When Perth woman Maria Aziz stepped back into Afghanistan to provide counselling for her people who had seen the wretchedness of multiple wars envelop their country for decades, she expected to feel a sense of belonging and communal connection.
She left as a teenager with her family in the middle of a night in 1987, due to the ongoing Soviet-Afghan war. She spent five years living in India, before being granted refugee status and arriving to Australia.
In Australia she had studied, and using the capacity building and counselling expertise she’d gained, Aziz returned to Afghanistan to provide support to the vulnerable Afghan community. For years later, at Kabul Airport, as she prepared to fly back to Australia, she saw something in the terminal that deeply resonated with the disconsolate ache inside her.
“You know how at the airport there’s a bag that goes round and round and nobody claims it?’ she says.
“When I went back, I felt like that.
“I didn’t belong to Australia and I didn’t belong to my own people because my own people didn’t trust me.
“I was just this bag that always goes around the belt and it belongs to nobody.”
Aziz struggles to hold back tears as she explains a big source of inner turmoil for herself and many other refugees.
“You always have this longing to belong again to the home that you left and the memories of childhood.
“You always expect that the country will be fine one day and this illusion is always going to stay with refugees forever.”
The war in Afghanistan and the Syrian civil war created some of the largest refugee crises in the world. The former, over a 20-year period, forced more than 5.9 million Afghan to either flee the country or become internally displaced. The latter created the current largest refugee crisis in the world. How does a refugee cope with the feeling of indefinite disconnection from home and how does time, along with personal experience shape one’s perspectives on the conflict?
There are 13.5 million forcibly displaced Syrians. About half are internally displaced across Syria, the other half are refugees or asylum seekers in other countries. The majority escape to countries nearby.
In 2015 the situation in Syria continued to worsen and Australia responded by allowing a one-off intake of 12,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees in addition to their current annual resettlement programme of 13,750. Majority of these spots were given through United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or Red Cross selection.
Aisha Hamwe and Ahmed Youseif’s stories
Aisha Hamwe and Ahmed Youseif live in Perth and are Syrian refugees that came as a part of this intake, but with very different stories. Hamwe fled Syria while pregnant with her other five children, one of whom was suffering burns, to Lebanon in May 2012. Her husband was twice targeted by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s militia.
“Two times they wrapped his hands and started to make knife gestures.”
Hamwe explains both times her husband was beaten, thrown in a rubbish bin and threatened with death if he didn’t join the Assad regime.
“He said ‘no I can’t do that because it is our people’.”
Hamwe and her family fled from Syria a year after the conflict began. She spent five years in Lebanon and then arrived in Perth in 2018.
The war which was sparked by the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings across the Middle East has caused indescribable pain, destruction and misery for civilians caught in the crossfire. The conflict became so harmful and bloody that in 2014 the UN gave up trying to accurately document the death toll. In September this year, 10 years into this ongoing war, the UN provided new statistics of the death toll: 350,209 identified people.
One in 13 is a woman or child.
This is said to be a harsh “undercount”.
It’s no wonder half the population of Syria have fled their homes like Hamwe and Youseif’s families.
Both Hamwe and Youseif work as kitchen hands at a restaurant in Victoria Park called Petra. Restaurant owner Radi Elshqeirat has hired a number of refugees in the six-month period his restaurant has been open. According to Elshqeirat there’s no truly authentic Middle Eastern restaurants in Perth. His restaurant is not only about bringing Middle Eastern cuisine to locals, but also to the community that misses it back home.
“We are like family, at our restaurant … I named our group with all my employees in Whatsapp Petra Family, in it we sit and talk and we know what everyone misses about home.”
Youseif escaped with his family from Syria in 2013 and lived in a refugee camp in northern Iraq, a region also referred to as Kurdistan. He spent six years there before arriving in Australia in 2019. As the war evolved into a complex power struggle between major powers asserting influence, sectarian terrorist groups and people striving for independence, this small region took in nearly all Syrian refugees that fled to Iraq. Close to 250,000 registered refugees live in this region and about 40 per cent are in one of the nine refugee camps there. Youseif saw the camp he was in transform from a shanty town full of tents into a more established area with a semblance of safety and security.
“People started building their houses by themselves and they got some support from the government,” he says.
“They started making markets and shops just like our country and we felt a little bit safer.”
He doesn’t remember much from Syria as he was only seven when they left. There are some aspects of the camp he misses, such as the ease of organising a game of soccer with his friends who lived very close, as opposed to here where he must catch a train and bus to meet any of his newly made friends. He’s aiming to study computer science at Curtin next year and is looking forward to it.
For Hamwe, she misses many parts of her life in Syria, but is now deeply conflicted.
“I miss my country … firstly celebration, Eid-al-Fatah and Eid-al-Adha, religious celebration and living with family, connecting with family,” she says.
