Home' Aurora : Aurora June 2014 Contents 8
Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle www.mn.catholic.org.au
TIME TO RETURN
They were walking through a field when it
happened. Crossing a small stream seemed
simple enough - thr ee other s had just
jumped across without issue. Then ever ything
changed. Smoke took the place where the
man had been -- his ID tags dangling high in
the tree above, glinting in the early mor ning
sun. The improvised explosive device (IED)
had been buried, unidentifiable to the man
who now lay still in the dirt. Then he regained
This isn't a fictional tale. It's a reality for Ali*,
a recently arrived Afghani refugee -- and
for mer translator for the allied forces
in Afghanistan. Working with the allied
forces and more specifically the Austr alian
Army in Afghanistan for seven year s, Ali
was well aware of the risks
associated with the job. In
spite of the daily bombings ,
threats of insurgent attacks
and security issues, Ali
worked closely with
Australian Army staff to
translate and communicate
with the local community;
he was a linguistic bridge
across the two cultures.
It's this ability to link two
cultures that saw Ali handed
the management of a local
r adio station, fir st from the Dutch
Ar my, then the American and finally,
on behalf of the Austr alian Army. The
aim was to provide an outlet for the local
Afghani people . In the beginning it was Ali
on his own, broadcasting to and for the
local community, often working 24 hour s
str aight to get the news and programs out
to the people :
"I thought to myself, how am I going to do
this? But then I learned and I did it. I had
to. It was free radio, unrestricted."
Asked if the insurgents were suppor tive of
the r adio station, Ali says, "The insurgents
didn't disturb us. We were free."
For Ali and the local community, this was
something r are and precious. Locals finally
had a for um for themselves, and without
fear of retribution they could find their
voice. Locals would often call in with
information on wher e IEDs were located
to pass on to the Australian Army and
have them deactivated. The station also
gave people an oppor tunity to re-identify
with their culture. Unlike many of the
other commercial stations at the time, Ali
worked hard to build a music library of
almost 7000 popular Afghani songs for
the local people, with people tuning in
to request their favourites and talk about
their lives living in a war zone.
But it wa sn't all plain sailing. Ali remember s
many times needing to stop during a news
bulletin as the banging of bombs and
gunfire outside was too loud to ignore.
He would pause, wait for a break in the
shelling and proceed as normal. This
continued for four year s.
In the wider country, however, the
situation was getting wor se. Those who
a chance at
a better life
was the most
were working with coalition forces as
interpreter s, cultur al adviser s and even
cooks became new targets for the
insurgents. Life was no longer safe and
travelling by road became a dangerous
"You could be stopped by the insurgents
on the road and they would pull up the
sleeves of your shir t. If you didn't have a
tan line from working outside, they knew
you were working with the coalition forces.
Even if you hid your identification card or
changed your clothes, they knew. Your life
was immediately in danger."
It was at this point that Ali made the
decision to apply for a visa and move his
family to Australia.
This was a decision not
made lightly, as Ali
was unable to tell
family, or his
move. If their
would be instant
targets for the
one was allowed to
leave, or even contemplate
"They would ask, 'Why are you running? '
We couldn't tell anyone."
As the visas for Ali and his family were
gr anted, they were finally able to share
their news with family and friends, who
were happy to suppor t their decision.
Seeing their childr en and grandchildren
have a chance at a better life was the most
impor tant thing to those living amongst
the bombs and thr eats in Afghanistan. So
Ali and his family made the long jour ney to
the southern hemisphere. Upon ar riving
in Australia , Ali was surprised by the
difference in culture ; he and his family
were free to live as they liked.
"It's so quiet here. When we left the
airpor t I was waiting to see the police
everywhere. But there were none. There
were no checkpoints, no guns and
One of the main priorities for Ali and his
family was education. While Ali spoke
fluent English, his wife had never received
any for mal education in Afghanistan and
did not speak English -- and his children
were yet to lear n. Ali saw this as an
oppor tunity to develop his family, enrolling
his wife in English lessons and his children
in the local school. Something a s simple a s
being able to purchase food at the shops is
becoming a much less complex task.
While beginning life in Australia , Ali
learned from the Depar tment of
Immigr ation that he and his family
are unable to retur n to Afghanistan --
even to visit family -- for a number of
year s. Working their way through the
immigr ation process, Ali has been advised
not to tr avel to his home country until he
becomes an Austr alian citizen, a process
that takes many year s to complete. This
is clearly distressing news for a family
which has literally left every thing behind,
and now ha s no hope of being able to
reconnect with its roots in the near future.
"I have family, brothers still in Afghanistan.
Now if I need to see them my only option
is to meet them in a neighbouring countr y,
which is dangerous for them. I don't see
how it can work."
With the threat of their visas being
cancelled, after working as such an integral
par t of the Austr alian Army's presence in
Afghanistan, this is a bitter pill to swallow
for Ali and his family.
The focus for Ali now is settling his family
in Newcastle. The immigr ation process
has been arduous and confusing for them,
with many de -briefings , paper work and
passing between agencies over the last few
months. Simple tasks like buying clothes
and homewares are not ea sy; without
infor mation on where to go and what to
buy, Ali and his family are str uggling to
understand life in Austr alia. They depend
on refugee volunteer groups such as those
at Penola House to guide them in the
right direction, from where to buy milk to
how to use the public tr anspor t system.
It seems this day-to -day advice is what's
most lacking, and often refugees are lef t
to work things out for themselves in an
attempt to 'assimilate'. It is at this time,
when these people need assistance the
most, that it is the most difficult to find.
Moving from a war zone to Austr alia and
the Hunter was a confronting, frightening,
difficult and enlightening decision and
experience for Ali and his family. The
question is now how we, the locals of
Newcastle, will suppor t them to live a
better life. In a situation where the horror s
of what ha s been seen cannot be unseen,
our only option is unconditional and open
suppor t -- the suppor t these men and
women provided to us via the Australian
Ar my. It's time to retur n the favour.
*Name changed for privacy reasons.
Photo courtesy of Geraldine Williams.
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