Time to return the favour

They were walking through a field when it happened. Crossing a small stream seemed simple enough - three others had just jumped across without issue. Then everything changed. Smoke took the place where the man had been – his ID tags dangling high in the tree above, glinting in the early morning sun. The improvised explosive device (IED) had been buried, unidentifiable to the man who now lay still in the dirt. Then he regained consciousness.

Time to return the favour

This isn’t a fictional tale. It’s a reality for Ali*, a recently arrived Afghani refugee – and former translator for the allied forces in Afghanistan. Working with the allied forces and more specifically the Australian Army in Afghanistan for seven years, 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 radio station, first from the Dutch Army, then the American and finally, on behalf of the Australian 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 hours straight 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 supportive of the radio station, Ali says, “The insurgents didn’t disturb us. We were free.”


For Ali and the local community, this was something rare and precious. Locals finally had a forum for themselves, and without fear of retribution they could find their voice. Locals would often call in with information on where IEDs were located to pass on to the Australian Army and have them deactivated. The station also gave people an opportunity 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 wasn’t all plain sailing. Ali remembers 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 years.


In the wider country, however, the situation was getting worse. Those who were working with coalition forces as interpreters, cultural advisers and even cooks became new targets for the insurgents. Life was no longer safe and travelling by road became a dangerous option.


“You could be stopped by the insurgents on the road and they would pull up the sleeves of your shirt. 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 his extended family, or his wife’s family of their intention to move. If their visas were denied they would be instant targets for the insurgents. No one was allowed to leave, or even contemplate leaving Afghanistan.


“They would ask, ‘Why are you running?’ We couldn’t tell anyone.”


As the visas for Ali and his family were granted, they were finally able to share their news with family and friends, who were happy to support their decision. Seeing their children and grandchildren have a chance at a better life was the most important thing to those living amongst the bombs and threats in Afghanistan. So Ali and his family made the long journey to the southern hemisphere. Upon arriving 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 airport I was waiting to see the police everywhere. But there were none. There were no checkpoints, no guns and no bombings.”


One of the main priorities for Ali and his family was education. While Ali spoke fluent English, his wife had never received any formal education in Afghanistan and did not speak English – and his children were yet to learn. Ali saw this as an opportunity to develop his family, enrolling his wife in English lessons and his children in the local school. Something as simple as being able to purchase food at the shops is becoming a much less complex task.


While beginning life in Australia, Ali learned from the Department of Immigration that he and his family are unable to return to Afghanistan – even to visit family – for a number of years. Working their way through the immigration process, Ali has been advised not to travel to his home country until he becomes an Australian citizen, a process that takes many years to complete. This is clearly distressing news for a family which has literally left everything behind, and now has 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 country, 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 part of the Australian 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 immigration process has been arduous and confusing for them, with many de-briefings, paperwork and passing between agencies over the last few months. Simple tasks like buying clothes and homewares are not easy; without information on where to go and what to buy, Ali and his family are struggling to understand life in Australia. 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 transport system. It seems this day-to-day advice is what’s most lacking, and often refugees are left 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 Australia 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 support them to live a better life. In a situation where the horrors of what has been seen cannot be unseen, our only option is unconditional and open support – the support these men and women provided to us via the Australian Army. It’s time to return the favour.


*Name changed for privacy reasons.


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