Since August, Wagga Wagga in NSW's Riverina region has become home to more than a dozen Yazidi families, who fled IS massacres in northern Iraq. Now, they’re building new lives in rural Australia.
In the southern suburbs, the streets of houses roll past: weatherboard, facebrick, facebrick, weatherboard.
In a corner plot, behind sparse roses and a cream facade live the Suleymans.
I was so small back then, Nimat tells me, sitting on her hands on her bed.
Her front teeth are chipped between her dimples, but she's at the age where she's about to lose them all and get new ones.
Small, to Nimat, means when she was four.
That was when she climbed a mountain for nine days, when her shoes fell apart so she wrapped her feet in fabric to keep walking. When she ran from IS who took her village and her brother got separated from them and ended up in Germany.
"We were thirsty," she tells me, looking me in the eye. "At night, the world got dark."
She misses her uncle, her cousins, her grandmother. The stories she tells are full of names and meander between places and times, the way children's stories tend to.
Our conversation is speckled with horrors: "The old people died, there was nowhere to bury them, so people put rocks on top of them," and ambitions: "I want to play sport - no, maybe I want to be a dancer."
She shares her hopes so unflinchingly, the contrast catches in my throat and I run out of things to say.
"How's school?" I ask.
"I like school," she says. "The other kids talk to me, but I don't understand what they say."
She shrugs. "But they're nice."
She wanders outside to join her brothers and sister in the living room, bare except for a faded lounge set, a 1970s glass coffee table and a television. On the wall, there's a pastoral scene with a special mention sticker in a corner, rescued from a long-ago art exhibition.
Her father Khalaf disconnects his phone from the TV. He's been showing the visitors who've come over for tea his collection of photos from Mount Sinjar: some he took, some from friends, some downloaded from media coverage. There are children in bloody bandages, an elderly man being carried on someone’s back, a video of a pile of corpses.
In one image, four families are smiling wanly at the camera; the man in the middle is grinning, making a peace sign. I spot Khalaf's children, his wife, on the right. They're huddled together, dusty, exhausted, possessionless. Nimat is patting her older brother on the head. It's say-cheese-on-autopilot, smartphone show and tell: a digital collage of suffering, assembled to explain why they're here.
I wonder how often he's asked to show them, how his chest feels when he remembers how he lost everything, aloud for an audience, again and again.
The children sit at the dining room table and watch Shaun the Sheep instead, no subtitles.
On the screen, a UFO has arrived overhead, and the sheep in the paddock gather round as a beam emerges. Welcome, welcome, they shout.
At 5.45pm on a Thursday, Wagga Wagga's main drag is almost entirely bereft of people, peppered with branches of department store chains that disappeared from cities long ago.
The steps of the council chambers are freshly swept. There isn't a single stray leaf on the main road: a city waiting, in confused anticipation.
The kitchens close at nine, except for a single pub and an earnest Mexican restaurant.
The bulbs of hanging pavement lights are obscured by thick swarms of flying insects that brush into mouths and noses. "Summer in Wagga," the bouncer says, outside the Vic, matter of fact.
"No steel-capped boots," he tells the couple who've sidled up to the door. The man takes them off, sways precariously up to the door in his socks.
The bouncer shakes his head. "No, mate. No socks either."
Inside the with the air-conditioning, it's karaoke night; early twenty-somethings wearing their thongs on the dance floor. Everyone knows each other. Grease Lightning comes on, lyrics screamed from tables.
Now there's artisanal beer on tap next to the Tooheys, two-for-one tapas on Mondays. On the semi-deserted downtown strip in the morning, smashed avocado on toast, marscapone on the banana bread.
It’s harvest time, so the town is surrounded by fields stripped and rolled, dusted with vague metropolitan desires. But behind the facades of its suburbia, lies a cosmopolitan heart: a city offering refuge even to those it doesn’t fully understand.
On the manicured lawn by the bridge, the war memorial is encircled by wreaths of formalised remembering.
We drive past, and I wonder how many wars you can fit in a town.
Down the road, Faron’s wife is slicing rainbow sponge cake.
It’s week three of their New Australian Life and they’ve already decorated their Christmas tree in the corner.
