At the end of last year, I attended volunteer training sessions with Multicultural Development Australia (MDA), and in January this year was matched with a refugee family from Iraq. The arrangement was that I, along with whoever else in my family was willing and available, would visit this family weekly for three months, to help them settle in to life in Australia and to give them a connection with a family in the area who could help them with questions related to daily life, learning English, etc. After three months, the two families and MDA collectively would decide whether or not to continue the arrangement for another three months, or to end the formal volunteer agreement, possibly to continue meeting as friends, to volunteer with another family, or simply to cease volunteering altogether.
I was thrilled. And quite nervous. I’d hoped to volunteer in this way for a long time and it was finally happening. This fit in my heart. I often think about what refugee mothers, in particular, must experience, what it must be like to have to flee your home with your babies and not much else, as your best hope to keep them safe. It sounds terrifying. I thought of what I’ve experienced through willingly packing and moving to another country—one I’d visited a few times, where people speak he “same” language, where cultures are considered similar—how difficult that’s been for me, how foreign I have felt, and still feel at times, how different life is here and all the things I’ve learned and ways I’ve changed in the past several years.
I think those feelings must be exponential for refugees—moving to a country they’ve never visited and may know little about, where the language and the culture are very different, unable to bring their belongings or reminders of the home they’ve left behind. Refugees to me epitomize strength and resilience, and I felt honoured to have this chance to assist in some small way in their journey.
My big boys were excited also. My oldest, especially, delights in learning about other cultures and meeting new people. All five of us attended the introductory meeting—a family of four with two young sons, their case manager and a translator.
It seemed to me that our hearts were captured almost immediately. The kids set off playing—they didn’t need words. Children are the most beautiful example of the oneness between us all. We have much to learn from their acceptance of one another, their willingness to learn from each other, their ability to meet in the middle and make it work.
We learned a bit about their story to date—not much, but enough to split my heart in two and look upon them with awe and admiration. I even heard Steve’s voice catch once as he spoke to the father after hearing a bit about the path he was now on with his family.
As soon as we got home, my oldest son downloaded Google translator onto our phones. I read my volunteer manuals and we all contributed to a discussion about ideas of ways we could communicate with them, what we could teach them about life as a young family in Brisbane. I was so proud of my husband and my boys—such big hearts.
Over the coming weeks our relationship grew. They treated us like royalty, and we could not convince them to do otherwise. I drank coffee, Turkish coffee—two cups per visit. This is significant as I’d never drank a full cup of coffee in my life—I don’t care for it, but I could not refuse their generosity and insistence. We feasted on homemade Arabic foods and all sorts of sweet treats—my kids were in heaven. I would bring a healthy snack each week, even though it was rarely touched. 😉
Often all five of us would visit; occasionally just my youngest and me, and other times various combinations of the kids and me. We never experienced a negative interaction. MDA is a wonderful organization and their manuals provided me with lots of ideas—we brought grocery store brochures and named different foods and other products in English. We brought over children’s books and read them together–the adults and kids.
We cobbled together words and gestures to learn bits about each other—their homeland, their family, their jobs, their interests. Clearly their station in life was much different before things went badly for them in Iraq and they found themselves squeezing into a small townhome north of Brisbane. We watched their English progress—some quicker than others—it is incredible what going to an English-speaking primary school does for a young child!
Mostly we would just visit and play and chat. Once we even took them on a picnic—again, they provided a huge Arabic feast, and we brought Australian food as well, so we all ate like royalty that day.
Just as we approached our 3-month mark, however, their situation changed. They are still in the country and safe, but we are not able to visit them anymore. Our paths that had begun on opposite sides of the world, intersected briefly for several weeks that were full of learning and understanding, and now the paths have diverged again.
It was the wonderful staff at MDA who helped me to see that poetic perspective. I had lost sight of the transient nature of life in general, that is heightened for refugees. They have been through trauma that I likely will never know or truly understand (that’s the hope anyway—when I see these mothers, I am very cognizant of the fact that in just a slightly different world, it could be me making those tough decisions and fleeing terror). And they’re not settled yet. Their trauma is ongoing. They have a long, tough road ahead of them, even though they have freshly arrived in a safer country—many obstacles continue to line their path.
I am surprised at what these past few months have taught me about myself and my family. I had expected to learn more about how strong and admirable these people are, to learn some customs and even a few words from another culture. But I had not expected to discover more about myself. I already mentioned what beauty I saw in my children and the way they embraced this experience.
But I learned that maybe I needed them more than they needed me. Maybe I gained more from our interactions than they did. I am astonished whenever I am faced again with the fact that I am lonely. Almost seven years here and I am still severely lonely. Maybe it’s even been since I became a mother and my life changed forever? I’ve been blessed with so much love and abundance and noise in my house, but it was an enormous change. Or maybe it’s just since moving here. I don’t know. It hits me on my visits back to America, and it hit me with the experience with this refugee family—I was glad to have something social to do every week, once a week, a chance to get out of my house and interact with people—even when we don’t speak the same language.
The visits gave me purpose. I do work part time and feel purpose in that, and parenting is clearly a higher purpose, but this gave me purpose in a different way. Since my teens, I have rarely NOT volunteered my time in some way. I had continued to volunteer often through my kids’ school, but for some reason it fulfils me in a different way to get out of my kids’ school and their lives and volunteer for something else that I am passionate about.
We were introduced to the family about a week before I learned of my hip issues. Visiting them helped me put the frustrations about my physical health aside and focus on something meaningful.
My heart wishes this family peace in their journey. I wish for them to feel settled one day, to create a safe and happy home. I will likely soon begin volunteering with another family and thus begin a new journey, intersecting my family’s path with that of another. For now, I will continue to work on pulling myself emotionally and mentally off this family’s path completely and hope they know that we truly care for them, and how they brought us more than we likely brought to them.