Warming Hearts, Warring Worlds

He gives everyone a lifejacket but you.

Though you are 6,000 kms away from a war that roars across the snow-kissed mountains of your beloved Parachinar; though over 3,700 miles separates you from the Kurram River that weeps at the destruction of its ravaged gorges; fear has not left you.   

Instead, you wonder whether you have traded one death sentence for the next as the engine fails and the old boat moans under the angry tumbling of ocean. The familiar wails of sirens fade, replaced by shrieks of foreign tongues, as Iraqis and Sri Lankans scramble to hold on.

Very few of you know how to swim, but somehow you survive. Hope is all you carry, and faith, in turn, is what safely carries you to shore, only for it to be rebuffed by the maddening silence of detention. Words soon lose their meaning as numbers replace names. Days dangle their limp limbs across the wire, scrawling shadows that stretch and curl into each other; heads bowed in shame, refusing to answer the whens and whys of your questions.

Of course, I don’t know all this straight away. By the time we met, you were cast in the half-lights of hope like the moons of Ibn Rushd. You had learnt to speak over three languages and cook for over 20 people. But at 17, you had lived through more than some people would experience over a lifetime. One of fourteen asylum seeker boys in community detention, you were matched by the Red Cross with Aussie volunteers like me so your moon does not further dim.

At first, I was worried about what I could say to you. I didn’t know what was appropriate to talk about. I wasn’t sure how closely you’d follow your Afghan cultural norms or whether you’d judge me by my lack of adherence to my Lebanese ones. My natural curiosity battled my empathy, burning questions about your journey held back—just.

But out of all the volunteers, you chose me. In the safety of Canberra, we would sit under eucalyptus trees that streaked aluminium, under a naked sky that stilled itself in azure. Cockatoos gossiped loudly as cars buzzed along in the neighbouring streets.  

As our Afghani and Australian worlds warred, we warmed our hearts by sharing stories of home. We played card games my grandfather taught me and ate traditional Afghani meals your mother used to cook. We talked about the mountains that ringed our childhood, discovered words that tied my Arab heritage to yours, consoled each other over the pangs for those we loved but were scattered like stars across the world, too far for us to see or touch. The only times you’d ever get angry at me were when I resisted your offers of gifts (chocolate at first, meals later) as it was against policy.

It’s been six years now since we first met. We have become very good friends. With each visit back to Canberra, I’ve watched your life flourish. Cheered you on as you gained refugee status. Marked milestones with you as you bought your own car, moved into a new place and gained meaningful employment. Rejoiced when you got married and could finally share your life with someone else, forging a new chapter in your remarkable story.

Some people think that asylum seekers and refugees are taking things away from us when they ask for our help. But in this game of cards my friend, you have won all the hearts, and it is my turn to fold. For you have given me more than I could’ve ever asked for or imagined.

You taught me to think beyond the context of culture and see the human. You gave me perspective over my own life. You reminded me how the colour of our skin and fuzzy lines old white men drew on a map over seventy years ago could so horribly dictate destiny. That in the safety of Australia, ‘home’ is a luxury I get to enjoy without fear that it – and all the loved ones in it—could at any second be taken away from me.

More importantly, you taught me that heroes can’t be found in comic books or Hollywood blockbusters. Instead, heroes are people like you who withstand and defy the horrors of the world even when the sun slithers under the horizon; who never lose hope and love, even when the path ahead is uncertain or full of hate.

For as you say to me, even to this day, cheeky and humorous as ever:

“Hard times are like a washing machine; they twist, turn and knock us around, but in the end, we come out cleaner, brighter and better than before.”

This article was first published on 1 April 2017