To the people fleeing everything they know to seek shelter and a new life in Australia, this is what it should have been like for you.
It’s been ten years since you’ve slept a full night. Ten years since your village was taken over and now, as the war begins, you’ve been forced to flee to the capital, heavily pregnant with your first daughter. You give birth to her on the balcony of your uncle’s house, because anyone with medical training is trying to stem the flow of bodies from all the shelling. And when you look into your new daughter’s tiny face, covered in blood like half the faces in the capital, you have no idea about the sort of world you are bringing her into.
You cry for her, for her lost future. For the lost birthday parties, for quiet evenings on the sofa listening to her trying to read. For brothers and sisters that she’ll probably never have. You cry for both of your lost lives as you look out onto the ruins of a once-shining city. It used to be a history book on every wall. It used to be the place tourists would come and take photos of themselves with the ancient markets and squares. It used to be your home, and it was supposed to be your daughter’s. Now it’s rubble and screaming and sirens.
In the end, it’s because of her you decide to do it.
That night, still aching from childbirth, you pack up everything you own. You sell your jewelry. You sell your old car. You text goodbye to your childhood friends and sell your phone. You sell everything and give it to a man who promises you a new future.
“It’s a hard trip for a new mother,” he says with concern, noting how young your little baby is. “You do know it will be by boat?”
You nod. You know, you’ve heard the rumours. But there’s nothing here. You haven’t heard from your husband in eight months. God knows where your parents are. God knows where anyone is. There is nothing left here for you or your daughter.
The man crams you in with twelve other people into the back of a van, even though they’re all men. Their faces are empty. No one is crying anymore. Most people have no tears left.
They drive you for days. Your body aches and you have no food, but the men give you theirs. You’re still numb. It still hasn’t sunk in. You’re leaving. You’re leaving to go somewhere where there’s no one, nothing you know. Your body moves but the rest of your feels stuck, and lost, and empty. Many times you wonder what the point is, and it’s only when you look down your chest at a tiny, puckered face that you remember.
You can hardly walk when they finally let everyone out of the van. They lead you all down onto wharf and across a ragged wooden jetty towards a boat that looks even more ragged. It’s already low on the water before anyone has gotten into it, and the captain looks like a thirteen year old boy.
This boat has to make hundreds of miles in open sea. This tiny, old fishing boat. You climb into it with your daughter held tight to your chest. She’s whimpering. You’re both in God’s hands now.
There are no lifejackets. There’s no food, and no water. “It won’t be long!” says the teenage captain. “Just to Christmas Island.”
“Have you done this trip before?” someone asks him.
He shakes his head. “No, by my father made it many times.” Someone asks him why his father isn’t making the trip now, and he says, “He’s dead.”
You watch the sea lapping at the side of the boat beside your shoulder as land disappears. Goodbye, you think to it. Goodbye, everything I know.
It’s much later, after dark, that you get woken by shouts. Your baby wakes, too, and cries. There’s the rumble of a deep engine and the stars are blocked out and suddenly the whole boat is lit by a blinding flood light. Men are shouting from above you in a language you don’t understand. Some of the men on the boat do, and they jump into the sea as huge white men in uniforms board the boat. You might have followed the jumpers out of panic if you didn’t have your baby.
The white men are from the army. The army seizes people and sends them back to where they came from; you’ve heard the rumours.
You have no choice but go with them. They’re gentle with you, but you cry anyway. Especially when they turn their boat back towards the land you’ve just left. You can’t go back!
You cry, and you shake, and you plead with them. “It’s not for me,” you tell them, but they don’t understand. You hold your little daughter at them as she cries, too. “It’s not for me. I want my daughter to be safe! She deserves a childhood!”
They just give you food and water and pretty soon you’re back on dry land again. They take you to an airport and they put you on a plane – and you know it’s going back to your ruined homeland. Back into the shelling and the fighting and killing, but there’s nothing you can do, nothing. There’s so many of them and they’re huge and they have guns. You board the plane and cry as it taxis out and then lifts into the air.
It’s not until you’ve been in the air for several hours that you realize the only thing beneath the plane is sea. And then, when the sea ends, orange crags and dry red soil begins.
