“This is not just getting on the boat and getting off the boat in another country and just waiting for you visa. Many many branches that you never think is changed.”
This interview took place on
When I asked Sara if we could have another conversation [the first was Let the Truth be Told ], she surprised me with an invitation to dinner. She said, ‘please bring Linda,’ specifically inviting my partner, Melanie, whose name she often confused.
So today Melanie joins me as I make my way to Sara’s. It’s almost dark as we slip past the thick hedge and onto the wooden veranda of the old weatherboard house. After knocking twice I see a figure coming towards us through the stained glass panels. It’s Sara. She greets us and leads the way in, through a corridor, past the stairs and into a renovated space that, in its modernity, stands in relief to the rest of the structure. The clean lines of a wide marble bench separate the cooking area from dining. The oven and exhaust hood are shiny and there’s plenty of compact cupboard space. Rain starts clattering on the roof and Sara says, ‘In Iran we have a saying, if someone comes to the house and it rains, they are bringing good luck.’
A tall, silver haired man, probably in his late sixties or early seventies, walks in and introduces himself. With a firm handshake and a friendly manner he introduces himself as John. He makes sure everyone’s comfortable and suggests choice wines from his collection. I realise he’s Sara’s landlord. We sit around the table, sipping a red and exchanging pleasantries. John tells us he used to teach at [removed] University. Now he’s a lecturer at the [removed] institute.
Sara asks if we’re ready to eat. Everyone seems hungry so she removes a large platter of rice with a brown crust from the oven. I ask her what it’s called and she says its ‘Tahdig.’ There’s also a salad with greens, capsicum and pinenuts on the table, pita bread for dipping into an eggplant and mint mixture. The Tahdig contains potato and tomato and it combines very well with the salad. The eggplant dip is fresh and tangy and very moreish.
After we finish eating I ask if we can start the interview and Sara agrees, saying she doesn’t mind the others listening in. John riffs about listeners hijacking the interview with their own stories. Sara seems ready.
Last time I saw you [at the Intercultural Centre], you wanted to tell me about your first few months here.
When I was in detention centre I was thinking, as soon as I come to community everything’s finished, my life will be whole – changed – everything will be settled. All the things I never had in my life – freedom – everything will be granted to me.
It wasn’t like that. The first three months was hell.
Because I used to have home. I used to have a good job. I used to have dignity.But now I arrived to someone else house, as a share house – my cousin’s. They act like I’m a servant in that house.
I could never imagine my life to be behaved as a not human being. So, every single day I was thinking: I had home, I had job, I had family – I left that to have freedom to talk. Now they’re acting I’m less than a servant.
So this was your cousin, as in…
My second cousin.
[Back in Iran] her father was died when she was five years old. Her mother was a drug smuggler. So she was too young and she had a real bad family. She didn’t have a good situation in her house so I brought her to my family to take care of her. Even though I had so many struggles with my husband I protected her.
This was the same time that my second child was passed away and my first child one sent to the Netherlands [see Let the Truth be Told ], so me and my husband were all alone.
How did your cousin get here?
She came by boat too. But earlier than me. One year earlier.
Are they permanent residents?
No, they don’t have their permanent visa as well.
But by the time [I came to Australia] I don’t say I needed her. I really didn’t needed her because I was paying rent…I think they needed me. I was paying them. She had one daughter, one year old, and she was pregnant at the same time.
The day I arrived I had one thousand dollar, which is the only money I had when I came to Australia. I didn’t know her husband is addicted. He came to me and said, ‘We have very bad situation financially and I need money for this baby.’
So I borrowed him one thousand dollar, which I never seen it again.
Was he doing drugs?
Yes, he was. Drugs. He used to take all the money I had in my pocket. Every single day when was going out of the house, when I came back home, everything in my room was touched. Everything was…smashed.
Because of addiction? I don’t know. Because of the way he was raised?
For example, when I was washing dishes he came to me: ‘Why didn’t you mop the floor?’
I felt my dignity is, I don’t know how to say in English, but I felt I’m destroyed. I couldn’t do anything. I didn’t know anyone in Melbourne. I didn’t know anyone in Australia. They were the only people I knew. I was thinking all Australia is like this. I didn’t have any protection. What should I do?
I could never imagine she [cousin] turned like this to me. I loved her child – because I always love children. So one day when I woke up I saw the baby’s crying, I asked her, ‘What happened?’
She said, ‘She had wet her nappy and this is your fault because you didn’t change her.’
And one of my friend one day came to me and said, ‘This is not the way you’re living. I’ll find you some other place to live.’
I didn’t know anything about Australia – about how to rent a house, where should I go, what should I do. I asked my case manager several times to find me one room. Every time he was finding some room for me it was much more higher than I can afford it. So I told I have to leaving this house. Forever.
