This story is about what it means to be welcomed and to feel safe. It was co-written by 83 young people aged 8–12 years from different cultural backgrounds representing almost all continents in the world. Some of them are from asylum seeker backgrounds, with vivid memories of escaping danger in their home country and building a new life in Australia.
My name is Shukri, and this is my brother Jaffar. We are twins, and we are both 10 years old. This is our story of how we came to Australia.
We come from a faraway land called Acaya–a dry, hot island with trees and dangerous animals everywhere. It doesn’t rain very often, so there are many droughts. The ocean is beautiful and filled with wildlife, and the only way to survive is to go fishing and build small shelters with sticks and leaves.
In Acaya, we lived with our Mother and Father in a small house. Dad was an engineer, and Mum had a stall at a nearby market. We went to primary school under a big tree. My favourite subject in school was maths, because I want to be a scientist when I grow up. Jaffar liked school too, but his favourite thing to do was to play soccer with his friends.
One day, our Dad came home looking very worried. He came to us and said, “Jaffar, Shukri, I think you two should stay at home from now on. No going to school or going to play soccer.’’
“No!” moaned Jaffar. “There’s a soccer match this weekend!”
Dad looked very serious. ‘’Jaffar,’’ he said quietly, ‘’we are in danger. There is a man attacking us — a man who can only be described as ultimate. There is violence and bombs everywhere, and the government cannot protect us anymore.’’
We thought the war was going to end, but it didn’t. There were many explosions, which destroyed our school and the market that our mother worked in.
We couldn’t go to school or see our friends, and soon we ran out of money and food. We couldn’t find a job because jobs are for big people. There was only one job we could do, and that was polishing shoes, so we did that to earn money for our family.
Many people died in the war, and when we saw people dying in front of us, we were scared that we might die too. We all felt sad and angry that the war was destroying our country. Sometimes Jaffar said he felt so angry that he wanted to break everything near him. When he felt like this, he would stay quietly on his own for a long, long time.
The night air was hot and still when a bomb was dropped near our house. We realized that the war would never end, and Acaya was not a safe place to be.
Dad heard from our neighbours that at midnight, there would be a boat to Australia.
“But we have no money, or friends, or house in Australia”, said Mum. “Everyone we love is here.”
“We must leave everything behind,” Dad replied, “our friends, our family, our country. It is our only hope if we want to survive.”
I felt very nervous and sad to leave, but deep down inside, I was also happy and excited because we were going to be saved. We were lucky to have this very special opportunity, and we couldn’t wait to find out new things in Australia.
Jaffar slipped his hand in mine, and I knew that he felt the same way. “We have to be brave to go to Australia,” he whispered.
“I know,” I whispered back.
As we said our goodbyes, tears streamed down our cheeks like endless waterfalls. We stepped onto the wooden planks that led to a tiny boat and I had to turn away. All the sad faces were digging into my heart. I had to let them go.
There were many people on the boat and there were no windows. It was crowded, humid and smelly. The cramped, hot space made me sick and tired.
All of a sudden, a storm hit. People were swaying from side to side and we rushed up to the deck to see what was happening outside. The rain pounded on us, and the wind was howling like a wolf, as we watched the silver lightning cracking and making its way through the angry clouds. The waves were high and taking control of the boat. Through the thick, frosty fog,
I could see a dark shape.
A misty black shadow emerged from the fog. The same thought crossed all our minds: a ship! We were going to be rescued! We started yelling in excitement, and waves of joyful tears began to run down our faces as the shadows crept closer…
The gangplank of the approaching ship slammed onto our rotted deck. I soon realised, devastatingly, that this was no rescue as men from the ship began to snatch our precious belongings. They yelled threats and pushed those who rebelled against them overboard, including Dad. Mum, Jaffar and I froze… We could not believe what we had just witnessed. The pirates took everything and left.
The boat sailed on.
A few days later, we woke up to hear everyone shouting, “sharks, sharks!” We ran to the side of the boat and saw two ferocious sharks. I felt sick and started vomiting on the rocking floor boards of the boat.
Finally, we landed on a rocky shore when a group of men in uniform came over speaking a foreign language which I could not understand.
We were ushered into a large car which felt unsafe. We drove for several long hours in the heat not knowing what lay ahead. We finally arrived at a place with barbed wire fences and mud brick buildings. Mum called it a ‘refugee camp’, and I wondered if this was our new home.
Two weeks passed and we were still in the camp. It was awful. I missed school. The only thing they taught us was how to speak English, but only little words like ‘yes’ and ‘no’. I missed my friends too, but most of all I missed Dad. At least there was one beacon of hope: tomorrow we were going to see if we got our Visas.
Tomorrow came and I held the results in my shaking hands. I unravelled the paper nervously. YIPPEE! We were getting out of here. Mum clasped the Visas in her hands as if they were gold. A man approached us and told us that we must catch another boat to go to Melbourne. Mum broke down like a glass shattering on the ground, and I knew she was thinking of the last time we were on a boat–when we lost our Dad in the churning waves.
The sun died and night rose. I tossed and turned through the night wondering if I could face the sea again. I woke—it was time. We caught a large boat that rocked and swayed in the waves, but felt safer than the last. A week on the boat passed quickly, and soon we had arrived in the land we had heard so many stories of: Australia.
