Contributed by Dr Rosemary Suliman, College of Arts, Education and Social Sciences School of Humanities and Languages Bankstown Campus, University of Western Sydney. This story is based on an interview with a UWS student. The names have been changed, for confidentiality.
Place of Birth: Afghanistan
Cultural background: Afghani
Date of arrival: 2005
Then I was running, because I couldn’t walk
Rima was born in Afghanistan. She was eight when the moujahideen took control of her village. Two years later, Rima and her family began their long journey from their village to Jalalabad, to Turkham, on the Pakistani border, to Peshawar state in Pakistan, then to Islamabad. They traveled by bus, on foot, and on horseback. In Pakistan, Rima’s family lived seven to a room. She studied on the roof and graduated high school first in her class. Rima came to Australia as a refugee in 2005. She is currently studying business management at the University of Western Sydney.
Before, it was really good
Rima’s memories of primary school in Afghanistan are divided. When she’s first asked about her early education, she smiles:
I still remember those days…. I had a beautiful time in Afghanistan going to primary school.
She’s particularly enthusiastic about the diversity of subjects she was engaged with:
(There was) lots of enjoyment and entertainment. We had about seven or eight subjects at the same time… we were doing mathematics… we were doing Persian… we were studying English… we had… subjects about Islam.
And it must have felt like a safe place to go to school:
My mum was a teacher there as well.
But it didn’t last:
During the time I was studying my primary school, (there) was war in Afghanistan. I remember that the day when moujahideen captured Afghanistan.
It was a very bad day
Though she remembers her early education fondly, and though the very bad day didn’t come until she had almost finished primary school, her answers to questions about the period invariably move towards memories of conflict and oppression.
One memory in particular stands out:
Before that, we (did not) wear a scarf when we were going to school, but just while we were reciting the holy Qur’an… but when moujahideen came, the first day… my scarf didn’t cover my whole head…
I was crossing the road and I saw some armed people. One of them shouted (at) me and said, “If you don’t wear your scarf, I will just shoot on you”…
I was about seven years old or eight years old at that time…
I wore my scarf.
It was a defining point for Rima:
From that day life became very hard for everyone.
But though she registered the event as a profound and malignant change in her environment, she could not fully understand it, and so felt confusion alongside the shock and fear of the event:
When moujahideen came, they said everyone has to wear a scarf and girls cant wear skirts without stockings or things like that.
But I was too small… for a child that was seven or eight years old, it doesn’t matter to be covered or not.
But, because he shouted on me…
The effects of the conflict, and the rise of the moujahideen, had a very immediate effect on Rima’s education:
It happened in my year six and we couldn’t go to school every day. We were just going once a week… all the schools were closed for about a month. (When) we had our exams, we had to study at home.
And, for Rima, being forced to study at home was no small thing:
We were all like locked at home and there was like a basement. We (had) to live there because of the rockets… We were all used to the noises when the rocket was coming… yeah, it became common for everyone… We couldn’t move.
It was a very hard situation at that time to be at home and to study (for) the exam.
After that, Rima and her family began their long, faltering journey to Pakistan.
Moving to Pakistan.
Then I was running because I couldn’t walk.
“How long after that did you have to leave Afghanistan?”
Straight after the year six exam.
Though they left abruptly, their arrival in Pakistan didn’t follow quickly:
From our place, which is like a village, we just moved to the city, where my aunt was living… From that place we couldn’t come directly to Pakistan. We had to live in different places… First we went to Jalalabad, which is like a province of Afghanistan. It is located between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Then we moved to Turkham, which is at the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. And from Turkham we went to Peshawar, the state in Pakistan.
Rima recalls the conditions of the journey:
It was not only our family… It was my family,
my aunt’s family,
my other aunt,
We were about six or seven families. We traveled together.
We couldn’t travel by bus all the way… We had to take some animals… We had to carry our luggage on donkeys and horses…. Donkeys were the most common ones. We couldn’t sit on them but (they) could carry our luggage.
We just walked.
They had no problem leaving Afghanistan:
No no, because it was war and … everyone was moving… they could just move because still there was war.
From the time I was born there was war in Afghanistan.
Until we left.
There was war.
For the whole time.
And though you get the sense that they had to endure more at the Pakistani border than Rima’s description makes clear –
They were giving us… (a) hard time –
They managed to get in:
They were getting money and they were allowing everyone to go to Pakistan… We had to give them money.
They were very happy with the bribe.
Peshawar – Intermediate School.
There was no war!!
In Peshawar, Rima resumed her formal education, at a school with which she had much in common:
I did year six to year ten in Peshawar… It was a very famous school because… the same school was also in Afghanistan. All the administration moved to Pakistan… A lot of (the) teachers moved to Pakistan as well.
When asked about the time, she first recalls the pleasure of returning to her studies:
There in Pakistan life was good… I could go to school again… It was a very good time.
But she also recalls a more severe aspect of her time at intermediate school:
The school environment was strict at that time.
It was all females… but still there was a teacher all the time standing at the corner… seeing who was going and coming with a cover on the face… if not, it was just hitting with a stick at the back of the student…
“You should cover your face when you enter the school.”
