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Learning Through Their Stories
By Sheila Ngoc Pham
When I arrive at Orara High School in Coffs Harbour with my colleagues from Sydney Story Factory, I can see that the teacher, Alex Riske, have brought together a large group of students, most enrolled in the intensive English program. It's clear that they are refugees or migrants, and even though that's also my history, what must be so raw for them feels so distant to me after all these years.
The first creative writing exercise we take them through is a poem constructed by answering a series of questions. Anyone with the most basic grasp of English can write this poem and, as I discover that morning, some of the most simple ones are the most moving. When adjectives and other literary flourishes are stripped away, only feelings and everyday objects remain.
In just a few hours with these students in the school library I learn so much about the world, things I probably should know but really don’t. Like the Hazara students whose families were persecuted by the Taliban; how they fled Afghanistan by going over to Pakistan, living there indefinitely in refugee camps until their application to settle in Australia was approved many years later.
I chat with one boy about how he misses freshly baked Afghan bread because he’s written it down in a story about his family. We agree that if he lived in Sydney or Brisbane he’d be able to find some easily, and I tell him I know exactly where to find a good Afghan bakery in Auburn. Refugee resettlement has transformed Coffs remarkably in recent years, but not enough to warrant its own Afghan bakery. Not yet, anyway.
I’d visited Coffs only once before, 20 years earlier, a brief stop at the town’s infamous Big Banana on the 10-hour drive from Sydney to the Gold Coast. It was the only time we ever visited because family holidays were rare. My parents were always working, often on weekends as well, and for a time Dad even worked two full-time jobs going straight from one to the other with a short nap in between.
Later that afternoon we visit Coffs Harbour High. Only three of the students look like recent arrivals to Australia, while the rest seem to be largely white or Aboriginal. I gravitate toward the three, instinctively protective, sitting down with them to support them in their writing.
One boy writes on his sheet of paper that he’s traveled in Australia.
“Where in Australia have you traveled?” I ask.
“Just here, Coffs Harbour.”
“Oh I see, you mean you moved or migrated here,” I said. I look at what else he’s written for some context. “But you’ve written that you flew from Bangkok. Did you stay there?”
“No, I was in Pakistan. We traveled to Islamabad first where we got on the plane.”
“Are you Hazara then?” I asked, going off what I’d learned just that morning from the other kids at Orara High … and when I say that, he just stares at me, his eyes popping out of his head at my recognition.
“How did you know?!”
I suddenly choke up and have to turn away to compose myself before I can face him again.
In that moment I realize how much is still so close to the surface, the countless times people were ignorant of who I was and how my family got here. Turns out I'd just developed a thick skin, long used to the fact that most people don’t appreciate the extraordinary journey undertaken to arrive here after a war.
Knowing he was Hazara was hardly the most profound insight, something learned earlier that day from a few conversations; that he was so pleased with so little reminded me how we — all of us — don’t even have to work that hard to meet people part of the way.
Send us your stories. For guidance and inspiration, here are a few other recent entries: about boxing in the outback, a bread thief, Vegemite, Aussie place names, a play date gone wrong, racism, weekend sport, birthday cakes, another road trip, for the birds, no hat, no play, a housewarming party, tales of nippers, growing up on the creek, generational angst, paying with pineapples, magical mermaid pools, lizard friends, nude beaches, music and road trips, curious lifeguards, death and kindness, plus poetry and #metoo on the work site.