Our team of young editors was given the opportunity to speak with refugee poet Abe Nouk during their week at Australian Catholics magazine. Francesca Tomasiello writes about the experience.
When Abe Nouk arrives for his interview his presence in the room is palpable. When he speaks his words resonate with everyone. When listening to Abe’s story so far you can’t help but feel frustrated at the tribulations he has had to face to be finally granted refugee status in Australia.
‘[My story] is still progressing’, he tells us. ‘It feels like one of those fairy tales … In a nutshell, in 1999 my mother made a decision and in 2000 she executed it.
‘Around 3am I found myself packing suit cases and we caught a boat to Cairo and from Cairo we I sought asylum.’
He explains the process his family went through to be granted refugee status, how they only had three chances to ‘validate’ their reasons for asylum which ‘is one the hardest things to do’. How his mother was told that she would have greater chances of migrating to Australia if she left some of her children behind, which of course, she did not do.
In 2004 they were finally accepted. The fact his family was so fortunate, where others weren’t, is something he grapples with.
‘How do you justify being on the other side when you know what the opposite feels like?’ he asks.
Now he’s living in Australia, we asked Abe if he’d experienced any racism or discrimination in the community. He says he chooses to focus on the positives.
‘It’s a matter of making a choice – do you wanna play into it, or do you want to play out of it’, he says.
‘In 2008 when I first moved out to Lilydale, there was a lady who got on the bus and literally started touching my skin, saying, “Goodness you have beautiful skin. I haven’t seen a black person before except on TV.”
‘You have to realise people are curious. If we keep for whatever reason focusing on negative attitudes the more it starts to become a reality.’
One of the things that I found throughout the interview was how much I, as an Australian teenager, take for granted. As Abe talked about how ‘it has been 13 years in Australia yet it only feels like 13 days’ he mentioned how surreal it felt and how he is grateful for the friendliness of Australian people.
This friendliness it seems to me is how Australian communities can come together to support those who need it most. On social media, I have the ability to connect with people from all around the world who have shared interests with me. But throughout our interview with Abe I realised that making change in one’s own local communities is just as important. The times when we connect with people on trains, or on the street, can help form stronger local communities as well.
‘One of the easiest things about living in this country is that if you make the effort there’s no telling what you’ll learn from others and benefit from starting a conversation’, says Abe.
‘This generation feels the entitlement to be looked after but if you are not looking after the people who are coming to our shores you are losing those [Australian] values. The thing is – nothing is threatening our freedom, that’s why people are attracted to coming to this country. The Australian way has always been to give people a fair go and to give them the benefit of the doubt, but then if we take that away we take away our humanity.’
Finally, I ask Abe how we make ourselves more connected to the community.
‘Find what expresses you best and give as much as you can without any expectations, I think the return in abundance will definitely surprise you’, he says.
‘My mother grew up in a farm community back in the early 1960s and one of things that stuck with her and that she still says to us is that you can’t expect to get harvest where you have not sown seeds. Really, you can’t expect to be a part of the community when you, yourself, as an individual are not contributing.
‘Communities grow when individuals become selfless and learn to give away what they have instead of saving it. To replenish you must give away. Everything you learn must be passed on. It’s easy to speak of but it’s a lot harder these days. You’ve gotta be able to become resourceful and give away all the resources that you have.’
Francesca Tomasiello is a student at Our Lady of Mercy College, Heidelberg.
Photo Credit: Casamento Photography