Death in Indonesian waters, sadness in Cobram
By John Elder
Sunday Age
28 October 2001

There are about 350 Iraqi refugees living in Cobram now. About the same number drowned off Indonesia last week. Tonight, the women have come together for prayer at the home of a woman related to people presumed dead. The men have met at a hall in town.

Otherwise some of them would be here in the home of Khaled Dieb, the founding stone of Cobram's Arabic society. Indeed one will come later with the saddest news. Everybody comes to see Khaled.

He was the first Arab soul to settle here, coming from Syria seven years ago; and he's danced his heart out to settle in with the locals - the regular Austrayliuns. Many he's dragged home, says Khaled's wife Rihab.

And once he gets them home - with its plaques of Arabic script on the walls asking Allah to keep them safe - he dresses his new Australian friends in the Bedouin abeyah (a beautiful robe), puts a checkered scarf on their heads and sits with them as Rihab takes their photograph with open bemusement.

The strange thing: it was Khaled's enthusiasm for friendship that led him in 1993 to seek refuge in the Australian embassy in Damascus.

The security police were spying on him, frequently detaining him, because he'd made so many foreign friends. After a string of people testified to the darkness of Khaled's situation, Australia gave him a visa; we took him in.

He left his family behind in their village on the flank of a hill, below the famous Crac des Chevalier crusader castle, on the Syrian coast. Rihab and her family also. Now they live in a neat brick home with their plaques and photographs and their hilarity. Khaled went to college in Damascus, Rihab was an English teacher. Now both work in supermarkets.

That's just to pay the bills, says Khaled. His job, he says, is helping new Iraqis settle in, helping to get them work at the orchards. They like Khaled out at the orchards. That's where he started himself. Just did a season of pruning.

Khaled also likes to tell the Iraqis how to fit in, urging them to go up to the sports club and the golf club and talk to people. Let their lights shine. That's how he did it. But that's how he's built.

Now he's a citizen, happily voting on November 10 because he never had a vote back home - he never had a say. "With the vote you get to tell the truth." (Rihab isn't a citizen, but she feels politicians should keep their promises.)

And while he has feelings about desperate people in leaky boats fleeing situations more precarious than his own, Khaled never raises it as an election issue. His gaze goes wider. "The economy going down, the dollar is down, many people lost their job, I don't know how many thousand, many company closing. I've been in Australia seven years." And the place looks different now. "Sadder. More people worry."

Sadder still, he says, he's heard that one town family is related to four children presumed dead. And then there's a knock at the door.

It's Fadel, the first Iraqi to bring his family to Cobram. They came up with five other men, all army deserters. Fadel was an officer, a captain. He'd studied law in Baghdad, and was then pulled into the army. "You go into the army or you go into the cemetery."

On March 1, 1991, with the Americans camped by his home town of Nassrya, and with Saddam torching entire cities because no one believed in him, Fadel knew he was in for it. He left his wife and three children, walked over to the Americans, spent a night sleeping next to them, was taken to a camp in the Saudi Arabian desert. Didn't see a tree for four years.

We took him in. For a year he worked in a furniture factory in Melbourne. He saved $6000 and travelled to Kurdish-held northern Iraq. His family were there, scared too. The Australian Government paid to fly them from Damascus.

Now he has five children, waiting on work at the moment. Now he's a citizen, a voter. Like Khaled, he has seen the country go down, names the troubles. He has heard Kim Beazley promise much, but doesn't know his form.

The other thing he doesn't know: the fate of his wife's sister, her sister's husband, their four children. They got a phone call from Iraq today. His wife's people were on the boat. But 40 people survived, he says. The family may be among them, and that's where his focus lies. "We just don't know."

And that was the mood at the hall. There is no national relatives hot-line to call, no word of advice from the government for its affected citizens.

Things are sadder now, says Khaled. And it's true.

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