This is a true story, only the names have been changed to protect their identity.
On the sidelines of a Brisbane suburban children’s soccer game, a pocket- sized African lady screams excitedly, “go Jelani*, go, run, run.” Like many parents, she is there to offer encouragement to her young son, but for Nuru Mungar* her screams of parent pride and encouragement have much deeper and unusual origins.
Saturday sport has become part of her new life, freedom and a world of opportunity for her children, something she was starved of as a child. Nuru was a 29 year old Somalian refugee, when she received her ticket to freedom in an Australian 2002 refugee intake. Sharing Nuru’s story provides insight into her courageous and sometimes arduous personal journey from Somalia, to Kenya and finally to Brisbane.
Nuru, born in Mogadishu, Somalia on the 3rd June 1982, was the second child in a family which quickly grew to seven. Nuru’s mother stayed at home, her father worked at the local hospital. Before Nuru’s sixth birthday, her father was caught up in a skirmish at the hospital where he worked and was killed. Nuru recalls very little of her father. When she was eight, Nuru was sent to visit an Aunty, who lived in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Mombassa, Kenya. This ‘Aunty’ was a friend of the family, not a blood relative. Shortly after her arrival in Kenya, the 1991 Somalian Civil War began. As Somalia descended into anarchy and chaos, the ensuing civilian violence and killings prevented Nuru from returning to her home, she became “trapped” in Kenya.
She was not allowed to attend school at the refugee camp, so Nuru passed time helping her Aunty with baby-sitting and household chores. On many occasions, the Aunty’s husband displayed violence to Nuru, hitting her in the face if she ran late from errands, or not set the table as he liked. Living conditions in the refugee camps were basic: the houses were roughly constructed timber huts; a few mattresses scattered on the floor; no running water or cooking facilities. Every now and again, the United Nations people would distribute meagre food commodities to the refugees. This was mostly rice and flour, used to make bread. Nuru’s Aunty supplemented her income by selling tomatoes, grown on vines in the dust-bowl of a garden at the back of their hut.
When Nuru turned fourteen, she sought to escape from her miserable life. Lured by the hope of earning money in Nairobi, she caught a bus leaving the refugee camp for the city. While walking the busy Nairobi market streets, Nuru met a young man, also a Somalian refugee, who took an interest in her. He bought her clothes, “he helped me,” she said. For the first time in her fourteen young years, Nuru received attention, an emotion she had rarely experienced. However, there was a consequence to this fleeting moment of happiness, Nuru (unknowingly) fell pregnant.
Feeling nauseous all the time, Nuru thought she had malaria. She returned to her Aunty who immediately became suspicious the vomiting meant Nuru was pregnant. When her Aunty’s suspicions were confirmed, Nuru was told she must leave and never return.
The Islam religion does not allow for premarital relations under any circumstances. They refer to these acts as “fornication.” For an adult, who has reached puberty, [considered to be at 17 or 18 years] to satisfy any physical needs they may have, they must firstly be married, according to their own personal choice and with the blessing of the family and the whole society. With marriage, a child from their union are classed as legitimate children. Illegitimate pregnancies are socially unaccepted. (1.)
Nuru visited the father of her child to tell him she was pregnant and he told her, “he did not want to see me again,” she said. Raised under strict Islamic law, Nuru knew marriage was the only acceptable way to raise a legitimate child. Termination was not feasible as it was against her religion. Nuru felt great shame and the sense she was trapped yet again.
With her swollen belly giving away her secret, Nuru endured the whispers behind her back. “Pregnant, but no daddy at fifteen,” she says, visibly pained and shamed by the memory. Eight months into her pregnancy, feeling overwhelmed with sadness, Nuru experienced pounding headaches. A neighbour took her to a clinic, where she met a Kenyan Doctor. Conversing in Swahili, a dialect familiar to both, Nuru confided in the Doctor. “People have been saying to me, ‘you have a bastard child.’ [I am] being judged all the time by my people, Muslim people,” she said sadly.
“But I was never scared, because this was all my fault,” she says in a matter of fact voice. “If I died, I didn’t care, as it is my fault. I be with man, it is my fault,” she says repeatedly, believing this was her fate and therefore her solitary burden.