Two other families are over for lunch, so they’ve done a traditional celebratory dish; pounded bulgur wheat rolled into dumplings, stuffed with mince and onion, in a rich tomato passata.
Laith, an Iraqi refugee-turned-volunteer is over with his family, visiting the family he’s most recently helped settle in town. Some of his children have come along too for the feast, fully grown from their Australian childhoods, now starting families of their own.
I ask Faron how big his family is. Twelve, he says.
“Your youngest is twelve?” I ask. He laughs. “Twelve children, I have twelve children.”
On my way to the kitchen, I walk past an open bedroom.
In all these new homes, the beds are made up with the same linen: a cheery graphic print; the kids section of the summer Kmart catalogue replicated for refugee children across the city.
In the lounge, it’s a raucous mix of Arabic and Kurdish Kurmanji. Of the children, some were born in Iraq, some in Australia.
Everyone’s doing the Mannequin Challenge, trying to stifle giggles: all this novelty frozen in time for Instagram perpetuity.
At Mount Austin Primary School, Anna the principal has just added an Iraqi flag to the line of flagpoles outside the office. It’s a long line. I spot Syria too, between Pakistan and Guinea.
“I’ve been looking for a Yazidi one,” she says, “but I can’t find one anywhere.”
Nimat’s intensive English class has gathered to show how us far they can count.
She makes it to eleven, at which point she stops because she realises she’s run out of fingers.
They name the colours of colouring pencils, jumping out of their chairs, competing to see who can be quickest, loudest.
“One month,” their teacher Deb says, shaking her head in genuine awe, “Some of these kids have been here a month.”
As the bell goes, I watch Nimat run out of the classroom, to a waiting group of three blonde girls in the courtyard. They grab hands in a circle and start a hopping game, high-pitched and bouncy; English superfluous.
Deb and I wander out to the recess basketball game.
“These kids, they’re going to make it,” she says, from the sidelines. “In a year they’ll probably be fluent speakers, in two years, they’ll be up to their right reading age. When they reach high school, they won’t be too far behind.”
She cocks her head to the side. “They don't seem to be as traumatised as we thought they would be,” she says. “They’re just like Aussie kids who’ve been away for a long time and forgotten how to speak English.”
Zeydan, one of Nimat’s older brothers, dribbles across the court. Other boys call for him to shoot; he does. The language barrier dissipates on the bitumen.
As the game breaks up, a freckle-faced boy runs up to him, claps him on the shoulder. “Did you have a good match, mate?” he asks. “Did ya? Good on ya.”
“The other kids are all budding ESL teachers,” Deb grins. “I think it’s nice for some of the kids too, where they can be the one that knows all the answers, you know, they’re not the not-so-bright-one in the class.
They can actually teach someone something, and it’s really positive all round.”
The basketball players all get stars for good behaviour, to be rewarded with a raffle at assembly, icy poles up for grabs.
There’s a hen party going on at Wagga Wagga Beach, in the gazebo. On the sand on this bend of the Murrumbidgee, two toddlers are building sandcastles in bucket hats. In the carpark, they’re offloading beers from a Corolla.
Salwa and I sit on council benches, swatting at flies.
They’ve been looking at houses this weekend, she tells me, she can’t wait to move down here. Her new son is due in February, and she hopes to be down here by then.
Right now, she’s living in the Blue Mountains, with her husband Nawwaf and two children - the only Yazidi family in the country, until four months ago. She married a refugee, who’s been in Australia for years. But her blood family is still in Iraq.
I last left Sinjar in May, she says. “In August, they came.”
“Daesh, they killed the men and the boys. They wanted to take my sister, to marry her off, but she didn’t want. So they killed her.” She pauses.
“She was so beautiful. My mother, she was so sad.”
The hen party volume has escalated. The bride-to-be is wielding a stick at a giant lipstick piñata.
We pause the interview to watch them. I wonder what’s going through Salwa’s head; if a part of her is offended by such displays of carefree novelty, as she talks about her dead sister. The last time we spoke about her, she had to stop for breath. Now, she’s rehearsed this line for me.
Today, she looks unperturbed. Her gaze is cool, calm; here, she’s in the present, the future.
“My kids, they always ask about the Yazidi. How is the Yazidi’s life? Because there’s only me and my husband here, no one else talks about the Yazidi. It’s important for me to bring my kids to the Yazidi community.
