Rachel’s Story

Malcolm Fraser lived and worked his work, then he died. His political career and mine started around the same time: he became leader of his party and I became a voter. I enjoyed voting against Fraser and I enjoyed disliking him. At the time I barracked hard for the brilliant Whitlam. By contrast I found Fraser dour, unimaginative and colourless. But from the first moments following the Dismissal I liked Gough less; the oratory which had always sparkled now became tarnished with absurd hyperbole: expressions such as “Maintain the rage”; “Kerr’s Cur” and so on. In time I discovered no-one could adore Gough as much as he loved himself, while Malcolm seemed to grant himself no more regard than we did in the electorate.
Decades passed, we lost the war in Vietnam, and the refugees whom Gough rejected (he judged they’d all vote for the conservatives) were succoured in their tens of thousands by that cold man, Malcolm Fraser. We buried Fraser last week and those refugees took out a full-page advertisement to express their sorrow and their regard for that colourless man. The page teemed with Vietnamese-Australian organisations, marshalled on the page, pouring out thanks and regret in a poignant
Around the same time I received the following from one who is a friend of the friendless in this country:

The following is an abridged version of Rachel’s story, reproduced here with the writer’s consent. Rachel a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who was resettled in Adelaide seven years ago (taken from Faces of the Refugee Story: Portraits and Stories of 15 people who now call Adelaide home):

“I was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo but when I was about 1 years old the First Congo War broke out and we fled and we went to our first refugee camp in Nakabande and then from that camp we returned back home again to Congo. The Second Congo War broke out and I was almost 2 years old. My family fled again and when we fled this time we knew it was something that was going to be permanent – we wouldn’t be returning back – and it’s a very long journey from Congo to wherever we are going because we didn’t know where we are going. We found ourselves on the border of Congo and Uganda but we didn’t know who was going to be waiting – it could be the rebels to kill us or it could be someone to help us. 
Luckily the UNHCR were there and we were rescued by them and they took us into another refugee camp in Uganda…from there it got too crowded – too many people coming in – and so they had to move us to another camp. We were given cooking oil, beans, flour and we settled there. The UNHCR gave us tents and eventually land to start our new life there and we were able to build our own houses.

In 2002 we were attacked by rebels in that camp. We did have protection but…it was quite a walk from where we were to them. It was a military base where they had soldiers and they were supposed to protect us but because they were so far away from us the rebels came from the other side, not the side that they were on, so they were not aware of us being attacked until some of the men …went to tell them that we had been attacked.

They had taken my Dad. Because our house was the first on our Block (like a suburb) and the place around us hadn’t been cleared of heavily grown bushes we didn’t hear anything. About four heavily armed men kicked down our door (this was about 11-11.30pm) and wanted my eldest sister but Dad said no and so they took him. I remember that very vividly. They killed a woman that had a baby on her back but her child survived. My mum took us and fled with the other women and we went into a part that was well hidden by overgrown grass and trees. We were stuck not knowing whether Dad was coming back in the morning or not.
The soldiers [came] and fought [the rebels]. There were lots of guns going off and I could hear them from the ground we were laying on keeping quiet.

We returned back home in the morning when we couldn’t hear any more guns and when the soldiers came back. Dad was with them but he had been beaten severely and that caused massive problems for his back. Even today he cannot do heavy things because of back problems. 

My Dad and other men went to tell the UNHCR that we had been attacked and that’s probably when the whole process of bringing people to other countries started because I remember the first person who left the camp and went to Canada.

My Dad [registered] our family but that took about six years for our visa to be finalised. Sometimes we gave up hope. At first when you apply you think it’s going to come really quickly and you get your hopes up really fast. After a year or two and they’ve called you to go and do screenings and medical checks and that kind of stuff and you think ‘Oh I’m doing medical checks and that means that I am going right?’ But after two more years and there is still nothing and they are still just calling you to just go and do check-ups you kind of go, ‘I don’t think it’s going to happen’ and so you have to move on with your life. You have to start planning to live your life as normal as possible. And by then we had a farm, we were growing crops. We had farms going because we knew we could not really get our hopes up. Any time they could say, ‘We’re sorry but you didn’t get the process.’ So we couldn’t just live and not do anything.