She speaks fondly of Krak des Chevaliers castle near the village she lived in, where she would often go with other women to have tea, coffee and fruit.
“We can forget everything, all your problems of the day, I miss when we’d go and have a picnic there.”
“I do miss some things, but I hate everything there because we had many problems there and I can’t forget everything.”
Youseif has hope he’ll one day be able to return to Syria and reconnect with many of the friends he made in northern Iraq, who are now spread across the globe. He believes the situation is slowly improving.
“Nowadays it is getting better, we’ve started hearing less about the problems happening there, ” he says.
For Hamwe, Syria can never become a peaceful nation under the Assad regime; her voice is sombre and resolute.
“We don’t have peace there, if Assad is living there, we can’t get peace, for we know everything about this man.
“This is a bad man, he kills his people, we can’t get peace.”
Aziz Serat’s perspective from inside and outside Afghanistan
Aziz Serat is a Hazara man from Afghanistan who works in a textile factory in Welshpool. He arrived in Australia in March 2010 through a long journey that involved being smuggled across multiple countries. He first flew from Kabul to Pakistan where he then paid US 2000 dollars for a fake Pakistani passport.
“I went to Pakistan, Malaysia, Thailand to Indonesia and then from Indonesia I came by boat to Christmas Island,” he says.
From Indonesia he paid a people smuggler for a boat ride with 52 other people to Christmas Island.
“It was very risky; it took me one and a half months to get to there.”.
Serat had to leave the province he lived in called Daykundi due to issues with a nearby Pashtun community.
“It was not safe for us, that was one reason, but the other reason was just to get a better life.”
His friends questioned him about the decision to leave as he had a good business.
“I said Afghanistan will never ever be secure and safe, probably one day you’ll be unable to even move to another province … it’s a good time to leave, at least you can provide a passport, buy a ticket, you can travel somewhere.”
Serat got his permanent residency and after four years of providing money to his family back home and visiting them in India and Pakistan twice, they were able to come to Australia.
When the Taliban first took to power in 1996, they kidnapped and killed Serat’s brother. He says Afghanistan under the Taliban was ‘like a prison, not a home to live’, but he remembers when the US invaded in 2001 and drove the group out of all its strongholds within a matter of weeks.
Serat spent the next nine years seeing US and Allied forces every day. Troops patrolling the streets, advisors and foreign correspondents. He remembers a day he drove in to Kabul to visit someone in hospital. Caught behind some slow-moving US army vehicles, he went to overtake them, but did so unknowingly from the wrong lane. Due to this, the soldiers shot at and rammed his car.
“I lived in a province, I came to the city and I didn’t know any rules about it, I just took over and they fired at me.
“They damaged my car and they didn’t stop … it cost me nearly two-thousand dollars.”
According to Serat, Kabul still felt like a war zone whenever he’d visit and from what he could see, money was being wasted by America on a corrupt, inept government.
“America did a good job in the beginning, but after a while they changed everything.
“They didn’t care about the corruption, they just paid the money and didn’t look where the money was going,”
He would see infrastructure built and then brought down by Taliban forces shortly after.
“They were spending 50 million for a building and after a month it was destroyed by Taliban … the money gone for nothing.”
Serat observed the latter half of the war from outside Afghanistan. He’s both pessimistic about a foreseeable liberation of Afghanistan and suspicious of why countries may have been involved or want to capitalise on this new power shift.
“I think some of the intelligence services between countries is very dirty.
“It has happened many times during the last 40-50 years, someone always comes into Afghanistan.”
He says while he’s uncertain of how things will play out now, he doesn’t believe Afghanistan will ever be a peaceful place.
“In 15 days, Afghanistan collapsed … who knows what will happen next, it’s very hard to predict … the only I can predict is that Afghanistan will never be a good place to live.”
Serat notes one major change in this 20-year period he believes will force the Taliban to act with more caution.
“The difference is not because of Taliban or America or any other change, it’s because of technology,” he says.
“They’re not scared of a bomb at the moment, but they are very scared of a mobile phone camera.”
“The Taliban is a bit under pressure because they are expecting countries to help them, but countries are saying ‘if you don’t respect women, we don’t help you’ … the difference is the power of the media.”
Finding peace and strength
Maria Aziz routinely meditates to stay mentally strong. She knows she must to be able to support her community. Along with meditation, she believes in shifting the perspectives of refugees from a single victim mentality, to perceiving oneself as part of a community and being ‘responsible’ for the wellbeing of the community.
“The more we hear what’s happening the more we have to become united, we have to understand each other, we have to offer more help, we have to change our position,”
“Instead of being the victim, be the saviour, be the person who saves others, by being the helper you become stronger, it’s human nature.
“By doing something for others we can forget our own pain.”