My friend find me a house. It was a Filipino couple. They were living in [Suburb removed] so I moved to their house. After first two months – first two months when I was in Melbourne.
“We had lived thirty years together and it was only one year that I wasn’t over there. It’s not still one year.”
At this point of telling her story Sara is struggling to rein in her emotions. Her voice has taken a crackling timbre and her eyes are filling with tears.
But the horrible part was not that. One day, one of my friends called me and told me my husband has got married. To some other woman. We had lived thirty years together and it was only one year that I wasn’t over there. It’s not still one year.
So I didn’t talk to him about this situation for a long time. One day he was telling me, ‘I don’t forgive [somebody].’ He was talking about someone else.
I said, ‘You forgive everybody.’
He said, ‘No, I won’t forgive him.’
I told him, ‘Do you expect me to forgive you?’
He said, ‘Why?’
I told him, ‘Because I heard such a thing.’
He insisted in denying it. But I know my husband. So I’m thinking if they want to return me to my country I don’t have anything over there anymore. Not my children. Not my home. Not my family. Not the man I love. It won’t be same for me anymore. Even if he comes here. Even if I go back there. It won’t be same.
[If returned to family home in Iran] maybe I don’t pretend anything. Maybe I can be able to pretend that this house is still mine. But he’s not the same person for me and I think I won’t be the same person for him anymore.
This is not just getting on the boat and getting off the boat in another country and just waiting for you visa. Many many branches that you never think is changed.
“If they want to return me to my country I don’t have anything over there anymore. Not my children. Not my home. Not my family. Not the man I love. It won’t be same for me anymore. Even if he comes here. Even if I go back there. It won’t be same.”
What were your expectations before you got here?
I was thinking that I’m going to some other country and after a while they will give me my visa. And I could be able to write freely. I could be able to live freely.
Our [Iranian] culture is corrupt as well, I think. Because every business of yours is other’s business as well. So all my life I wanted to live so I don’t interfere other people’s business and they don’t interfere my business.
I haven’t told many Iranian friends here that John’s wife is died. Because they won’t believe there is nothing here. They never believe it. I can’t do that. I was thinking I’m going to some other country nobody’s going to interfere in my life. I’m going to live the way I want. I just want to live. Nothing else.
I was expecting, I’m coming to some country they respect me as a human being, which I still don’t know. Am I going to be respected as a human being or not?
ON THE WIND
“I come back home, all maked up, clean – it’s ten o’clock, ten-thirty I see them [thinking], ‘Oh, she’s here. And she’s living in Australia all alone. She might be somewhere else.’”
A girl of African appearance enters through the side door. She says, ‘Hi’ and introduces herself as Veronica. She’s an effervescent personality, smiling wide and speaking easily.
She complains she’s been working all day (evidenced by her K-mart t-shirt) but remains pleasantly enthusiastic. Sara insists that Veronica sit with us and eat so she fills a plate and tucks in, admiring the cooking.
I try to keep the conversation on track.
What was it like living with the Filipino couple, Sara?
It was not bad. Much better than my cousin house. They usually mind their own business.
But the difference in the culture between us and thems – it also cause some problems, which I tried to ignore. I was living with them, somehow, in peace.
But many countries culture, a little bit close to each other, they still mind your business.
You know, in the Darebin Intercultural Centre there are many activities in nighttime. So usually, I came back home around ten o’clock, ten-thirty. Sometimes I could understand that they don’t believe where I was. Many people don’t know that Darebin Intercultural Centre is like this. So when you go to this activity you have to go dressed up, you have to be clean, you have to be maked up.
I come back home, all maked up, clean – it’s ten o’clock, ten-thirty I see them [thinking], ‘Oh, she’s here. And she’s living in Australia all alone. She might be somewhere else.’
I could understand them.
Did they say anything?
Sometimes. Not directly, but sometimes I could understand. I pretended that I don’t understand because I’m not very good in English. But I knew what they’re thinking.
One of the biggest reason I don’t like to have much interaction with people from my own country is these little issues. Specially for a woman who lives in Australia all alone. ‘Whenever you go out, you should be doing something. If you come back late at home, there must be something with you.’
Do you still feel that here?
No, in this house?
No! Not in this house. Never. I wasn’t here one night and Veronica didn’t realise I’m not home.
You make it sound so bad.
John was in his country house, and I was away and Veronica was all alone busy with her own stuff, studying.
Actually, that was when I was sick so I went to bed at about five-something in the afternoon. I went to bed very early. And then when I woke up on Sunday morning and normally she goes to church, and I woke up at twelve-fifteen in the afternoon so I didn’t think much of it.
