Every year, more than 40,000 people who have applied for permanent residency in Australia are rejected, and those who are considered are subjected to thorough investigation. With an inability to lay down roots, their future is tenuous.
How do you maintain a bright outlook on life, or perhaps even just ‘keep calm and carry on’ with so many variables before you? Four former refugees light the way.
“I learned to replace my fears and sadness with things that made me happy.”
Dr Carina Hoang is an award-winning author/publisher and actor.
“I fled Vietnam on a boat without my parents in 1979. I was 16 years old and I escaped on a wooden boat with my two younger siblings and 370 other people even though the boat must have had a maximum capacity of 100 people or so. The journey was perilous; we almost capsized during a violent storm, we were pursued by pirates, and authorities in Malaysia pushed us back out to sea once we thought we’d made it to safety. I guess the first element of uncertainty during this time was whether we were going to survive these incidents and then, as we were floating out at sea, not knowing which country would accept us – if any. Once we arrived on the shores of Indonesia, we were taken to an uninhabited island, a jungle, and left with little chance of survival.
It was three months before we were discovered by UNHCR and RED CROSS; a time where we would have to catch fish with our bare hands or search the jungle for something to eat. Hundreds of people died and those of us who buried them were firmly in survival mode. At first we would wonder, ‘Are we safe?’, ‘What’s the future going to look like?’ and ‘Will I be the next person buried?’ but eventually it got to a point where I didn’t have a chance to be scared or worried. I just had to get through each day. Once UNHCR and Red Cross found us and started supplying us with basic foods and medicines, we were able to establish more of a routine. In the end, I was on the island for 10 months before I was resettled in the United States (Hoang migrated to Australia in 2007 with her Australian husband).
When I think about the coping mechanisms I relied on during my time in the camp, I realise what helped me most was learning to accept the things I cannot control. Establishing routine and helping others also made a big difference. I tried to replace my fear and sadness by doing things that made me happy such as focusing how soft the white sand felt under my feet when I went on my walks, and I quickly found volunteering in the medical clinics set up by the foreign aid agencies provided a much-needed tonic. Knowing I’ve gone through so much already gives me the strength to know I can – and will – fight again and I think anyone who’s gone through hard times would agree. Humans are far more resilient than we give ourselves credit for.
Today I’m experiencing the same fears and disappointments as everyone else. After years as an academic, I became an actress two years ago (Hoang starred in ABC’s The Heights) and of course, the industry has shut down and no one really knows what the future will look like in the media and arts industry. To get over the anxieties, I do the same things I would recommend others struggling during this time employ. I’ve established a routine - starting with a morning walk every day. I look at the news once in the morning and leave it at that to avoid getting sucked into a rabbit hole of negativity. And instead of focusing on the negatives, I try to draw on my successes in life, take this time to learn something new (I’ve been using Zoom for the first time), and in the time of social distancing, I would advise you don’t distance yourself from those that matter to you. Make the time to call or Skype; some days you might feel alone but the reality is that we’re all in this together.”
“Even during the darkest of days, it’s important to focus on the positives.”
Fadak Alfayadh is a community lawyer and advocate.
“I was five or six when my dad escaped Baghdad, the city where I was born. He was conscripted to the army to serve as a surgeon but he ran away as soon as he received the news. Iraq was governed by a dictatorship at the time and joining them went against my father’s personal beliefs. He made his way to Australia in the late 90s and we joined him here in 2003. Initially, we all believed it would just be for a little while.
Life in Baghdad during the war was intense. First there were rumours the Americans were coming to invade – a time where I first witnessed panic buying of food items such as flour, rice and lentils as they prepared for something to come, even if they weren’t entirely sure what they would look like. When the bombings began you could feel the whole house shake. Lights from rockets could be seen in the night sky with loud sirens wailing everywhere, warning you to seek shelter immediately. As things progressively grew worse, mum told us to say goodbye to my grandmother and then she bundled us in a car. We drove through the night with our headlights turned off to seek haven in Jordan. Once there, we registered as refugees and our father applied to have us join him in Australia.
Looking back, wondering when or if I would see my family and friends again was one of the biggest uncertainties I struggled with. Living in Baghdad I was surrounded by family members and when we first settled here, I couldn’t communicate with anyone because I didn’t know English and I missed my friends and family back home terribly. The second was visa status. When you’re a refugee, your biggest goal is to become a permanent citizen so you can have a little bit of certainty somewhere. Hope is what got me through; hope that things will improve but also an understanding that things could always be worse. I knew I was lucky I didn’t have to spend time in a refugee camp and we had a safety net while we were waiting it out.
Once people started hoarding food back in March, I could see things were able to change once again. It’s easy to get caught up in thinking about ‘Will I lose my job? ‘Will I be able to pay my mortgage?’ and ‘Will any of my loved ones get sick?’ – I have those thoughts too, but I think it’s helpful to focus on the positives at a time like this. We have good leadership which leans heavily on science, a good public health system, a safety net in the form of Job Seeker and Job Keeper and compared with most other countries, we’re doing extraordinarily well when it comes to active cases of COVID-19.