Eventually we got a ‘yes.’
In 2007 (I was in primary school)…they told Dad first and then he [came] looking for my sisters and I at school to tell us that we were ready to go and when you are ready to go, you have to go like straight away. There is no waiting, nothing, you have to go (the next day). You have to get on a bus or a taxi and go to the capital…to get everything in order for you to board a plane to go. Say goodbye as much as you can, get whatever you can in order and financially, if you’re not stable, you have to see if you can get someone to lend you the money. And throughout the process that was really hard because every time they called us to go and do medical tests and other screening you had to have the money to go, to travel from the refugee camp to [the capital] or other cities. And if you didn’t have the money you had to try to get someone to give you the money and repay them later and so it is financially draining. But Dad had some really great friends and they would do whatever to help him through that.
After they told us we were going…I [rushed] home and we said our goodbyes as fast as we could. Everything we had we give to families because we couldn’t [take it with us]. So early in the morning we woke up and we got a taxi and left. Dad had borrowed the money from someone and once we got there we had to wait for another two weeks. We’d always been pushed back and back. It happens – bribery sometimes – so our visas were really pushed back sometimes. But the good thing is they provided us with a hotel – a terrible hotel. It’s not very accommodating, like we had families in one room and we had to share everything and it’s not fun. In those two weeks there we had to buy lots of things. We got in touch with a good friend and she helped us with everything. And when it was finally time to go, they came and we were not expecting them at all. They just came and went ‘You have to pack up and go.’ It’s a very unpredictable process.

I was 10 years old. I remember it very clearly. Sometimes I remember I feel just overwhelmed, sad…terrified, excited, yes there is so much mixture of emotion.
We had a few stops here and there. We didn’t know English. My older sister…she was in Primary 7 then…she knew a bit of English and she was the one who mostly got us through the airports. We didn’t know where we were going. When they call you to say that you got your visa you don’t know where you are going. They just say, ‘You go to Australia or you go to America or you go to Canada’ so through the whole process you don’t know where you are going at all until the final moment when they say you are going to Australia and that’s it. All we knew was we were going to Australia but we could have been in Singapore and thought that it was Australia as we had no idea of where Australia was.

There was a woman who was waiting for us at an airport – Singapore I think – and she gave us blueberry muffins. We finally got to Adelaide and it was overwhelming again, getting to somewhere you have never been, where you never dreamt of ever being.
It was really overwhelming. The Migrant Resource Centre…were ready with someone at the airport to pick us up, take us to the new house. And we were in that house for about three months and it was a horrible house. The toilet kept blocking up all of the time. It was one of those really old houses but we couldn’t care less…it was a house we could never have dreamt of having.
My younger brothers and I were settled into [a] school which has a new arrivals program. It was really hard. I didn’t know English at all. So my teacher she was teaching English and I just sit there. I have no idea what she’s saying and I had a few girls from Burundi – and I understood Burundian because it’s similar to my language – but it was still not the same because sometimes they would forget to tell me what she was saying.

I had to start from scratch. I had done some [English] in Africa but the class has about 100-120 students so you can imagine learning English is really hard there. It took me a while to grasp it.
After a year and a half I was ready to be transferred…to another school. And by then I had reasonably good English but I had started reading books to help me get my English better. I read so many books my parents kept asking how I could read so many. Books got me through most of the tough times because I could escape reality and even today it’s my ‘go to’ method of coping when I am not in a very good mood.
Now it’s amazing! It’s amazing! I can’t believe that we’ve been here for seven years. If feels like that time has gone so fast, like when I’m telling someone I’ve been here seven years they say ‘Oh that’s a long time’ and I go ‘No it’s not. It’s not a long time at all.’ My Mum and Dad speak English quite well. My Dad can speak English and understanding it is hard. My Mum can understand English, but speaking is hard. We can speak now in English because my younger brothers they have lost our language. So the youngest one cannot understand what I am saying when we talk in our language. So [we] switch languages all the time at home – English and then our African language with Mum and Dad and I don’t want to forget that language so I try to speak as much as I can.
I’ve never met most of my extended family because we moved away when I was pretty young. We never returned back to Congo to see them. So I talk to them on the phone but I have no idea how they look. All I know is they are my family. When we talk to my grandmother on the phone I speak sometimes to her in English and she just goes ‘What?’
[We’ve] settled in, it’s just those cultural differences. I’d say that I’m more Australian I guess. I’ve got into that whole Australian culture thing where you can go out and have fun. And my parents are like ‘Uh uh. No! You home by this time and you do this by our rules’ and I kind of want to rebel against that because I feel like I want my independence but my older sisters have explained to me that it’s hard for our parents to let us do what we want because they brought us up in survival mode. The parent or older person has to take control in order to survive…I respect that because they are just looking out for me and what is best but sometimes I see my friends and I do get jealous. For example, I can’t just go out and get a boyfriend. Oh no! That’s out of the question! …it’s more like ‘Nope. First you do your schooling and then you can have a husband and whatever, but you have to be like 25 and over and you have to have done your schooling already.’ That’s why I have book boyfriends so I don’t actually get boyfriends in real life. I know it’s silly but it keeps me happy and on my toes.
The best thing [about moving to Australia] is probably…oh that’s a hard one. We take everything as a really good thing. [The] hardest thing was the food. Because sometimes we would see food and go ‘do we eat that?’ Like cake for example. Cake was something we never ate before and so it looked really extravagant like it’s really luxury…yes, it was really strange coming from eating beans and corn to eating cake and fries and burgers. Sometimes we were getting stomach aches from eating something that was so unusual to us but now it’s like second nature to me. When we got here we couldn’t find food that we used to eat in Africa and we didn’t know where the markets were and the supermarkets. We went into Woolworths and we saw cauliflower and we thought ‘What is that thing? Is it edible?’
We found a family or they found us. They’re also from the Congo and so they were able to take Mum and Dad shopping to the African shops and market and that was the food we used to eat in Africa but then us kids we didn’t want the food. We wanted the exotic food. You know we go out and get burgers and fries and that’s what we wanted to eat mostly and you can imagine we put on so much weight…eventually they told us that ‘if you eat too much of this you’ll be in a wheelchair, you won’t be able to walk by yourself anymore’ so that was like ‘oh boy, so okay, we’ll go for healthy food.’

