This story reveals just some of the challenges that many immigrant and refugee women experience from the time of leaving their homeland to their settlement in Australia. It is also a testimony derived from our own experiences and the experiences of other women that we have been privileged to know. Finally, it is a tribute to the strength of immigrant and refugee women.
We travel often, sometimes not even thinking about the road taking us from one destination to another. Roads to work, roads to shops, roads to a friend or road to a holiday. As it turned out for me, my life changed and I will always remember two roads and two routes, which changed my life in every possible way.
I had to leave my homeland because civil war started in 1992. The only way out was a road traveled in haste, through the mountain region, a road traveled with love and determination that we had to live and go on. The road was symbolically named – The Salvation road.
For people who decided not to flee, but to stay, despite constant shelling and fighting, food was their salvation. For anyone who was lucky to have a chance to escape and seek refuge somewhere else, the road was a salvation.
I found myself on the road to salvation together with my children, being part of the lucky ones; happy to be among lucky people but heart-broken leaving many thousands behind. I could still remember with an excruciating pain in my heart – faces… hundreds of frozen faces that expressed a deep pain and hopelessness as we were leaving the town and they were waving goodbye with their eyes wide open in a desperate attempt to remember the faces of their loved ones going to the unknown.
We both took a risk – the ones left behind risked being killed or tortured or starved to death. We (‘the lucky ones’) risked being stopped on the road and taken away by enemy forces, possibly killed. We were terrified of this unknown – how would we manage to survive on our journey to ‘safety’? Worst of all were the bewildering thoughts we faced: would we ever see our loved ones again, our home and everything that meant to us? Our journey to the unknown was an act of faith, as was our faith that our loved ones who were left behind would survive.
This road was closing one part of my life and opening a new and unknown life ahead of me. I knew little of what the future was going to bring me on this new journey.
Women from our country were faced with multiple challenges requiring enormous energy, stamina and commitment. Women who had to go through transit countries on their journey to safety, and spend several years there waiting for permanent settlement had to go through the misery of refugee life which contributed further to our psychological pain and suffering. Some of the women that I knew had to continually move from one country to another, against their choice. Every time they were faced with a new and foreign environment, sometimes hostility and humiliation. Each time children and their mothers (us) had to undergo the enormous effects of having to adapt and adjust to new schools, new languages, new cultures, new systems. We had to make new friends, find our way around a new city … survive!
Did we think that we as mothers and carers and breadwinners needed anything? No! To even be able to think of our needs at that time would have been a real luxury! We had other priorities in our everyday lives … the wellbeing of our children, helping families back home who had to survive without the most basic necessities such as a food, electricity, water, gas, nor to mention the 24 hour fear of been killed.
Dealing with our children’s experiences of settling into schools and their peer groups was another big obstacle – how to help them with their homework, how to support them emotionally and fill other gaps to ensure a healthy childhood? It was a constant battle. How to replace the people and things that they missed out on and that were so dear to them? How to help them feel that they belonged to their peer group while still maintaining the values that we wanted them to grow up with? We’d often wake up panicking that we hadn’t yet finished what we intended to do, so we decided the only way was to double the load, while trying to grapple time, time that become our worst enemy.
On the other hand, led by the instinct and dedication to survive, women discovered some incredible skills and abilities that had been hidden and suppressed for a very long time. Those discoveries have made these women more confident, stronger, independent and dedicated. Driven by the desire to survive, women who experienced these disasters deserve to be seen as heroines.
I was impressed by the strength and dedication of all those women, including myself, making our way through that difficult time. Not only did we manage to survive through such a difficult time and, on many occasions within hostile surroundings, but we also managed to play the multiple roles of mothers, carers, counselors, teachers, cooks, laborers, mediators, advocates, managers and you name it, what else! We risked our lives to gain our lives. I’ve always wondered where we drew such energy and Strength from! Later on I learnt that it is called survival.
Written by Ozana Bozic and edited by Amira Rahamanovic
Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health