All troubled on the family front
Geoff Strong
The Age
13 March 2003

The Al Ramahis fled Iraq to escape oppression and to make a new life. But as war looms, everything is conspiring against them. Geoff Strong reports.

On a hot north Victorian morning, 15 similarly clad women are concentrating on their new language of English and words beginning with different letters of the alphabet.

'Life,' says one, her keen face haloed by the veil she wears by virtue of religion. Then she suggests 'last, lost, lawyer' and finally, 'liar'.

Islam Al Ramahi's offerings for the letter 'L' might be coincidence, but they are also an unconscious summary of her thoughts and fears throughout much of her 31 years.

When she was 11, her schoolteacher father was executed by Saddam Hussein's regime. A decade later her brother was run over by a carload of secret police, his death officially ascribed to 'an accident'.

When American promises of safety after the 1991 Gulf War proved false and supposed havens unsafe, she and her family headed to the West, where she hoped they would be welcomed. On arrival in Australia, she had to learn the meaning of another new word, and that word was 'Woomera'.

Now, after a long journey, she and her husband, Sadiq, and their four boys have three-year temporary protection visas and live in a small brick house in the southern end of Shepparton.

Here, in a pocket off the Archer Street thoroughfare, they have settled uneasily among streets with soft green English county names like Somerset, Essex and Devon.

When the Housing Commission built these houses on the raw red earth in the 1960s and '70s, it was as if someone wanted to make the environment as homely as possible for the new arrivals of the time. There have been several waves of migrants since then: Italians and Greeks, then later the Turks.

But officialdom's response to the latest settlers seems in stark contrast to those who came 30 years ago. In Shepparton, which has a population of about 60,000, there are now 3500 Iraqis, half of whom have been released from detention with temporary protection visas.

It puts them into a kind of nether world where children born in Australia have no citizenship rights, education opportunities are limited and earning an income to survive often happens in the half light of the cash economy.

Walking these English county streets now are women like Islam Al Ramahi, draped in their hijabs and accompanied by their usually bearded or moustachioed men. Their strict dress code makes it hard for them to blend into the Australian background, no matter how much they would like to.

They suffer the taunts that many migrants suffer, but in the build-up to war, things are getting worse. 'C'mon love, show us yer hair!' bellows a male voice from a passing car.

Some of the recent arrivals hail from Kuwait and Afghanistan, but most - like the Al Ramahi family - are from Iraq. It is a particularly nervous time for them.

Their house is sparsely furnished with offerings from charity shops such as the Salvation Army, but its floors are colourfully decorated with traditional Iraqi carpets bought cheaply from a contact in Melbourne.

The family moved to the house eight months ago from North Shepparton where they had been housed in more affordable welfare accommodation. There, among some of the poorer elements of society, they found it difficult to accept the culture of drinking, swearing and allowing children to smoke. After four months they left, even though they would have to pay a higher rent for their new home.

Now an old Mazda station wagon with a flat spare tyre is parked outside. It ferries them around a town with little public transport.

Islam and Sadiq are a smiling bright-eyed couple and their three older boys have all gained a good grasp of English after just a year at Australian schools. For the eldest, Jaffar, it is the third time he has had to change the language of his schooling.

He now goes to McGuire College where he has lots of friends, but laments that most of them come from an Arabic background. 'I would like more Aussie friends, that way I learn English quicker.'

Prayer times govern their lives and are listed on a sideboard. On a small table in their living room, there is always an offering of non-alcoholic drinks, fruit and Islam's homemade sweets for guests.

In the corner a large television, mostly tuned to SBS, brings news of the threatening war against their homeland. It is a subject that leaves them disturbed and apprehensive.

Suddenly Jaffar points to the screen: 'Hey, we know this guy!' It is an item on the Egyptian-born people smuggler Abu Quassey whom they knew as Ahmed Al Janapy and the man who was paid to take them to Australia. Just released from a Jakarta jail, he is wanted by the Australian Government.