But after that, when you go, you’re free.
I don’t know why.
“Did they ever explain the rule to you?”
No no no no… I never asked… I just knew that teacher… was doing … what the principle told him to do, and he was an old man.
Nevertheless, Rima retains positive memories of her educational experience in Peshawar:
It was still good…we could have fun there inside the class with the other students. I had a lot of friends there.
Islamabad – secondary, college, employment.
Because I was free !!
After she completed intermediate school, Rima moved with her family to Islamabad. There, she found the freedom, and the resources, to focus on her education:
Islamabad was completely different from Peshawar.
I could learn more.
I had a lot of facilities in Islamabad. We (had) a lot of textbooks and… more materials to study, and we had (a) library.
It was coeducation; there (were) males and females both.
You could have the scarf, (but) you didn’t have to cover the head.
We were all free.
But, for Rima, freedom was relative. There was real hardship:
In Pakistan… we were living illegally.
Every day, the Pakistani government was saying Afghans should leave Pakistan.
“They have to go back to Afghanistan”
Many times the schools were closing… We could go for two or three weeks. Then it was closed for one week because there were strikes.
The Pakistan(i) government was saying
Afghans should leave Pakistan
schools should be closed
they’re not registered.
(It was) a very big problem…
not only (for) students, but for all the Afghan families
and the teachers
And though her family’s living conditions were far from ideal:
In my family we were seven. We lived in one room.
She made them work:
We could go to the roof… where I (could) sit and study… I remember those days… I was going to the roof… taking all my books and studying there… It was not only me, my siblings also. We were all sitting in different corners… studying.
And she threw herself into learning with a vigour that had finally been given the opportunity to emerge.
While she still was still in high school, Rima undertook a course in English:
I remember the first book I read was Robin Hood… (laughs)… Slowly, slowly, we got more levels. Three, four, five. I just studied until level five… because I had my… year twelve exams and I wanted to get the first position.
“Did you get the first position?”
I got the first position.
She continued to embrace her newfound educational opportunities:
When I finished school I did some computer courses in a Pakistani college.
All the students were telling that this college is like your second mother, ‘cause you learned a language there.
The first day I saw that the teacher was explaining everything in Urdu … but she was writing the lecture on the board in English… (so) I learned Urdu at the same time (as) I was learning computer… Now my Urdu… it’s very good.
Here too, she excelled, and found ways to give back, and to channel her experiences towards her own education:
After I finished one and a half years, I became a lab teacher there…helping (students) with their practical work…I did that for one year… It was good for me… because when you explain to students, you learn more.
She did not attend a Pakistani University:
At that time, my desire was to become a doctor (but)… if I wanted to go to (a) Pakistani university, I had to (become a) Pakistani citizen.
I couldn’t… because
I had to change
Every day we were listening news about my home country,
All my family had the Afghan nationality.
I couldn’t change mine only to Pakistani.
Instead, she managed to get a job that made use of her new skills, and proved immensely valuable, not only to herself, but to others living in similar circumstances:
I worked for two years in the Australian High Commission in Pakistan… my job was to process the paperwork… to process the applications when they were doing medical examinations… to make the travel documents to prepare photos and visas.
My title was visa officer.
When… Afghan refugees were coming to Australia, my job was to do some interpreting for them.
At the end, I couldn’t issue the visa. The visa was issued from Australia.
But my job… I had a really good job.
You can sense her pride in the way she says, and then repeats, my title was visa officer. Pride because, after all, it was her job title, and she’d earned it.
It’s a quality that re-emerges when she’s asked about her current job:
It’s a good job, she says,
I like it because I have
my own computer,
my own desk
It’s a job she secured through her work in the High Commission in Islamabad, a position that profoundly affected her future:
I had a friend there… Her sister was working in (Sydeny).
So, she told her sister, “One of my friends is going to come to Australia”.
“Her name is Rima.”
It was just the beginning of our lives in Australia.
On her arrival in the latest of her adopted homes, Rima wasted no time in rededicating herself to her studies and resuming her path to tertiary education:
“So you came to Australia…”
Yeah… It was the twenty-sixth of October, 2005.
In February 2006, I joined TAFE.
She faced challenges:
Finding a house was really hard… They were asking for previous records… They’re asking for bills and things like that.
But we didn’t have any bills from Australia because it was just the beginning of our lives in Australia.
And we didn’t have receipts of rent in Australia because we never rented houses before.
And the path to tertiary study seemed poorly mapped:
There were different people telling me different stories about how to join university.
Some people were telling me you can do some business courses and then TAFE, and then go directly to the university. Some people were telling me no, you can do English courses like EFS (English for Further Study) or EAP (English for Academic Purposes).
My cousin was telling me that I could go to (high) school.
Everyone (was) telling me about uni, TAFE and school.
“So you were totally confused?”
Yeah. Confused. Really.
But she found joy and comfort in resuming her education among a diverse group of refugees:
I joined Blacktown TAFE and… I did a course called EFS, English for Further Studies. It was for one semester. I did EAP, English for Academic Purposes, because all the teachers were saying that … there are a lot of universities that accept this certificate. That was certificate five… It was a very good class.