Jaffar and I started school, but it was very difficult to learn new things because we did not understand much English. We were teased and left alone every day at school because of the language barrier. Everything was just so hard. The language, making friends, even maths was hard. My dream of ever becoming a scientist seemed like it had just been thrown out the window. No matter how much the teachers tried to help, the situation stayed exactly the same. Everyday Jaffar said to me while we were walking home, “Anything go well for you today?” And I always replied “No” in the same sad tone.
Things were just as hard for Mum. The only job she could find was in a wool spinning factory, which she didn’t enjoy because she had to work long hours, and in terrible conditions. Every time I saw her, her long, gorgeous hair was soggy, and I knew that she had been crying. I knew that she missed Dad and the life she had for life to keep our family safe. It hurt me to see her like that.
One Monday, as Jaffar and I were walking home from school, we heard a cheerful shout.
“Hello there! I haven’t seen you two around before. Do you live next door?”
Jaffar and I turned, surprised. No one had acknowledged us before, let alone been so kind to us. The voice belonged to a woman standing outside the house next door. She had beautiful, long, flowing hair and a smiling face.
“My name is Cara,” said the woman. She gestured to the bag of groceries she was holding in her hands. “You look hungry. Would you like some food? You can come into my house, my pantry is full.”
Cara was speaking too fast for us to follow everything she was saying, but we nodded cautiously because we wanted to be polite. Cara beamed and led us into her house. It was small and cosy, and filled with antiques. She gave us some delicious fruit. “So are you both at the school down the road?”, she asked. “My children go there, it’s a wonderful school. Unfortunately, my son is at soccer training and my daughter is at maths club, so you won’t be able to meet them today.”
I was excited to hear that she had children who liked the same things as we did–maybe we would finally have friends to play with! At school next day, they came to introduce themselves to us. The boy was called Jacob and the girl was Jessica. They were caring and included us in everything they participated in.
They were also willing to help us with our English. They started teaching us English on the weekends and mum came to learn as well.
Slowly, we got better and better. We could understand the teachers in school, and our grades improved quickly. I learned to divide decimals and add fractions, and was selected for a special science program in school.
Meanwhile, Jaffar practiced soccer with Jacob, and learned to kick his ball all the way to the gargantuan oak tree at the back of the school playground.
Meanwhile, life got better for Mum too. As she learned more English, she began tutoring other refugees, including other refugees from Acaya. More and more students came, and she earned enough money to enroll into a translating course at university.
One night, there was a knock on our door.
“It’s late. Who could that be?” whispered Mum worriedly.
We slowly went to open the door. Standing there was a man we thought we would never see again, his wide grin stretching from ear to ear.
“Dad!” yelled Jaffar. Dad hugged us, and then Mum, his eyes filling with tears.
“We thought you were dead,” said Mum, “I thought I would never see you again.”
“I was saved by a fishing boat that passed by,” replied Dad. “I eventually got to a refugee camp too, but you weren’t there. The people there helped me track you down. I’m sorry it took so long. I missed you every day.’’
Half a year has flown by, and we have settled into our new home in Australia. We still miss our family, home and friends in Acaya, and we wish we could speak to them and tell them how much we are thinking of them. There is very little opportunity to contact them as the war continues to rage in Acaya, but we often write letters, in the hope that some of them will reach the hands of the people we love.
We are still best friends with Jacob and Jessica.
Whenever we see new children in school, we always say smile and say hello, because we remember how it felt to come to a new school for the first time.
Even though we miss our homeland, we are happy to be given a fresh start in a safe place where we can grow and fulfil our potential.
The purpose of the story is to outline how refugees have difficult experiences and should be accepted and supported so that they can have meaningful lives in Australia. Like all children, it was important for Shukri and Jaffar to feel safe, to have a home, to be with their family, to attend school and have a sense of future.
A general note for everyone is to believe and have faith in yourself and good things will come, just as Shukri and Jaffar learnt to have faith even though they faced many challenges.
A message from Tienyi and Emma
As UNICEF Australia Young Ambassadors, we are passionate advocates for children’s rights. We believe that young people have the right to be heard on issues that are important to them.
In preparing for this book we worked closely with refugees and heard firsthand accounts of war and loss. Children from refugee backgrounds are entitled to speak about their experiences safely and to be respected. As UNICEF Young Ambassadors we also encourage young people to share their vision for a better, safer future. With this in mind, we developed a project to engage young people in Australia in conversations around human rights. This project had a particular focus on the issue of asylum seekers in Australia, and encouraged young Australians to express their views through creative story-telling.
We congratulate the talented students who participated from Dandenong West Primary School, Holy Spirit Primary School and Camberwell Girls Grammar School, who have come together to create this story. A sincere thank you, also, to their teachers for their support throughout the project. A picture speaks a thousand words, and we are grateful to Emma and Karishma of Kish+Co, as well as illustrator Cara Tune, who helped us bring this story to life.
Tienyi Long and Emma Crane
UNICEF Australia Young Ambassadors (2013–14)
UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund) works in over 190 countries to promote and protect the rights of children. In Australia, UNICEF advocates for the rights of all children to be realized. It works to improve public and government support for child rights and international development.
UNICEF’s vision is of a world where the basic rights of every child will be met.