“After Australia opened the gate for the Yazidi people, I can’t believe it. It’s a dream for me.”
The hen party crescendoes with a Pat Benatar 80s power pop hit, shouted lyrics on the breeze.
Hit me with your best shot
Salwa tells me, when her niece died, after her sister was killed by IS and her mother’s cousin committed suicide to protect her newborn son, her Australian friends came over to comfort her.
“They were feeling like me. I was feeling so painful. They came, sat with me, talked to me.”
Why don’t you hit me with your best shot
I ask if it’s strange for her being here, if in this lucky country, others understand where she’s come from.
“It’s not feeling like I feel. The Australia people didn’t see anything. We see it.
“From seven-years-old until now, I never see anything nice in my country.
Hit me with your best shot. Fire away…
“I tell the Yazidi who’ve just come: this is my country now.”
In each interview, we talk about trauma, the journey to Australia: the rush from their villages into the mountains, the walking, the thirst, the borders, the years in camps, the applications for asylum.
All these lives, parts of one story, horrors repeated from different lips.
I spend each interview wondering if each reliving etches the trauma more deeply, if the catharsis of the telling has faded over years to dutiful prose.
I try to walk the line on the right side the sympathy-empathy border, struggle to deliver and decipher nuance through an interpreter.
We sit at angles to the camera, trying to understand each other’s face. I realise they are talking to me - to Australian television - to demonstrate their gratitude; this is an exercise they have deemed the price of a life here.
I ask how they feel, having arrived. The answers are simple, single words: lucky, happy, safe.
At the end of each interview, everyone thanks the Australian government, and asks them to please help those who are left back home.
They look at me, at the camera: “Help them save us.”
Later, as I watch our footage, camera zoomed in close, I see the almost imperceptible sighs, interspersed between answers. Breaths slowly exhaled; fatigue in drooping shoulders, lifted at the asking of each new question out of care to not to seem impatient.
It is yet another demand being made of them, in order that they might be eventually left alone to mourn in peace. Because you need peace to mourn.
Mourning, choice: luxuries in lives that, for years, have been about survival.
There are 18 Yazidi families here now, perhaps 140 people. 140 out of 400,000 on the run.
Outside the Red Steer pub, someone’s hitched their horse, an effort to avoid the RBT.
There’s a small cluster of men in the beer garden. Their laughter mutes itself as I walk past.
Inside, two farmers are trying to work out if they’ll stay for another, in front of an enormous bank of screens, all showing horse racing with a smattering of greyhounds.
I order a Tooheys Old. The bartender raises his eyebrows.
“I’ve never seen a woman order one of those before before today,” he says. “I’ll be damned.”
“So, Wagga, do you think it’s changing much?” I ask the two men who’ve settled on another round.
“Yeah, I guess,” one shrugs, looking over my shoulder at the horses.
“The refugees who are getting resettled here, what do you think about them?” I press.
“I hear there are a few of them,” the other pipes up, “but we don’t see much of them round here.
“We see them go past, out to the industrial area sometimes, y’know, out to the abattoir, but they do their own thing.”
He takes a swig. “Y’know, what I think. They need to integrate more, make more of an effort. They all come here from all over, and they keep to themselves. They should try harder.”
“It’s a rich tapestry,” Dallas Tout the Deputy Mayor says to me on the steps of the Council Chambers. “We’ve been doing this for more than four decades.”
There aren’t clusters of South Sudanese, Burmese, Afghans. “The city absorbs everyone,” he says.
“A rich tapestry,” he repeats. “And the food here’s getting better too.”
The Multicultural Council has found the incoming families houses to rent, dotted families between old-time locals, in an effort to help them integrate. Most are within walking distance of the TAFE, schools, shops. After 510 hours of English classes, the job hunt begins.
Seventy per cent of the workers out at the abattoir are refugees, Belinda from the Multicultural Council tells me. They’re doing the jobs that no one else wants.
“They’re desperate for workers. I get calls from them all the time,” she says.
There’s an information session of potential new abattoir workers at the centre today. A couple of Burmese guys wave, call out to her as they wander in.
But there, you’ll be chopping up animals for the next 27 years, a vocational advisor at the Riverina TAFE tells me. There’s not a lot of room for career growth.
