Previously in Refuge#29 Safe Games such as Chess: Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial rule caused Sabah and his family to welcome the American invasion of Iraq in April 2003. But the Abu Gharib prison photos in early 2004, daily escalating violence and, finally, a death threat on Sabah compelled the family to flee to Jordan.
‘I have learnt that through honesty, we can reach our goals,’ said Sabah to the Australian ambassador in Jordan when the family was accepted as refugees by Australia, six months after fleeing Iraq.
There was some surprise among their friends at the apartment who had predicted that their story would not gain them asylum. The question of who was accepted and why was a question studied carefully and commented on at length among the Iraqi refugees in Jordan.
‘Some Arabs and Iraqis in Jordan didn’t deserve to be accepted in Australia. … At the same time, we had a shock that people who were tortured or in a bad condition, they got rejected,’ interprets Iba for Lamia.
An animated discussion between Lamia and Sabah gathers speed. It seems to centre on people undeserving of Australian citizenship: murderers, rapists, people who are still travelling to Iraq and Syria to take part in terrorism. Why did Australia not do background checks? There’s the difficulty of getting documents in times of war. But they have changed the law and now they should revoke the citizenship of those who travel overseas for terrorism. They do, now, but they should have started ten years ago. Now, their harsher measures are adversely affecting people in genuine need of asylum. Iba tries to translate this torrent of Arabic for me, but finally he gives up, laughing, ‘Two ears but one mouth.’
Other Iraqi families in their cohort chose to go to Sydney but Sabah and Lamia used the last of their savings to buy an air ticket to Adelaide where Rua lived. They arrived on 10 May 2006.
‘The first few months, we had to, as we say, tighten the belt,’ says Iba.
Rua helped them negotiate their way through Centrelink, Housing SA, language classes in TAFE and Thebarton, with almost every institution giving them another number: bank account number, Medicare number, Student Registration number.
Trying to find a way to reconnect with society, Ranin and Lamia sought out the Chess Centre of South Australia, located in a back alley in the heart of Adelaide. Graffiti covered the outside brick wall. On the first floor, a window was broken. Opening the door at the top of the narrow flight of stairs painted red, they see chess trophies in display cabinets. A few wooden shields hung on the walls.
‘I would like to try out for the national team,’ said Ranin to the men at the chess centre, explaining that she was a FIDE master. FIDE is a French acronym for World Chess Federation.
‘You have to go to Sydney to try out for the Australian chess team, but you’ll have to fund your own way,’ they said. On hearing this, Ranin and Lamia left, closing the door behind them.
While acknowledging that the place looks terrible, I try to defend the Chess Centre, offering to introduce them to a few chess players but Iba and Lamia are convinced that Australians don’t take chess seriously, that the Australian government doesn’t support the game and the game will die because of this lack of support.
‘My life got better here,’ says Ranin. ‘I don’t know about them. I’m involved in more stuff than in Iraq. OK in Iraq it was just chess and actually it was boring…Like now I am a personal trainer, a health coach. I can do many things. In Iraq I wouldn’t be able to do all of this.’
‘There was no freedom for women,’ explains Iba. ‘So these things she is doing now, she couldn’t do in Iraq.’
‘My mum wanted me to do Masters,’ says Ranin, who has a Mathematics degree from the University of Adelaide, ‘but I was like “MUM!” I completed my degree for my parents. But now, I’m pursuing my passion – personal fitness.’
She whips out a pocket size photo album of her clients, including Lamia. The before-and-after photos are so dramatic that I consider, for the briefest of moments, if I should sign up too.
Iba tells me how excited he was to respond to a local university’s call for football players until they told him that he had to fork out his own travel expenses to Sydney.
‘It’s not like that in Iraq?’ I ask.
‘No. The university is responsible for all the payments. They cover everything,’ says Iba.
‘No tax,’ says Lamia, referring to life under Saddam Hussein’s regime.
I suggest that this is because Iraq is very rich due to oil. They say that the government was very rich but they were thieves, so that many people remained poor. Just imagine, says Iba ruefully, when we fled Iraq, we had nothing, no house. We could not afford to buy a house even after all those years.
As I hear them reminiscence about life back in Iraq, I sense a disconnect. On the one hand it was a good life full of hobbies and interests, sporting expenses all paid for, but on the other hand there was corruption and poverty, abuse and fear.
‘I feel like I’m just a number,’ says Sabah, speaking directly to me in English.‘Man belongs to his memories. Iraq was my home and I lived there a long time. My imagination is linked to those memories. I realise of course, that if I had a chance to go back, I will find that things have changed and I will have a shock. But still, this is the missing link in my life. In Iraq, I lived with people who shared my memories, people who knew us: Sabah the writer, Lamia, the actress; here, nobody knows us.’
Lamia has furnished her home with Italian crystal glasses, plush cushions, and plastic flowers. She cooks lamb pizza, pasta salads, and biryani rice. She knows that her husband and children will be safe when they step out of the door, and that they will come back to eat at the table.
Yet she misses her life in Iraq where she could discuss anything and speak openly on any topic with friends; such is the power of language, to include competent speakers and exclude incompetent ones. And so she stops by a city church when she can, to attend English classes, hoping that one day English lines will come easily to her, freeing her to express her heart and her mind in her new home.
This is part of the serial online release of Refuge, a collection of true stories. This episode marks the end of the chapter on Iraq. Next Friday 4 October, Chapter 6 Ethiopia commences, in Refuge #31 Price of Oil. Subscribe for free to receive links to new instalments in your inbox.