This is Gabriela's story of exploration of migration and adapting to a new culture...
Simon greeted me warmly with a smile on his face and a friendly hug. This is the Syrian way, which seemed apt as we sought to understand each other. Both migrants to Australia, I was fortunate to spend time with Simon exploring migration, culture and life in general. In this story I will recount some of that experience, heightened through support from UTS and the empathy skills training workshops.
Our connection was almost boundless, without even thinking we spent almost three hours chatting non-stop. An instant bond was reached, fostered with authenticity and openness to share. These were shared experiences of migrating to Australia, albeit in vastly different circumstances. I felt this connection required some vulnerability (on both sides), though with shared intentions for understanding each other we were quickly comfortable and discussing our life experiences between a glass of tea and another and another!
When offered the opportunity to explore any topic, with anyone in society as a part of the workshop, it was immediately apparent which direction I must take. A little voice, something inherent within my own personal journey from Brazil to Australia, told me to explore migration. Having been bombarded with mass media reports over recent years, I was particularly interested in exploring those travelling from war-zones to a new life in Australia. Some of the questions in my mind included… how are governments helping them? What their needs and is there a way for me to help them? And what might be their current reality? Without personal interactions with real people I felt it was impossible to truly understand this situation.
Simon’s personal story began with the beautiful landscapes of his home on the shores of a glistening Mediterranean sea, the unique flavours of local foods and the warm culture they had grown up with. Then we explored the fascinating history of the Mesopotamian, Roman, and other empire conquests of Syrian territories. From this it was apparent that Syria has been a strategic point of war over the centuries. Perhaps the weight of history adds to the realities of future generations, whichever geography you come from.
From this Simon narrated his personal experiences and was generous in telling many details. He belongs to a large family of Syrians, most of which has fled the country over the last 10 years. He discussed his life before and during the war, with the fundamental fear of him or his family and friends dying in a missile attack. Simon described the harrowing stories of evenings filled with the sound of missiles flying overhead, along with tales of narrow escape from three bomb-related incidents. Sadly, during the war he has lost many friends. Despite what we see in media and movies, I feel it is impossible to truly feel what that would be like, without real lived experience. Nonetheless, I felt the anguish on Simon's face, which represented more than a thousand words.
He felt fortunate in that his family’s situation is now more stable than many of his friends and acquaintances. I sense this weighs heavily on his shoulders. It is very difficult to imagine the experience of living with never-ending fear for your personal safety and others you care about.
Exploring Simon’s experience of migrating to safety in Australia, we also discussed his friends' stories, with a stark contrast despite facing the same dangerous situations at home. Simon and his family accessed Australia the legal way, which was only possible because relatives were already here. Without this Simon would have faced the reality of the arduous illegal route, as some friends had taken. Hearing the words “we will die both ways, at least let’s try” suggests despair and the flickering embers of hope. Being forced into such a position, being the driving force behind migration, is difficult to comprehend.
Once the difficulties of living in a war situation had subsided, suddenly there was a host of new uncertainties. At the most fundamental is leaving behind generations of roots in Syria, beginning a new life in Australia not knowing if all family members would be accepted in the same country. When they arrive would they be aliens? Or would they be warmly greeted into the new society? These are fears I had moving to Sydney. Would I be able to integrate into this new culture? Our personal culture runs deep into who we are, our private Self that dictates so much of beliefs, values and world-views. It’s not something that can quickly be re-written. Especially if thrust upon us due to the presence of circumstances beyond our direct control e.g. war.
Speaking with Simon, it seems that the experience of being a refugee does not immediately dissipate once in a new country. It has been extremely problematic to support his family in Sydney, with limited government funding support amounting to around two weeks of rent (per month) in a modest residence. Without English language skills, at first it was difficult to secure meaningful employment to supplement government support programs. During this time the family lived week-to-week for about a year. It was a year of economic struggle and hard work to build a future. This is not something unique to migrants, something many young people face, especially if coming from a modest background.
Not speaking local language made integration challenging during the early days of Simon’s university studies, limiting opportunities for new friendships. Despite these hardships, Simon expressed the sadness of seeing Syrians abandon learning English and instead surround themselves with people of their nationality. He feels this happens because a lack of cultural integration has them feeling trapped and intimidated by unfamiliar culture. From my own perspective, it is too easy to fall back on familiarities from home, yet this does not allow fulfilment of new cultures and the development of a new, enhanced identity in a new home.
After exploring the challenges of life as a refugee, it was truly inspiring to understand the beauty Simon sees in his new life. How grateful he and his family are for the permission to become Australian residents and for the fantastic opportunities provided by Australia. Without constant fear, feeling safe and with calm minds, they are creating new perspectives of life. That he can now study the engineering course at university he has always dreamed of pursuing, Simon wants to help the world overcome environmental issues. Moreover, as a reflection of his genuine gratitude for this new life, he will undertake voluntary work with refugees for a year, with ambitions to help others in any way he can.
The refugee topic is sensitive to be discussed due to the trauma that comes with personal experiences of war. For a long time I have been very curious to know more about the real experiences faced by people so that someday I could help. Participating in empathy workshops has shown the large difference between sympathy and empathy, so now I understand the need for accessing their perspectives, rather than directing my support via my own experiences of migration.
Living in a condition of war is not living, it is surviving, an experience many of us will never know. If I can take away any one key message from understanding Simon’s perspective, is that for refugees the difficulties do not end after crossing borders - nor do sufferings and struggles. I feel there is a shared human responsibility to support and guide the integration of anyone who seeks a new life in a new country. I now realise how ignorant I was about refugees and this immigration topic - these people are far braver than I ever imaged!
Through this experience I have learnt so much about myself and began to scratch the surface of the experience of being a refugee. Undertaking this project has been inspiring and maybe even life changing. For this I am so glad to have met Simon and grateful for his kindness and friendship.