class. Apologetic and grateful for my help, he felt compelled to explain his slowness. His wife, in a beginner English class, came in and, after seeing us talking, sat down at the front of the room facing us. In what most people would call broken English (which was a huge improvement from when I first met him), Hassan recounted to me how he’d been denied the opportunity of an education in Afghanistan. He said, “I couldn’t have an education. Neither could my wife. Many times I’ve thought, ‘Why am I alive? What am I living for? Wouldn’t I be better off dead?’”
For many years, he had done business in Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan and Iran, so spoke five languages fluently, but he lacked the English to be able to work and support his family in Australia. He told me, with heartbreak on his weathered face, how in Afghanistan he and his sons had run a successful used car business and that, when he had refused to share his profits with the Taliban, they had killed two of his sons. As he spoke, tears ran down his face and his wife wept silently. Despite her very limited English, I felt she knew what her husband was talking about. After he told me they had brought their three daughters to Australia, he and his wife lit up with joy as they expressed their gratitude at being given a second chance at life.
Hassan came to Australia by boat with his wife and three daughters. Sadly, his third son and daughter-in-law died en route to Australia.
Many refugees have similar stories of escaping horrors such as the torture, rape and murder of people in their family or community. In many cases, the journey to asylum is long and painful. It can also include years enduring the conditions of overcrowded refugee camps. In some cases, mothers even resort to prostitution to attain limited food for their children while staying in a camp. Some asylum seekers have to go to several different countries before they are finally granted refugee status. For some, getting on an old boat to come to Australia is the last option for survival, not an easy way to a better life by ‘cutting the queue’. If someone is willing to leave their home country and give AUD20, 000 or more to a ‘people smuggler’ to make the perilous journey across the sea to Australia, then it must be an act of extreme desperation to escape a situation that promises dangers such as persecution, even death. Some families send their eldest son with all their savings, a gamble for safety.
In my nine years of teaching, I have never seen such determination to learn as I see among my refugee students. People like Hassan have rescued their families from imminent danger, giving them the chance to have a full and productive life. Though they may have experienced or witnessed horrific abuse, they live with a spirit of resilience and profound gratitude.
As Hassan told me, “Here, in Australia, I feel for the first time I am free. I have started to live here. I and my family are very happy here.”
Andrew Babkoff was an English language teacher in Seoul for five years. He is now an ESL teacher in Brisbane.