Eight other Burmese men have opted to work at a local window-making workshop instead. Seven of them are doing apprenticeships. Before this, none had assembled a window before.
At the TAFE, the Yazidi adult class is learning weather words: hot, sunny, rain, cold.
“What do we do when it is hot?” teacher Wendy asks.
“We stand under a tree” - Wendy looks at the imaginary tree above her head - “and we drink water” - she mimes a fake glass.
The class nods. Some are also holding fake glasses.
“They just want to be like Australians,” Wendy says. “It’s as much about learning how to live here as it is about learning English.”
I wonder when - and how - the choice of pronouns will change. They? You? Us?
In the neighbouring class, they’re doing the alphabet; shuffling letters written in permanent marker on bottle caps, copying new shapes painstakingly in pencil.
On the wall, there’s a map of the world with pushpins and coloured strings of wool leading from South Sudan, Afghanistan, Burma, Iraq to giant cardboard labels. There are labels on the windows: Open, Close. On the bulletin board, there are photocopied photographs of previous English class graduates, who’ve written their own stories - where they’re from, why they’re here, how their new life is working out.
I ask some of the assembled class what they want to do.
Carpentry, farming, football and anything-to-contribute-to-Australia are the most popular responses.
At 21, Nazar just wants to play soccer.
He’s a midfielder, a good one, he tells me.
“I played a match last night,” he says.
“Against who?” I ask.
“Dunno,” he shrugs. “But they were Australians. And I scored two goals out of four.”
The Burmese guys have started playing a regular friendly match against the Afghans. Nazar writes down his name and number for me, so we can film it if they decide to join in.
His letters in pen on my page push almost through the paper. Shapes drawn with intense care, wavering stroke by stroke, self-conscious, determined.
Memi has the sort of face which makes you want to hug her and drink tea: wide and gentle, with kind eye creases.
Her voice is melodic, measured. She shows me the spheres of clay from Lalesh, their spiritual home, wrapped in white gauze, which she prays over each morning, facing the sun.
In her religion, prayer is a choice, she explains, not compulsory.
I ask who she prays for.
“I pray to God to please put goodness in people's hearts and protect them all,” she says. “Then I ask to protect our children, the whole world and every being that is kind - human or animal.”
It’s a generous religion: others before oneself.
“Does that include forgiving the people who did this?” I ask. “Daesh?”
“Never, never, never, no, no, never, never.” She says the words calmly, slowly shaking her head.
“I will never forgive them, even if we live here all our lives and we forget everything, we won't forget those terrible days when we fled to the mountains.”
Her voice is soft; sad with a hard, solid edge. It quavers briefly, with a flicker of a tear in her eye as she talks about a relative, whose newborn baby died on the mountain. Her mother threw herself off the rocks, driven to suicide after the loss of her first child.
Memi exhales, blinks.
Khayro, her son shows me her passport when I ask how old she is. She’s 52, but her eyes, her shoulders, belie a much older soul, who forgets nothing.
She bakes bread in the new tandoor, Khayro watching the gas.
For weeks when they arrived, they tried to buy bread of all sorts. None was right: too soft, too thick, too spongey.
Volunteer Laith tells me about the trips to the supermarket, buying bag of flour after bag of flour; a range of every available type, until, weeks later, they realised what they were asking for was yeast.
Now, they bake their own Iraqi flatbread, in tandoors the Multicultural Council has found for them and brought to town.
Dinner is a three family affair: flattened roast chicken, stewed cubes of lamb, slow-cooked dolmades of zucchini, onion and vine leaves stuffed with fragrant rice and mince, platters of salad, saucers of yoghurt, laid out on the plastic tablecloth, Aloe Vera tissues for napkins.
There’s more than a dozen of us around the table; dishes and bottles of Tooheys Extra Dry passed around with glitter nail-polished fingers, giggling kohl-rimmed eyes. Khayro’s younger sisters on their Saturday night in Wagga Wagga: a new, young community sharing dinner between generations.
Laith’s son winks at one of the girls. I ask what the dating scene is like in Wagga. One of the sisters makes a face.
Yazidis can only marry Yazidis, they explain, otherwise they have to leave the faith. No one can convert to Yazidism, no one can marry into it. And once you marry outside the religion, you’ve left for good.