Because my friend is from Fiji, her granddaughter birthday, I went there to help her the night before. So it was late at night and she told me you can stay here. I’m not very happy staying somewhere else because I cannot have a good night’s sleep, but she had to give me a ride if I could tell I’m not going to stay. So I stayed there.
Next time just call me.
You might wake her up.
I go to bed early when I sleep. Otherwise I stay up late. You know how it is, John.
I’ve stopped worrying about you.
We haven’t stopped but we told ourselves the other day we need to stop, because we don’t want to feel like we’re controlling you.
Because he came home late and, he usually tells us [when] he’s not coming home for dinner. But that night he didn’t, so I said [to Veronica], ‘Can you call him?’
So yeah, we’ll try not to worry too much.
“After my wife died last year, after a couple of months, I was left with a big empty house. It’s a nice house and I’m here all alone. I could give accommodation to some asylum seekers. ”
When did you decide to leave the Filipino couple, Sara?
Suriyan one day came to me and said he has a house for me. He told me do you want to move out of there?
So you’d already told Suriyan that you wanted to move out?
No, I didn’t tell him that. I didn’t tell anyone. Because the situation was much better than the situation I had in my cousin house.
Suriyan tell me, ‘Do you want to change your house?’
I said, ‘No.’
He said, ‘This house is very good. John is great guy, and it’s free.’
I said, ‘Yes!’
Usually people in Iran, when they give you something free they expect something else from you. So the day me and Suriyan came here I was thinking: maybe there’s something. As soon as I came I asked John, ‘What are your terms and conditions?’
He said, ‘The only terms and conditions are not saying any good things about Tony Abbott.’
[To John] Why in the earth did you think I’m going to say good things about…
How do you know Suriyan, John?
I didn’t know him. I only know that after my wife died last year, after a couple of months, I was left with a big empty house. It’s a nice house and I’m here all alone. I could give accommodation to some asylum seekers.
So I rang all the agencies and the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and all the rest of them, they all said, ‘Someone will ring you back,’ and nobody rang me back.
I ran into a friend and told him my dilemma, that nobody seems to be interested in using my accommodation, and he said, ‘I’ll see what I can do.’ The next thing I know I get a call from Suriyan and he says, ‘I’ve got someone,’ and he brought Sara along, and here we are.
He [Suriyan] was supposed to bring another girl but the day before the girl called Suriyan and said she’s not going to make it. So Suriyan called me.
But there’s still room for another one. So we’ll try.
By this point everyone’s comfortable and bantering freely, sometimes over the top of each other. There’s a lot of laughter around the table. The conversation drifts to whom John could invite to take up residence in the attic.
What nationality are you interested? What gender? Boy? Girl?
I prefer another woman, actually. Because I don’t want to mess up the dynamics. I’ve got three people who like each other and I don’t want to destroy the dynamics.
But then you’re overpowered.
That’s all right. I’m used to being overpowered. I’m happy to take another one and if there was, at one stage, I thought it was going to be a young Afghan man but he didn’t turn up.
What about that young girl? The one who was homeless? Never got back to you?
Never got back.
I guess it’s a complicated situation for people like that – making the decision to trust others is difficult.
Yeah, I think the natural instincts kick in because these days, like, there’s not so much honesty out there. So when you hear that something like this…
But if you don’t mind to be man, I know a Persian guy, he’s a very good person.
“My granddaughter, Emma, she’s seven. She said to her brother, ‘Is Da replacing us?’”
Now Emma’s really going to believe you’re replacing them!
My granddaughter, Emma, she’s seven. She said to her brother, ‘Is Da replacing us?’
Looks like you are!
No. well, look. Sara has to pay rent…or she’d lose her rent assistance. So I had to charge her rent of $120 per week. But the rent assistance is only $70 per week! I’d rather give her the seventy dollars. It’s really weird. I didn’t catch on so I signed it all up but I need to take it back again.
I actually thought it was more than that.
No seventy dollars a month. Thirty-five a fortnight.
It’s not worth the effort.
I pay much more in tax than I receive in rent.
SHARING THE FRUITS
“It’s always good to have someone to eat with.”
My next question, Sara, was going to be, ‘how are you finding it here?’ But I guess that’s already been answered.
You already have your answer.
‘Terrible, obviously,’ quips Melanie.
But I think John would agree he hasn’t been able to keep up with his diet since she [Sara] moved in.
One of my friends, she’s Australian, and she helped to bring some of my stuff here from the other house. The day she came here and she saw, Zoe [Veronica's friend] and Veronica, they’re so good looking, very good shape and she told me, ‘If you’re going to stay in this house they’re not going to be this shape.’
So you’ve been cooking a lot?
Oh, yes! Really good food.
It’s always good to have someone to eat with.