The Al Ramahis say they just want a quiet life, yet it is hard to ignore the events on the news and the shadow of war.

They have a great hatred of the Iraqi regime but it is tempered by their experiences in the last Gulf War, which left them deeply distrustful of the United States. Sadiq, 35, is particularly suspicious of American motives. They have nothing to do with restoring democracy, he says. 'Saddam is a tyrant, dictator, fascist and criminal,' he says. 'Any Iraqi with a brain wants him removed. But what does America want? They want Iraqi oil.'

His apprehension about the Americans is, to a large extent, based on his own experience. His family come from the town of Najaf, south of Baghdad. Najaf is the site of the tomb of Ali, cousin to the prophet Muhammad, fourth caliph of Islam and founder of the Shiite strand of the Islamic religion. Like most Iraqis, the Al Ramahi family follow the Shiah tradition.

In Najaf, Sadiq's parents still own a supermarket and are quite well to do. During the last Gulf War, Sadiq was conscripted to fight in the army. After the American-led Operation Desert Storm demolished Saddam's defences, the Iraqi people were urged by the US to revolt against the regime, which is dominated by minority Sunni Muslims. Many of them did, Sadiq included. 'Then George Bush's father signed a treaty with Saddam. That allowed him to use every weapon he had to crush our revolt.'

Sadiq's family found they had to flee to Kuwait where they stayed in the limbo of a refugee camp for five years until the United Nations earmarked them for resettlement in Iran where Shiite Muslims were theoretically welcome. The Iranian welcome did not prove so warm, but they were told that they would be welcomed in the West. In November 1999 Sadiq left alone for Australia and after just a week travelling via Malaysia and Indonesia, arrived on Christmas Island. He was welcomed to Australia with 10 months in Woomera before being released on a TPV.

In May 2001, Islam and the three eldest boys - Jaffar, now 14, Ali, 11, and Ahmed, 9 - left Kuwait. But it took them three months to reach Christmas Island, which was followed by six months in Woomera.

Islam says she and her children witnessed things there that they had not expected to see in a country such as Australia.

Also, Ali, who has diabetes, was not allowed to be fed except at the same time as other inmates, even under the direction of a doctor and nurse. Young Ahmed was in a state of shock after he went to a bathroom and found a man self-mutilated and bleeding. Then each day on the way to the canteen they had to walk past people with sewn lips or other self-inflicted injuries.

'We couldn't eat, we just felt sick and wanted to cry. Sometimes I wondered what was the difference between Saddam Hussein and where we were.'

Now they face the anxious uncertainty of living on TPVs. Sadiq's is due for review at the end of this year. Although the parents have Iraqi citizenship, all four boys are stateless, including four-month-old Reza. Children born to couples on TPVs are excluded from automatic Australian citizenship.

People such as the Al Ramahis, and the waves of migrants that preceded them, have been attracted to Shepparton by the availability of work and the support of an established community. A history of migration has also made the place more tolerant than many other more monocultural country areas.

Unlike some migrant groups, Iraqis are more attracted to the quiet conservatism of the rural areas than cities.

Here the canneries have always offered migrants desirable jobs. More abundant work can be found on the farms, but it is tough and poorly paid. In a sense they perform the Australian role of America's Mexican wetbacks.

The dilemma for Shepparton's Iraqis is that decent work requires good English, but language tuition is, in theory, unavailable to TPV holders.

But the new arrivals have their supporters and the local TAFE provides basic English classes to TPV holders free.

Just as the SBS news ends another Iraqi couple arrive at the Al Ramahi household, bearing gifts of fruit. This couple are Christians who have converted to the Baptist faith.

They escaped through Jordan and came to Australia under a UN-sponsored refugee program. Last Friday they were made Australian citizens.

Sadiq and Islam are pleased for their friends, but depressed for themselves.

The TV news had included reports that the Federal Government was considering sending TPV holders back to Iraq after Saddam is removed.

'We just want to be accepted here. We just want to live normal lives,' says Islam.

Back to