Current Students

Refugees’ stories are moving and inspiring

Photo of group of people from many regions of the world

UTAS staff, students and members of the community crowded the Stanley Burbury theatre this week to hear the personal stories of three refugees.

Each speaker shared the story of the circumstances in which they left their countries of birth, their journey to Australia and how they came to call Tasmania home.

Head of the UTAS School of Government, Professor Kate Crowley, said it gave the School "great pleasure" to be hosting the event, which was organised by the Senator Lisa Singh's office and the School.

"I'd like to thank Senator Singh and her office for working so productively with our own office, in particular with Dr Megan Alessandrini, to bring you this event tonight," she said.

Senator Singh said it was "fantastic" to see so many people at the event.

"While every refugee's story is different and their anguish personal, they all share a common thread of uncommon courage. Courage not only to survive, but to preserve and rebuild their shattered lives," she said.

"This is not a statement from me; it is a statement from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

"I think it really sums up what we are here to hear about tonight from our three courageous former refugees."

The first speaker Eh Eh Tin from Burma, grew up in a village in a conflict zone where his life was terribly impacted by the military.

Eh Eh fled to Thailand and lived in a refugee camp for 11 years. Ten years later he came to Australia. He now works as an interpreter and studies at UTAS.

"In my life I have never had peaceful sleeping- until the day I arrived in Tasmania," he said.

"That's because I was sleeping in a very comfortable bed, with a very warm blanket in a safe and secure room.

"I felt so safe because I knew myself, before I went to bed, that this is not a refugee camp. This is not Burma. This is Australia.

"One day I asked my wife a question. ˜Would you agree if I disconnect all the telephone lines so people from the refugee camp could no longer ask for money from us?'," he said.

"And then she said ˜when we live, we serve. When I die, I can't take that money with me.

"I am very happy to see Australian people who serve as they live."

Speaker Nagam Alkani came to Tasmania from Iraq. She is an engineer whose husband was killed. She forced to flee her country with her two young daughters, now six and eight. She has been in Australia for four years. She works casually as an interpreter.

"I had a beautiful life in my country- nothing to worry about.

"But in 2003, the war in my country started and everything turned upside down," she said

"My country became like living in a volcano- not outside the volcano, but inside it."

Nagam told of living with constant explosions, conflict and fear. She tried to care for her family despite a dire lack of services, including water, electricity and medical care. After she was hit by shrapnel from a car bomb, she became determined to leave Iraq and seek safety for her daughters.

"Even now after four years it is hard to find my spot in the community.

"It is hard to find work and I struggled for four years to get my driver's license.

"The good thing is, I am very determined and I try hard without any help. And last month, I got my P. Now I can take my daughters to school," she said, to applause from the audience.

Her message to other new arrivals?

"Don't lose hope- keep trying. You must have some strong inside you- if you're not strong inside, then you would not be here."

Speaker Isaiah Lehai, originally from Sierra Leone, arrived in Tasmania in 2006 after living in refugee camps in Guinea for 14 years after he and his family fled from civil war.  Isaiah is a UTAS student, a husband and father of four, but still manages to find time to be an active volunteer in the community.

He is a member of the Glenorchy Diversity Community Council, a former chairman of the Sierra Leon Liberian Union of Hobart, a founding member of the African Communities Council of Tasmania and he has served as a member of the Multicultural Affairs Advisory Council, advising the Premier.

Isaiah told the audience how war started in his country in 1991. He arrived home to find his family, along with their neighbours had fled from the conflict. He rejoined his family eventually.

Isaiah spoke of the darkness that overcame him after years of living in refugee camps and how meeting his wife, the love of his life, helped him to overcome his despair.

"I want to thank my wife- the bones of my bones, the blood of my blood. Without her, I would have been a dead man today.

"She gave me the courage, the strength and the hope to keep moving, even though we are refugees for 14 hard years," he said.

Isaiah also thanked the School of Government and its "inspiring and powerful lecturers, especially Dr Megan Alessandrini, who I call 'my mother'."

Image: (Left to right) Dr Megan Alessandrini, Eh Eh Tin, Nagam Alkani, Isaiah Lehai and Senator Lisa Singh



Published on: 26 Jul 2012 4:35pm