When I think back to my year in Bucharest I realise that I was learning to be a refugee.
I arrived in the city — the capital of Romania, in Eastern Europe — in 1991. I was 16. With my parents and sister gone, I’d raided the cache of money in our house in Mogadishu and bought a ticket to Cairo then Bucharest, where I moved from house to house. You are not a refugee simply because you have no home and no country. No, you become a refugee little by little.
It’s not that things become more hopeless with each passing day, it is that you adapt to the hardship and, in a way — this will sound mad — you become an expert in hardship. You learn to sniff out relief, a free meal, a place of shelter that is available only for a day, and from kilometres away you seem almost to pick up the scent of kind people, perhaps of your faith, perhaps not, who are prepared to provide you with a coat and a big furry hat.
You accept the status of a beggar. You search out other beggars from your homeland, and comfort each other, listen to stories of escape. “Did you ever meet Mahdi (or Farxaan, Fowli, Habane, Guhaad)? He made it to Vienna. It cost him 500 Romanian leu [$160]. He went in a truck with a compartment underneath.” And stories of people who went even further, to Anchorage, Alaska, after travelling across Russia to Vladivostok — amazing!
And of people who one day gave up and jumped off a bridge into the Danube. You become ready to do things so dangerous that you wonder if you have gone mad and don’t yet understand that you’re mad. Some Somalis hide underneath trains and hang on for 10 hours as the train speeds towards Germany, and if they happen to fall asleep or lose their strength they are found the next day on the railway lines, so much as is left of them.
I am sorry to say that you learn to tell lies, too, when it is unavoidable, just as I did in Somalia, where my education as a refugee began. Back there, people might ask me if I was from the Rahanweyn clan, intending to kill me if I said yes. So I would say that I was not Rahanweyn, except for one time, when my pride refused to let me lie and I was taken prisoner. Do you see the lesson? Your pride can kill you. In your education as a refugee, telling the truth on every occasion is not only unwise, it is suicide. But I ask you to believe that such lies do not make an untrustworthy person of me. The number one rule is this: Stay alive. Things might get better one day.
That day came when I persuaded a man who owed my father a favour to agree to let me fly as his son to Melbourne, promising him money I did not have. After takeoff I confessed and on our arrival he walked away. I rang a contact I had been given in the refugee community. Once again, I moved from house to house. I became a nomad of the city.
After almost three months in Melbourne, I had a lot of experience of the refugee scene. It was really three communities: those who desperately wanted to remain in Australia and spent every day worrying themselves half to death; those who expected to be thrown out of Australia and had given up worrying about it; and those who were very confident that they would be given permanent residency in time and didn’t worry at all. Each of these communities was made up of a number of nationalities: Somalis; Kurds from Turkey, Kurds from Iraq, Kurds from Iran, Kurds from nowhere; Iraqis; Iranians; Sudanese; Ethiopians; Eritreans; Burmese; Cambodians; Chinese; Vietnamese; Afghanis. And more.
The members of each nationality believed that they had suffered more than the members of every other nationality. The Iraqis would think: This woman from Sudan, some bad guys set fire to her village and shot a few people. So what? In my village they killed everyone except me. Each group of refugees kept count of the visas that had been given out to other groups. Often people got jealous if one group was getting more visas than another. They’d say: “The Australian government loves the Iranians. You’re from Iran, they give you a visa if you feel a little bit depressed. We Ethiopians, we just about have to hang ourselves before they pay any attention. The Iranians can go to hell.”
All this jealousy and anger — I didn’t want anything to do with it. Nothing. I hated the tribal and clan rivalries in Somalia, and I hated what went on here. I can truthfully say that I gave every Somali my support in his or her struggle for a new life. I was happy, very happy, when someone succeeded in getting a temporary protection visa or permanency. Many of the Somalis were big-hearted, generous people, and I tried to hang around them more than those who had hours and hours of complaints. I thought: I was spared death, I was saved, I should be dead. Have I come all this way to Melbourne, Australia, to argue and complain? Is that why I was spared?
If you were a refugee and you were waiting to learn from the Immigration people if you could stay, you had all sorts of ideas. You’d say to yourself: “OK, probably they will kick me out, too bad, I’ll just go back to Somalia.” Or you might say: “OK, if they don’t want me, who cares? I’ll go to New Zealand somehow. Maybe they want me there.” Or you might have this idea: “OK, I’ll hide in the desert and live with the Aboriginal people.” But there was really only one thing you wanted, and one thing you were hoping for,
and that was a letter from the Australian government that said: “Sure, you can stay. You can get a job. This country can be your country, so relax.” That was your prayer.
