Previously in Refuge#33 Armed with a Torch in Dadaab: Otholi described the challenges of living at the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya.
On 10 March 2010, Otholi, Ariet and Jackson arrived in Australia.
Their Somali caseworker helped them settle in and brought them a gift of roast chicken. In Africa, when they ate meat, whether it was game they had hunted or animals they had raised, they discarded the innards. So they took the roast chicken and threw out the stuffing – breadcrumbs and herbs basted in chicken fat – thinking it was poo.
Apart from their caseworker, Otholi, Ariet and Jackson hardly spoke to anyone and remained at home for many days because it was too daunting to step outside. After two weeks, Otholi said to himself, ‘You have to go outside, feel like you are a man. Don’t just sit down.’ Fearful that he would lose his way, he started walking, using the bus stops as a guide.
As he walked, he looked around, trying to spot something familiar, anything. He paid close attention to the buildings, the roads, and the signs above the shops, in English, a language he barely spoke. He walked all the way to the Salisbury Shopping Centre at the intersection of Salisbury Highway and Waterloo Corner. After wandering through the shops, he crossed to the opposite side of the road and started walking back. He saw a big board with the words ‘Lutheran Church’. At last, here was something he recognized. He wrote down the phone number on the church notice board.
Continuing his narrative in the interview, Otholi tells me, ‘When I got home, ‘I picked up the phone and called the pastor. That time, the pastor was Pastor Wayne. He picked up the phone and said, “Hey, how can I help you?” And I said, “Look,” – that was in my funny English I had at that time –“I’m a new arrival, please. Can I just come to your church?” He said, “You’re a new arrival. OK. Can you give me your address?” I gave him the address and everything and straightaway, ten minutes, knocking at my door and he said, “Hey, how are you?” And I said, “Good” and he came in and we had a chat and he said, “You are most welcome.”’
At the end of our second interview, Otholi says, ‘You asked me about the things we brought from Gambella. So you want to see them?’ Of course I want to see them and he leads me downstairs and tries to open the door to the main sanctuary.
‘We gave one of the beadwork to the church,’ he says.
On Sunday 8 Februrary 2015, Otholi and Ariet presented a framed piece of Anuak beadwork to the Salisbury Lutheran Church. On that day, Otholi also introduced Omod, and Bebye, and Bebye’s daughter, Mechwa, to the congregation with the words, ‘You see in front of you a happy man. And I see that you are also happy. Our prayers and your prayers have been answered, as you can see’ – and the congregation burst into applause.
But the door to the church sanctuary is locked so Otholi and I continue walking to his car. He opens his car door and brings out a dried-gourd bowl, a plastic water jug and cup, all with intricate beadwork sewed onto the exterior. These are precious keepsakes from their time in Ponyudo.
Otholi explains that most of the motifs are crosses because they are Christian. I ask about the pattern on the cup, a diamond with an arrow in it and he laughs, ‘Women are very creative. If they think of some pattern, they can make it.’
Otholi poses for a photo, sitting cross-legged on the floor, with the three items before him. In Africa, he tells me, women cook and serve the men before eating themselves. It reminds me of an African man, one of my students at TAFE, who told me with resigned acceptance that women held all the power in Australia. At that time, Dame Quentin Bryce was the Governor-General of Australia, Julia Gillard the Prime Minister of Australia, and Karen the head teacher at Port Adelaide TAFE. But I sense a different spirit in Otholi, a spirit of admiration for women in general and his wife in particular.
Otholi picks up the bowl and says, ‘We packed it in our suitcase when we came and it got broken and Ariet stitched it up.’ The white stitches are clearly visible against the inside of the smooth brown bowl, threads holding together a fracture caused by the stress of the journey, mended but still bearing scars of the trauma.
‘How is Omod?’ I ask.
‘Omod and Bebye had the same problem I had, going to school and dropping out because no one was there for me when I needed help. For them also, because we were not with them, they haven’t got that basic foundation. But they are doing good now, in Thebarton Senior College doing the New Arrivals Program. When they finish the program, the lecturers will be able to assess them and see which level they will be good at, maybe Year 10 or Year 12 and if they work good, that will be the main way for them to go whatever they want.’
‘Do they know what they want?’
‘Bebye, she’s always talking about being a nurse. That’s her dream. It’s not hard to be a nurse. But Omod, not yet.’ He laughs.
‘And how is Jackson?’
‘He is happy. He makes me come less to church because he started playing soccer on Sunday. I can’t refuse to let him go and play because he loves it so I said, “Alright, let me go to church on Friday and then on Sunday take you to soccer. He plays for Para Hills West Soccer Club. He is the engine of the team.’
Winding up our interview, Otholi tells me about a commemorative service held in the church in 2014. He wanted to let others know what had happened to the Anuak and how they had lost very important people in their community.
‘I actually have the memory of my land. I just call it my homeland. The Anuak remember December 13 as a very sad and unforgettable day for us. We forgive but we don’t forget that day. We forgive those that have done it, but we don’t forget it. It was horrible. We lost very, very important people in our community. Yeah. Thank you.’
This is part of the serial online release of Refuge, a collection of true stories of refugee resettlement in Australia. Chapter 6 on Myanmar starts next Friday 1 November. Subscribe for free to receive links to new instalments in your inbox.