So food was probably the hardest thing. And schooling. But the best thing…would probably be speaking English and school. I can speak it and read it. I now know that I can be whatever I set my mind on because I will have an education and that’s something I don’t take lightly. School is very serious for me. If someone came to me and said they want to quit school I would do everything in my power to change their mind because education is a very powerful thing. I have so many options. I didn’t have this many options seven years ago but now I have to sit down and go ‘Okay, now what do I want to do?’
[I’m in] year 11 now and I’ve got to start thinking about what I want to do next year and years after that. So I’m thinking about doing…International Studies and Bachelor of Arts at uni as a double degree and then do honours in International Studies. I really want to travel. I want to work mostly with women and children.”

This extraordinary story is a very ordinary Australian story. We let people in, over time they heal – sometimes over generations – and they get down to work and they enrich their hosts. Any non-indigenous Australian who reads that story can recognise herself in Rachel. People have always moved across the surface of the world, a few for curiosity or adventure, many for opportunity, a great many for adversity. And Australia lets them in. Sometimes.

Memories of Fraser linger in the mind. Other memories linger too. One in particular is of Scott Morrison, when, as Immigration Minister, he refused to fly fellow refuge seekers to a funeral on the mainland. The bereaved boy was the sole survivor of his family. All the others drowned off Christmas Island on that Christmas Day. That minister has recently overcome his brutal mutism and presents himself to all as a listening ear and a voice of sweet reason. But that Christmas he said, “I don’t think the Australian people want their government to pay for queue jumpers to fly at their expense”. The memory is a scar, indelible, enduring, of our worst moment as a host nation.

Over the weekend I read Alice Pung, pregnant with the grandchild of a Fraser era refugee, writing on her parents’ first impressions of Australia. They called their first hostel, “The Hotel Hilton”, quite without irony. Here was food, real food, three times a day. Here were clean beds, a sound roof, clean sheets. These experiences of her parents become family myth.

Memories of Malcolm Fraser will linger too. I picture the grandchildren of rescued Vietnamese at a future time as they speak of Fraser to their own grandchildren. In this vision old people speak of a man they never knew, of times they never lived through and of an Australia that I used to know, a country that made me proud.


6 thoughts on “Rachel’s Story

  1. I love Rachel’s story and yes, I know she is a small surviving drop in an ocean of loss and waste. We need to shout about these drops. I only knew of Fraser and Whitlam from a distance, but by posting this piece, I will remember one of them positively. As an atheist my best hope of an afterlife it is that I will be remembered positively.

    Liked by 1 person

    • As. A person whose life alternates between faith and the quest for faith,
      My sole – and fully satisfying – hope of an afterlife is the loving rememberance of grandchildren

      That should be remembrance




  2. I too used to know an Australia.
    But is this still Australia?

    The killing fields of Nauru are testimony of this Government’s intention of killing refugees by stealth through despair and utter hopelessness.

    The message was always, you chose to either get killed in your own country, drown by coming here. Or..even if you survive on your perilous boat journey, you will never be allowed to seek refuge in Australia.

    You will rot on Nauru or Manus to the end of your lives, your children will never get anywhere, no education, no chance of ever getting dignity or recognition. You can sew your lips together, hang yourself, jump from roofs…but we will never accept you in Australia.

    We will kill you by stealth!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I am non religious, non political, other humans may say I’m not contributing! but being a policeman I found it more advantageous not to be aligned with groups! I admit reading this report I too disliked Fraser and liked Whitlam for the same reasons as Howard, and reading the story of Rachel, I grew sad at the inhumanity of government and rebels in Africa, also that not ALL those humans could find peace, then the inhumanity again of our own humans in authority in Australia who don’t really seem to care for the refugees and force them to find their own ways yet our politicians believing they are great humanitarians? NO, they are not! I wave from my kitchen window to any and all “new” comers to my area, and their are many, I know to be from other lands! just to see a smile is enough!

    Liked by 1 person

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