And you hid that hope deep, deep in your heart. Even when refugees were waiting for a visa and they saw things about Australia that drove them crazy, like the stupid game of cricket, or if the refugees came from a very traditional country, very strict, and were always making a tut-tut sound with their tongues when they saw girls and women wearing hardly any clothes out in the street, what those refugees wanted more than anything was that letter from the Australian government that said: “Sure, you can stay.”
Once you’ve been a refugee, once you’ve been homeless and hunted, far from the care of anyone who loves you, then you are a refugee for life. You might become a very comfortable refugee — you might have your own house in a lovely suburb, money in your pocket, your mother just down the road — but you will still be a refugee.
Mohammad, a Somali guy I know, said: “Australians are like children. They have never seen anything bad.” It’s not true that Australians are like children exactly, but Mohammad was right in a way. In this country, apart from the people who came here as refugees, the only people who have ever known what it is to be hunted, made homeless, murdered in a casual way, are the Australian black people, the Aborigines. And I can guarantee you they have never forgotten what it is to be a refugee.
It took me years to understand even a small part of what an Australian who is born here knows in his bones, deep in his heart. It would be the same if a native Australian came to Somalia. He might live in Somalia for decades and carefully study everything in Somali culture — he might learn 20 dialects of Somali — and still he would be a stranger. Even today, Australians will say to me: “You must have been so happy to get out of that hellhole and find safety in Australia.” “Sure!” I say. But let me tell you the truth. I still love Somalia. The bloodshed, the violence, the drug-maddened soldiers with their guns, the poverty — all of that is horrible, but I love Somalia all the same.
I got permanent residency and became a community worker, but these days most of my work is as an inspirational speaker. I talk to audiences of all sorts, including lots of school kids. They ask: “Abdi, does it make you cry to see refugees packed into detention centres?” And “Abdi, what do you feel when refugees are treated like criminals?” I try to explain that refugees have been with us for thousands of years. Even in primitive times, tribes were forced to make journeys when drought and natural disasters drove them from their traditional homes.
Since nation states came into being, wars have created great crowds of refugees. They pack their belongings and take to the road, hoping for a new life in a new land. Often they’re not welcome. Think of the Jewish people, and their long, long struggle for acceptance. The thing is, you can’t expect a person who is hunted in his own land, or starved, or unable to make a living, to simply say: “OK, time for me to die.” We have refugees because human beings want to remain alive. That’s not unreasonable.
War is an industry, and it’s easy to run. Young men will always be attracted to AK-47 rifles. Young men, some of them, many of them, will always feel empowered when they know that they have been given the right to murder. Of course they will. They grow up without jobs, without a future, then suddenly they have more power than they ever imagined. They have a gun. But the industry of war doesn’t produce anything except corpses. Families yearn to escape. They don’t want to live in a country where murder goes on all day every day. Or if not murder then it is poverty that drives people onto the road.
And they think of the countries where people live in freedom, where people earn a good wage; countries where children can go to school for 12 years, then maybe to university. They think of Big Europe, of America, of Canada, of Australia. The Dream Lands. For most of these people, their journey will end in a camp, in worse poverty than they fled. Some, including me, against all odds, will reach Big Europe, Australia, Canada, America.
I’m still talking. The audience is still listening. I say: “There are millions of refugees in the world today, and millions more people still living in their own ravaged lands who wish to take to the road, and will, one day. Australia cannot take in hundreds of thousands of refugees each year — millions over a decade. I understand that. But nor can we say to the refugees on the road, on the seas: ‘You have no right even to try to reach Australia.’ These people do have a right to try. They have a right to their dreams. And I think we can find more imaginative things to say to them than: ‘Don’t even try. We will punish you if you do. We will keep you in camps that will cripple your brain. We will make you sorry you ever dreamt of Australia.’”
I want to say to the government: “Stopping the boats is no great feat. Think harder. This problem will be with us for decades to come. It will get bigger and bigger. Please, some imagination.” And I would say: “Maybe it’s better to be more generous than you have to be rather than less generous than you could be.”
And I tell the audiences about when I appeared on series two of Go Back to Where You Came From. This TV show on SBS takes a small group of Australian citizens — some very critical of asylum seekers — and flies them to places in the world where refugees come from. They learn first-hand about the conditions that drive people to seek a new life in another country.
People who have seen me on the show ask me: “Abdi, when people tell you to go back home, what do you say?” And this is my answer. I say: “No, thanks. Madmen with AKs will kill me.” And then I say: “Don’t you want me here? Really? With these good looks?”
Edited extract from Shining: The Story of a Lucky Man by Abdi Aden and Robert Hillman (HarperCollins Australia, $29.99), out May 25