Seeking connections

Rokhsar Hussain's story: From Iraq to Tasmania

“My whole family is shattered across the world.

“There are five of us and we live on three continents.”

Rokhsar Hussain was born in Iraq, and until she was 10 years old she lived a normal, happy life with her brother, sister and parents.

“It's like any childhood really, minus the iPads and play stations of these days, it was outdoors and connection, neighbours, people, laughter, noise, life - you could see life happen,” she said.

When she was 10 Rokhsar’s mother and brother left Iraq to seek asylum in Switzerland.

“My mum had wanted to leave the country before I was born, so in the 1980s, because for ... 50 years now there's always been civil war, some form of oppression in the country,” Rokhsar said.

“The country was just too poor, we couldn’t afford life; my mum was working three jobs, dad was working two jobs and even then with the three kids they couldn't provide for us.”

Rokhsar’s father had been in the army for her entire childhood.

“In the Saddam regime you didn’t get a choice to go to the army, it was compulsory so we barely saw him once a month,” she said.

“My mum reached her last straw at some point.”

While her mum and brother left, Rokhsar, her sister and father remained in Iraq with her grandparents.

It wasn’t until Rokhsar was 16 that she, her sister and her father also left, escaping a deteriorating situation. They arrived in Syria holding the hope of reuniting with her mother and brother in Switzerland.

“What was it like to leave everything you know behind you? It was a gamble,” Rokhsar said.

While they were in Syria the Iraq war broke out.

After several failed attempts to reach Switzerland through Eastern Europe, and with war in their home country, Rokhsar’s sister applied for asylum with the Australian embassy.

“When we got approval, which was our humanitarian visas, it was only for me and her and we had to say goodbye to my father and that was really, really difficult,” Rokhsar said.

“It’s taken years to accept that he's not going to be part of our lives, as in see us every day.”

Rokhsar’s father stayed in Syria before returning to Iraq, where he rejoined with her grandparents.
The hardest six months of Rokhsar’s life were about to begin as she arrived in Devonport in 2004.

“I don’t wish it on anyone, re-adjusting to a different life, or re-settling, or re identifying who you are, it's almost like you recreate a life, or your life, and those first six months were the hardest,” she said.

“I remember saying to my sister, by this point the war was in full swing, and I remember saying to her, ‘I don’t care, I can’t do this, I want to go home and if my grandparents are going to get bombed I want to get bombed with them, why should I be over here in a house and in a country that’s safe?’.

“The alienation and the isolation was too unbearable, to me being with my people and being killed at that point was easier than being [here] with no connection, no meaningful interaction.”

Picture: iStock

After a few weeks the two sisters started school, but connection to those around them remained elusive.

“People were pleasant, they would say hello but that was the extent of it,” she said.

“Connection is what we humans seek, we are pack animals, we live in groups, we’re not to live alone so even before we ask the question of sharing my culture and sharing my experiences or having people listen to that, I think just being able to connect with people and being treated like a worthy human being - someone who's not scary.

“I don't know what they were thinking, no one told me, all I know is that people didn't want to connect.

Rokhsar (right) with her sister as children in Iraq.

Rokhsar (right) with her sister as children in Iraq.

“A lot of people say, ‘Oh I couldn’t connect with them because they couldn't speak the language’, but you can communicate without language, we do it every day when we want to, it’s about that willingness.

“It would have been very different if people just took the time to sit across from you and say, ‘What is that like for you? It must be really hard’, or, ‘How are you going today?’.”
While Rokhsar understands settling refugees in regional areas makes strategic sense, she feels little account is taken of the needs of those re-settling.

“Yes I can see that in terms of demographics and population it makes sense, Tasmania is getting older, it needs more young people to keep the economy booming and all that, but really I don’t think our well being or anyone else's ... gets taken into account,” she said.

“Part of the reason my father couldn't come with us was because we were both adults technically, we were over 18 and we don’t need our parents; whereas in my culture we still live with our parents until we go into our spouse’s home.

“None of that even gets asked, I don’t think there is any consideration of that stuff.”

Thirteen years on and Rokhsar still feels the ripple effects of leaving Iraq.

“Because I go [to Iraq] every couple of years I actually don't feel like I belong there anymore either, so I feel like I don't have a home,” she said.

“What’s happening in the media at the moment, it brings things back and I sit there going, ‘Why is this happening to more people?’, remember the six months hell at the start? Well there are more people that are going to have to go through that because of what's happening right now.”

The ongoing conflict, and the vitriolic debates around asylum seekers and people from the Middle East, is a source of distress for Rokhsar; she doesn’t have a television because she doesn’t want to see.

“We call ourselves the developed world, we’re meant to be evolved and we’re spreading hatred and it’s all a form of control; if we can control people's minds and put fear in them then we can control their actions, this is how people like Trump get elected.

“It makes me angry that I feel really, really sad and helpless. I feel very defeated because we sit here … yet we feel like we can't do anything and that’s the bit that makes be angry.

“How can us as people not have any power? Isn’t that how in the past revolutions happened? Isn’t that how governments got overthrown? Why are we sitting here passively watching atrocities in Syria to children, to women? It makes me really emotional.”

Rokhsar's home town in Iraq, Sulaymaniyah

Rokhsar's home town in Iraq, Sulaymaniyah

Making a difference one person at a time gives meaning to Rokhsar, and combats the feeling of helplessness.

“If I can sit down with someone and educate one person at at a time … just to think outside of what's being presented to them by the media, to go online and do some research themselves, to sit down across from someone and have conversation to find out rather than taking what gets given to you as the truth, as ‘it’ – that gives me some meaning.”

Rokhsar wants to emphasise there are more than one type of refugee, and they all matter.

“Not all refugees are leaving because of political persecution; there’s climate refugees, there’s economic refugees, there’s political, social, religious,” she said.

“No one wants to be displaced … think about going to a stranger, not a neighbour, not someone you know, knocking on a stranger's door and saying, ‘Let me in’, how do you feel?

“That’s what it’s like for people to leave their whole world, everything that's familiar to them, not by choice ... this is because I have to.”

okhsar's home town in Iraq is Sulaymaniyah, Iraq

okhsar's home town in Iraq is Sulaymaniyah, Iraq

Rokhsar said she would like to see more focus on the strength of people from different backgrounds who escape their homes for a better life.

“I don’t like the idea of looking at people from different backgrounds and people from refugee or asylum seeker backgrounds as victims; they’re not.

"We don’t choose where we are born and we don’t choose our religion or our colour or our race or our country.

"What differentiates a human from a human is their love of life and their love for their fellow humans and their willingness to keep going and better themselves.”

"What differentiates a human from a human is their love of life and their love for their fellow humans and their willingness to keep going and better themselves.”