Nuru’s false bravado evaporated as her belly swelled in the final weeks. Without books or DVD’s to guide her she had no idea about babies, or where they were to come out of her body. When her waters broke, an ambulance drove Nuru to the United Nations Hospital, where confused and in great pain, she was turned away. Without the vital piece of paper – a refugee card, she could not be treated by a UN hospital. Finally she was accepted by a Mission Hospital and Nuru spent a very long and lonely week in hospital, monitored by a Doctor and a few nurses who rarely spoke to her. One week after her arrival, the Doctor administered Nuru with drugs and she went to sleep. When she woke Nuru thought, “I was dead, as I saw all the white clothes the nurses had on,” she says. As the effects of the anaesthetic wore off Nuru, the Nurse informed Nuru she had a baby boy. Nuru was not sure how the baby came out of her, but she was very happy the pain had ceased.
That day marked a very special day for Nuru, not only receiving the miracle of a healthy baby boy, but an unexpected extra special gift, in the form of a refugee card. Doctors at the MissionHospital seemed to understand the road Nuru travelled, had not been an easy one. They also recognised Nuru faced great difficulties without a passport or money, no husband or immediate family to support her and her baby son. Thanks to the refugee card, Nuru and her baby Jelani* lived in the protection area of the refugee camp, with many other mothers and babies without fathers. She passed the days doing odd jobs and finding food for the two of them.
Four years later, when Nuru was nineteen, a lady visiting the refugee camp offered to help Nuru, organising a meeting with three embassy officials from America, Canada and Australia. Nuru completed many forms, with assistance as she cannot read and had numerous medical checks, testing them both for malaria and aids. In April, the medical testing doctor asked if she wanted to come to Australia and she was given a bottle of clean water and a hug. A letter from the UN arrived a month later, offering Nuru a once in a lifetime invitation, to relocate to Australia.
Four months after the arrival of that letter of offer, Nuru and Jelani were standing at Nairobi airport, ready to fly to Australia. Nuru held a very small suitcase, containing her life’s possessions. Nuru’s mother came to the airport to say good-bye. Her mother had never met Jelani and had not seen Nuru since she went to Kenya as an eight year young child. At the airport, her Mother, “acknowledged my pregnancy was a mistake, that it was not my fault,” Nuru said. This forgiveness meant the world to Nuru.
After a long flight they arrived in Australia and were greeted at the airport by a “lovely lady, with a welcoming smile,” Nuru said. Nikki Wynne, a settlement Case Worker for the Brisbane Multicultural Development Association, recalls a previous case of hers. “This lady once said to me, when she walked off the plane, she would look for a smile. These people have left their country and more often than not, left their families and loved ones behind. A simple smile for this lady was the deciding factor, whether she would have luck in this new country or not,” Nikki says. “A smile costs me nothing, so I make sure I give them the biggest smile, when they walk into the arrivals lounge.”
Jelani experienced McDonald’s food at the airport for the first time. “Jelani had a fanta and he did not know what it was,” says Nuru smiling as she recalls her first impression of Australia. “I did not know if McDonalds was halal or not!”
Shortly after his arrival in Australia, Jelani became ill. Discovering a kidney stone, Jelani was operated on and recuperated for a few weeks in hospital. “If we stayed in Africa he [Jelani] would have died, [as this] would not have been discovered,” Nuru says reflectively.
Nuru learnt English at Southbank TAFE. She met a Somalian man, on a return visit to Somalia, fell pregnant and married the father when he came to Australia. They have a beautiful two year old daughter, but Nuru is no longer with the father of her child. She shakes her head, becoming very quiet, when she talks about this. “I don’t want to be with man,” Nuru says, masking her emotions.
Jelani is twelve now and is the long distance running age champion at his south side Brisbane school. One day Jelani may run for a country, but it will be his choice if it is as an Australian or Kenyan. The obvious gratitude for the opportunities and new life he and his mum have by living in Australia, his choice may be Australia? Therein lies the beauty – he has a choice.
Distinguishing Culture from Religion Concerning Marriage http://www.islamawareness.net/Marriage/Child/cm_fatwa_002.html
*The names have been changed to protect their identity.