A new haven
By FARAH FAROUQUE
Sunday 28 October 2001
In the small Victorian town of Cobram, Asif Al-Musharafawi has found for his family the sort of peace that was more elusive in the city. He says, a little wistfully, it reminds him of the small town he grew up in southern Iraq.
But, in the past few months, life has been disrupted by a savage political debate on refugees.
The drowning of some 350 people bound for Australia on a rotting Indonesian fishing boat is weighing on Cobram's growing Iraqi community numbering around 250.
Everyone, it seems, knows someone or knows someone who knows someone who had a cousin or friend aboard the boat that sank. "We are all sad," says Mr Al-Musharafawi.
In his neat loungeroom, he reflects on the question many people now ask him. "They say do you come by boat or the legal way as a refugee?"
This question bothers the former teacher who fled Saddam Hussein's regime after the Gulf War and spent five years in a Saudi refugee camp before he was granted refugee status. In the Saudi camp he met and married his wife, Iman, who trained as a lawyer in Iraq and there they had Huda, 8, and Assra, 7. Ali, 5, was born here.
They came to Australia six years ago from the Saudi camp. Like most of Cobram's Iraqis, they did not embark on a dangerous sea journey.
Mr Al-Musharafawi asks: "What is the difference?. After they (boat people) come here and they are accepted as refugees, we are the same. They are legal. We are legal.
"The Australian Government allows them to legally stay, even if they are here on a temporary visa."
"Queue jumper" is also a foreign term to him. "They don't wait because they have no hope," he says.
There have been incidents lately of local youths shouting "Bin Laden" to Iraqi women on the street.
Recently, a couple of firecrackers were also thrown into a refugee family's yard and police were called. But this small town has shown a remarkable ability to absorb this quite visibly different cultural group.
Next week, the primary school, attended by around 50 Iraqi children, will stage a fashion parade featuring Iraqi clothing and culture. It is for women only, so the Iraqis will be able to shed their headcoverings and model traditional garments in the company of local women.
Perhaps a measure of the Iraqi community's integration is evident in the high school spelling bee where an Iraqi girl Hebah was a finalist.