Do you feel free enough to go out? To go into the city and that sort of thing? Or do you just go between here and church and between here and Darebin?
If I get time, why not?
I’m taking her to our Docklands.
Nine months in Melbourne I’ve only been in the city for two times.
We’ll go around to Docklands and have some lunch there. Check out a few DFOs. [Direct Factory Outlets – i.e. shopping]
And we’re going to this play too. [pushes a leaflet towards Sara] I’ll try and book the tickets tonight.
And you’re still volunteering at the Intercultural Centre?
I love that job. I help them in office work, sometimes. I help them in reception. Whatever.
And in church. But I like that better than the church. I think I can learn more here, to be frank, because of Melinda. Melinda is a lovely person. She always protects me every single way and she helps me to gain my self-confidence in very very different situations. The reason I work in church is because I can help my people. Many of them who come over there for donation – they cannot speak English and I can help them.
So there’s a big Iranian congregation?
Many of them who are in Melbourne. So many of them come over there for receiving some donations. I only go there for helping them.
And you also said something about knitting?
Sewing class. From last week. Veronica’s with me over there in John’s daughter house.
What do you sew?
We made a cushion, we made hand-towels…
I need some curtains.
Okay. This is my way of appreciation to everyone does me a favour, I just knit them something small. At the moment I can’t do more.
Conversation moves onto sewing – when the classes are happening, what things John’s daughter wants sewn, aside from the scarf Sara’s already made. She’s also made Emma a hat, even though she’s yet to meet her.
I’m very lucky. I’ve got one daughter, her partner and the kids just across the road. My son and his partner and their little girl in [nearby suburb] and other daughter living in [nearby suburb]. I also have another daughter in Sydney.
[Turns to Sara] You’re part of the family. Yeah.
We’re all part of the family.
THE FUTURE AND THE TALKING FROG
“Oh, don’t worry. At my age I’d rather have a talking frog.”
Sara hands out the chocolates Mel and I brought along. John pops two in his mouth and Veronica can’t decide which flavour she wants. Sara accidentally spills some soft drink on the tablecloth.
So you when you finish your Aged Care Certificate, are you going to be an aged carer?
I think I have to live for a while, to save money to study in the other field.
Is it the aged care course Suriyan organised? How long does it go for?
Yeah. They told us it’s going to be three-months, and one month of placement – it makes it four months.
What’s the other field you mentioned?
Interpreter. Professional Interpreter. In translation. I think I have to work for a little while in the aged care field to save money to study for that.
Do you have to wait until you’re a citizen [to do that one]?
It might work if you’re permanent.
I remember when I became a Permanent Resident I managed to get a Commonwealth Assisted place at Uni.
I also want to get a driving licence.
So you want to drive, do you?
Fifteen years I was driving in Iran…
I’m fast losing track of the interview as multiple threads of dialogue spawn, diverging into topics about driving licenses, studies, work, religion in Sudan and so on:
In Iran, if someone follow the rules [driving], they will make laugh at him. They will call the people who are following the rules ‘Sissy! That guy doesn’t know how to drive, he follow all the rules!’
I had an Iranian student who did a PhD with me and we had a monthly tutorial. All the PhD students and supervisors come together and around the table we discuss our stuff and, the Iranian student said, ‘I can’t stand this – I feel really uncomfortable here. Because you’re all being really nice to each other. If I was in Iran we’ll all be shouting at each other.’
When somebody’s too nice with you, you don’t know what to do. Sometimes you can’t believe, why is he so nice to me?
You sound like customers at K-mart now.
I decide to call it a day. I’m about to turn off the recording device when Sara asks John to tell us a story.
Very good story about the talking frog – which happens to be us [Sara and Veronica].
A gentleman of my age is walking along the street and he hears a voice: ‘Help! Help! Help!’
There’s a frog in the gutter.
And he says, ‘What’s the problem,’ and picks the frog up.
The frog says, ‘I’m actually a beautiful princess and a witch turned me into a frog. All you got to do is kiss me and I’ll turn back into a beautiful princess and I’ll fall in love with you and get married and we’ll live happily ever after.’
He says, ‘That’s interesting,’ and puts the frog in his pocket and keeps walking.
[Frog says], ‘Hey! Listen! I’m trying to talk to you.’
He takes the frog out again. ‘What’s the problem?’
‘Well, didn’t you hear what I said? Just kiss me and I’ll turn into a beautiful princess and we’ll get married and…I forgot to mention, we’ll have fantastic sex.’
The man says, ‘Oh, don’t worry. At my age I’d rather have a talking frog.’
Let me tell you
“I shouted at my daughter – and of course that gave me an opportunity to explain: ‘These are sacred items for Hindus and you can’t put it on the floor.’ ”
“I was working in the morning. I thought you were coming at one...”