“But there are less than two dozen families here,” I say. “That’s a tiny pool. What will happen to the Yazidis here?”
The girls shrug. To make it even harder, they add, within their social hierarchy, only those within each level can marry each other. Khayro’s family are community leaders, at the upper end, so their choices are even more limited.
I’m bewildered. “How do you even try to find a partner?"
They should make an app for that, someone shouts. Laughter.
Every five minutes, we pause for selfies. At the other end of the table, the men are joking about learning how to swim, now that they live on an enormous island.
“But I’d just sink like a stone.” The table roars, claps him on the shoulder.
We eat and eat and eat.
Someone produces a bottle of Turkish raki laced with anis, paper plates of Doritos. The smallest children are asleep on the couch.
They ask where I’m staying, I tell them the name of the hotel.
“Oh, oh, oh,” Khayro exclaims, “You’re living in Lalesh!”
He shows me his iPhone photo of the hotel, with its white tented lobby, curving into the Wagga Wagga skyline to a point. It’s one of the first things he photographed after arriving. He swipes the screen left to show me their sacred temples of Lalesh in northern Iraq, with their sandstone peaks. There’s an undoubted likeness. He bursts into giggles.
Well past midnight in Wagga Wagga, it’s only early evening in Ankara. Half the table knows each other from the same refugee camps. Faron’s gold Citizen still carries Turkish time on his wrist.
It’s Skype o’clock. The phone gets passed around, video streaming a daydreamed-happy-future-turned-reality across the world, back to the settlements from which they’ve come, to the people who they’ve left behind.
As I watch, I realise the malleability of communities.
Camps remove divisions and identities; settlements establish them. Now the challenge: integration, while holding the threads of difference lightly, weaving them so they don’t break.
There is happiness here, relief, disbelief. But no one is oblivious to their luck.
The party’s still going at one-thirty in the morning.
We all kiss each other four times goodbye.
When Memi hugs me farewell, she holds me; I hold her. We stand in the doorway for a moment that lengthens sideways. I bite my lip.
I'm driven home by Laith’s son, who’s also the manager of the local Aldi. His Australian accent is thick, he has a fresh lightning bolt shaved into his hair.
We go past the lookout so he can show me where to film the sunrise. It’s a narrow ridge at the crest of an extremely steep slope, nestled with houses.
“I do this run maybe five times most days,” he tells me, “up down, up down, up down.”
That’s a lot of slope, I say.
“Yep. When I take Khayro, he makes it up maybe halfway, once.”
I realise the family bonding hasn’t been for the cameras.
He tells me about his brief career as an almost-pro-soccer player after arriving in Wagga Wagga from Iraq aged 12 with his refugee family, all those years ago: a stint of playing in the UK, trials for some of the big clubs.
“But I decided it wasn’t for me,” he says. “I wanted to come home.”
“Not even Sydney?” I ask, “Somewhere bigger than here?”
He laughs: I don’t get it.
“We all keep searching for happiness,” he tells me, “but for me, it's simple. Health and family and home. That's what makes me happy. And it's all here.”
There’s going to be a lot of snakes this year, the woman in the next to me on the plane is saying, because, you know, the bushfires. The row in front agrees.
She turns to me.
“Heading home or on holiday?” she asks.
“Home,” I say. “Sydney.”
Uh-huh, she nods. “You don’t look like a Wagga girl.”
She asks what I’ve been doing in her city, and I tell her.
“Yeah, we’re just too damned fussy,” she says. “We’re worried about jobs but we should just pull ourselves up. They do the ones we don’t want.
“I think it’s really lovely that they come here from Saudi, Iraq.”
I flick through the in-flight magazine, a Tim Winton interview catches my eye: What quality do you most admire in people? he’s asked.
His response: “Imagination. Without it, there’s no kindness and no charity. People mistakenly think imagination is the province of the artist, but it’s the bedrock of a civil society.”
I look at my neighbour, watch the machinations of her imagination weave between her self-cast stereotypes of her city.
She gazes out of the window at the sparse sprawl below, roads and haybales and trees, casting tiny shadows in a landscape that looks like an architect’s model, it’s so perfect and far away.
“Good for them,” she says.