My biggest piece of advice for others who might be struggling with not knowing what tomorrow may bring? Take each day as it comes, remind yourself this is far bigger than you, and while you’re re-learning how to be kind to yourself, taking time to remember to be kind to others. This is a time to lean on one another, make do with what you’ve got and share what you have. It’s all about getting back to basics.”
“Past experience has taught me to only focus on the things you can control.”
Lynn Dang is a human resources director at Microsoft Singapore and a mother of two.
“I became a refugee when I was four years old. My father was a soldier in the South Vietnamese army and when Saigon fell, the family had all our assets seized and dad was sent to a re-education labour camp. We (my parents, my three sisters and I) fled Vietnam by taking a boat journey through the South China Sea and ended up in Malaysia.
The UNHCR had set up a refugee camp at Palau Bidong, which housed thousands of Vietnamese refugees. We lived in a state of limbo with no sense of time or place and days were spent waiting on food rations or news from the UN who was working with governments across the world to get us re-homed. Fear and anxiety reverberated throughout the camp but at the same time, people shared their stories and strangers become friends because there is great comfort in knowing you are not alone.
As a family we maintained our strength by leaning into our gratitude. We focused on that fact that our father survived the war, that we had made the treacherous sea journey alive (as many did perish) and that we had temporary accommodation, water and food with agencies such as the UN and Red Cross looking after us. We rejoiced that our family was together and safe, found appreciation and joy in the simple things and we clung onto hope that things would eventually change. They did of course; after nine months at the camp, we were granted humanitarian visas to resettle in Australia. We arrived here in 1985 without any material possession nor the ability to speak the language.
I would say my experiences as a former refugee and the subsequent years of settling in as a new migrant has made me who I am today. I don’t take things for granted - even the small stuff like clean water and access to food or the internet which keeps us connected to loved ones around the world. Based on my past experiences, I also know that absolute certainty is a myth. We all live with some degree of uncertainty even if we have not realised it yet but periods like this can give you power. I, for example, can lead through ambiguity, chaos and confusion. I can provide clarity and stay calm and balanced during a times where there are no answers. And of course, I learned from a young age the importance of giving back. Now that I’m in a position to do so, I volunteer, donate money and support those less privileged. In times of crises and uncertainty, there are plenty of communities that need our help.
To those wondering how they can best navigate their way through these uncertain times, I say focus on the small things you can control and let go of the others. Believe you can get through hard times but know that feelings of sadness, fear, frustration and anxiety are all normal and you’re better off talking about them rather than repressing them. Perhaps the most important tip I could give however is to shift your perspective about absolute certainty. Life might have changed but it can all change again tomorrow.”
“I believe we will emerge from this as better people.”
Zoe Ghani is a board member for Australia for UNHCR
“I was born in Afghanistan into a happy, comfortable family. My father was a public prosecutor so after the Soviet Invasion happened in 1979, it was no longer safe for us to live there. Violence escalated and because he refused to join the Communist Party, he could no longer trust neighbours and friends. Eventually, he created an opportunity to go to New Delhi for a supposed one-year law scholarship and he took us with him. I was five years old when we fled and I didn’t see Afghanistan again until I visited in my late twenties as an Australian.
We lived in New Delhi for four years and that was a period of incredible uncertainty. We applied for refugee status in England, the United States and Australia and I missed a year of school waiting for our visas. Not knowing where we were going to end up and what was going to become of us was hard but having faith, a strong belief that there’s something bigger out there leading us on a journey helped, as did having parents who believed in a bright future. My father would say, ‘One day you’re going to live in an English-speaking country so let’s learn the language while we wait’ and taught us to read from English newspapers. It gave us a goal to work towards, which not only helped quieten the mind, but when we finally landed in Australia, I could speak the local language – even if it was with a distinct accent.
When I think back to how we made it through those times, I think it was a combination of factors that made the difference. Having gratitude for the things we had was important and we really focused on helping others as much as could. We also reflected that we all still had our health, safety and strong connections as a family, regardless of what else was happening in the world and we always found ways to connect with our loved ones back home, even if letters would always arrive censored by the regime.
It's funny but the initial lockdown phase really took me back to that time when we left Afghanistan. War and a pandemic might seem like two very different things but you still have that same concern for loved ones and you think more about basic needs. You feel the need to stay across breaking news where all talk is of death, illness and what the future might look like. There are empty streets and fearful residents. People who are refugees live with similar uncertainty every day, year after year, COVID-19 or not.
The similarities took my breath away at first, but I managed to go back to the things that kept me afloat the first time around. I leaned on my prayer and spirituality, I spent time sharing Australia for UNHCR campaigns, I checked in with loved ones virtually and I focused on doing the things I enjoy such as writing and cooking. For anyone out there struggling with the what ifs, I recommend making a gratitude list, finding ways to give back to others whether it’s monetary or volunteering your services and focusing on what’s most important in your life.
For most refugees, war comes and life is no longer the same and for us a pandemic seemed to have taken over and everything is unrecognisable. What we’ve experienced is a fraction of what a refugee experiences but it’s a meaningful fraction because I believe that now we’ve had a taste of what uncertainty looks like, our hearts will be more open. We will emerge with more empathy for our fellow human beings.”
The stories in this article were sourced from UNHCR. For more information about the work UNHCR does visit unrefugees.org.au
For information about settlement in Australia, in your language, visit sbs.com.au/settlementguide