There were a lot of refugees with me in my class, all from different countries:
Only our teacher was from Australia.
Everyone was saying different stories, every day, different news about their home, their countries.
We really enjoyed the class, I mean for the whole semester.
And she’s grown very fond of her life in Australia, and the freedoms it has afforded her:
Happy about living in Australia? Happy yes, because if I was in Pakistan at the moment, if I was in Afghanistan…
Particularly as a woman:
In Pakistan, females are not allowed to do lots of things.
I can say that people in Pakistan do not think that females are equal (to) males.
That’s also in Afghanistan.
So, sometimes if I think that if I was in Afghanistan or Pakistan at this time, maybe I can go to university in Afghanistan, but I cannot go to university in Pakistan. Maybe I can work in Afghanistan. Maybe I can work in Pakistan. But still there are not lots of facilities in those countries. (There are) limitations. That’s true especially for females… They can’t do what they want. There are not many facilities for them.
But in Australia I can work, I can go to university. I feel that I’m free.
There’s a value for women.
For Rima, one of the most important aspects of the freedom she’s found in Australia is tertiary study. Rima is enrolled in a business management degree, at which, unsurprisingly, she excels:
I joined Parramatta UWS (and) I really did well. I finished first year with credits, and I got (a) distinction as well.
I’ve got an offer for honours.
I’d like to do honours or Masters after finishing bachelor degree.
And she’s found work:
I started working in Australia in a publishing company.
I work one day a week… I receive orders from people, schools, libraries, some universities. They order books from our publishing company.
And though she is doing well at university, and in her work, she still sees obstacles:
Sometimes, I feel there are difficulties.
Sometimes, I think, I try to say, no, there are no difficulties.
But still… it’s the reality.
Both in terms of her language skills and consequent sense of social estrangement:
At the beginning it was my language… English is my second language.
When I first entered Australia, I (felt) a little bit nervous with my English… because in Pakistan we learned in our own different way. (In) Australia, I faced something different.
At the beginning, my accent was also different.
When I was talking,
I (felt) that there (was)
between my accent
and their accent
That’s true… there is.
But I had
And in terms of her economic situation:
I can’t focus on my study all the time. I have to work as well… to help myself and the family, because there is no one else to work.
My parents are not working. They are on Centrelink payments.
I am studying.
My brother is studying.
My sister is studying.
But all of us
(have) part time jobs
to help (with) our university materials.
But Rima sees obstacles as surmountable, a trait that emerges clearly when she speaks of her engagement:
My sister… got engaged, but still she was studying… (She) was living in hostel and she was far from her fiancée… She was all the time telling me “Rima, first finish all your studies then think about getting engaged” (laughs)… She’s saying it’s difficult to handle both sides… I (have) a lot of other friends who tell me that it’s difficult for them…
But I got engaged.
My fiancée is not here. He’s living in Pakistan. We were family friends when we were living in Peshawar, but at that time I was too little and he was too little as well.
We got engaged last July
Sometimes I feel that if I get married that would be an obstacle… at the beginning… but I can do it.
Everyone follows the same road
Rima’s path to higher education has been long and precarious. She’s had time to consider her motivations:
It was my desire to go to uni one day,
to continue education,
to have a degree,
to have a career.
It’s not only because of my job.
I didn’t do it to have this job.
I like the name of university.
I like to be called like
“She has done a bachelor degree” or
“She’s (has a) degree.”
It’s not only for my job,
for the future,
but also for education.
I hope I can do (a) masters degree.
In my family a lot of my cousins… have degrees.
They became doctors
Everyone follows the same road.
And to find inspiration in all sorts of places:
When I came here… I was watching movies… there were lawyers and court.
I was keen to know more about rules, regulations and law.
I said that being a lawyer is… a good option.
But her chief support came from her parents, particularly her father:
The first person was my father. All the time, my father was supporting me in my studies. He was always bringing books and reading books and textbooks to us… And all the time he was helping (me) with my mathematics problems.
My dad had a law degree in Afghanistan. He also (taught) mathematics in Afghanistan.
He was helping us. Not only me but also all my siblings.
Now, when I think that I am studying at university, I say that it’s all because of my father.
She also identifies her mother as a source of support, though perhaps of a quieter, subtler kind:
My mother’s support was at home. She didn’t let us do work during the weekends. She (did) all the work at home… She cooks. She does the washing.
And still she’s doing it.
“To give you the time to study?”
Time to study, yeah.
Rima tells a story about her mother that shows that despite her long, meandering, at times incredibly difficult journey from her home in Afghanistan to her adopted country, her job, and her degree, she has found joy, and a sense of continuity through her bond with her family:
My boss was always telling me “you have a good smile”… She (said) “I like your smile”. I invite(d) my boss and my other colleagues to come to (a) party.
There was my mother and my father as well.
My boss said, “Now I know.
You got your smile from your mother.”
I can say that I have the same smile as her
and my laughing as well.
“Now I know who’s giving you this smile.”
My mother… (laughs).