You stare out the window with your mouth open, wondering if you’re hallucinating. There’s nothing like that in your country. There’s nothing like anything you can see below the plane.
You’re still numb when the plane lands and you’re ushered out of it into hot, damp air and a runway surrounded by palm-trees. There’s a sign in big letters that you can’t read ahead of you on top of a building.
The building is in one piece. It’s new, and it’s beautiful. It shines in the midday sun and people wearing colourful clothes are moving in and out of it, laughing and chatting. No one is scurrying around the walls, looking fearfully at each other and at the sky. No one is shielding their wives and their children. People are crying, too, but they’re also hugging and taking happy photos. It feels surreal, and yet, you remember it. Somewhere deep inside your heart, you remember things being like this.
You walk into the building, with the big white guys, and there are two white women waiting for you in short-sleeved t-shirts and colourful bangles. Neither of them speak your language, but when they see you, they rush up to you and offer you water and food and comment on your baby. You think they’re complimenting her, so you force a vague smile. Everything is just so overwhelming, there’s too much. You don’t know what’s happening. Are they going to put you on another plane?
The women do paperwork before they leave the airport. Lots of paperwork. You understand you’re supposed to write your name, and they’re asking you other questions, too, but you don’t understand.
They don’t force you, though. They look knowingly at each other, and then they bundle you into a car and drive you out of the airport, somewhere else. You stare out the window at all of the houses; they’re so flat, and strange, but the most striking thing about any of them is that they’re in one piece. Children are playing on the lawns. Grandparents are reading on porches. Everyone looks relaxed, and when the women pull into the driveway of one of the flat houses, they seem relaxed and they’re chatting to each other. They ask you to step out, and then motion for you to follow them inside. You wonder who you’re meeting.
The house is empty, though. There’s no one to meet. It’s just a little two bedroom house, with a tiny courtyard and clean but mis-matched furniture. The fruit bowl is full of fruit, and there’s a new stove in the kitchen. As the women are showing you around, you notice that someone has laid out tiny little baby clothes on a bed in one of the rooms, and you idly touch them, thinking that your daughter will need some clothes like these.
And that’s when you realize.
One of the women smiles at you, and as you stand there gaping at the clothes, she lifts one of the little dresses up and holds it beside your little girl. It’s the right size, and she gives you the thumbs up sign.
You barely allow yourself to think it, but you know it’s true: this is for you. All of this is for you and your little daughter.
Suddenly, you can hardly breathe.
The women make you tea, and it tastes strange and different to what you’re used to, but you drink it. They make you food, and it’s unfamiliar, but you eat it. They show you a calendar and there are appointments written on it, but you don’t understand what they mean and you can’t read the letters. One of them has a red medical cross on it, though, and that one’s tomorrow.
It’s not real, you think. I must be dead. This must be the afterlife. Maybe I drowned at sea with my little girl.
But you didn’t, and you finish your strange lunch, and the women give you some space by going to sit out in the courtyard while they make a long phone call.
It’s so quiet without fighter jets. You can hear flies buzzing, it’s so quiet. You wonder if this is just temporary; maybe they’ll make sure okay and then just send you back to your country. You just can’t believe any of this is real. This doesn’t happen.
You want to believe it’s real, though. You want to believe this is it. You want to believe you’ll live here in this quiet house and raise your daughter. You want to believe she’ll go to school and make lots of friends and bring them home so this little house is filled with squealing, happy children. You want to imagine yourself making beautiful traditional pastries for them and their families. Your mother was a doctor, and even though you had to leave school at thirteen yourself, for the tiniest, briefest second, you imagine yourself wearing scrubs.
You’re nursing your daughter when one of the women comes back inside, and your heart as she approaches you. She holds the phone towards you and you take it, confused, and put it to your ear.
The voice that speaks, you understand. “Hello,” he greets you in your own language. “I’m the interpreter. Do you understand me?”
“Yes,” you say, and your language sounds foreign on your lips.
“Good afternoon, then!” he says. “The lady who is speaking to you is a social worker, and she’ll be helping you for a few months. She has something to say to you.”
“Yes,” his voice says as you stare at the smiling face of the women who brought you here. “She says welcome home.”