“He called my mother, because my mum knows I can never cook. She knows that I can’t even make an egg also. She said, ‘Hey, I heard something about you.’”
This interview took place on
I take the train to [suburb removed]. From the station it’s a ten-minute cycle past a park and through a quiet, leafy neighbourhood. I arrive at Abdus and Salim’s by 11am and knock on the door. The brothers greet me, Salim wearing shorts and Abdus in his maroon trackie-daks. They say, ‘Bring your bike around, it’s safer there.’
Abdus goes round the back, unlocks the gate and I roll in. The backyard is large and well maintained. I lock my bike next to a plant heavy with rockmelon. Chilli and tomato vines climb up a wooden trellis fixed to the fence. Up on the back deck covered in green felt, there’s a wooden chair with a broken seat, a coffee table shaped like a cashew nut and a mat, I’m guessing it’s Burmese or Nepalese, unfurled on a sofa frame.
The boys take me through the sliding door and into a kitchen with unpolished floorboards. I place my bag in a corner and take out nuts and Tim-Tams, which I brought to share, and lay them on the desk being used as a dining table. Next to the sink, cooking spoons and ladles hang off saucepan hooks. Salim’s already started frying a pair of whole snapper on the stove.
‘This looks good,’ I say.
‘It will take some time,’ says Salim.
Abdus offers soft drinks: Sprite or mango flavoured mineral water. He spills the nuts I brought into a bowl and offers them to me.
As I sip fizzy water Abdus gives me a tour of the house. The kitchen extends into a laundry with an old washing machine. Shaggy carpet muffles our footsteps as we enter the living room. Lace curtains filter a dull light. Facing the couch is a shelf that houses the TV, DVD and stereo system, all of which, Abdus tells me, is second-hand – left out to be junked by neighbours, taken in by the boys and repaired.
Abdus leads me into the bedrooms. In Salim’s room the blankets are folded and his headphones, cord wrapped neatly around them, lie beside the pillow. There’s an alarm clock, a plastic folder and a laptop on the stool next to the bed. Abdus’s room is messier. A backpack and plastic bottles half-filled with water lie strewn on the floor. An old CRT television and a DVD player loom at the foot of an unmade bed. He shows off his homemade surround-sound system, with speakers built into tins of baby formula on either side of the headboard. The spare room contains a mattress and nothing else.
Back in the kitchen Abdus shows me the coffee machine (also salvaged), which he thinks might be broken. We plug it in and press the buttons and it rumbles to life. I froth some milk as Abdus piles three spoons of sugar into a mug, saying he likes it sweet.
Abdus takes the lids off a pair of large pans and shows me a beef korma and a chicken curry, both of which he prepared last night, anticipating more guests. Salim extended the lunch invitation to Rich [who edits and coordinates our content] and Melanie [my partner] both of whom were unavailable.
‘You should have brought them,’ Salim says again. ‘Next time tell them to come.’
Last time I met you guys you didn’t have a house. How did you find this one?
We were like, checking the net every time. So whatever we find inspection date, we go there.
Was [suburb removed] your first choice?
Anywhere we are looking for.
We met the real-estate agent. She was Turkish – also Muslim. We were the last two person who was there. We were a little bit late [for the inspection] because we are travelling through public transport. The time was a little bit late but she was waiting there. She asked about us and we told her that we don’t have a rental history.
In Australia, if you’re looking for a house and you don’t have rental history – very tough. She said, ‘Let’s see what I can do.’
Then she called me once and said that the house we applied for, the owner didn’t agree with us. That owner gave the house to another family.
She said, ‘Look, there is another house. That is going to be a little expensive.’
I said, ‘How much?’
‘Ten to twenty dollar more than the house you were looking for.’
Yes, per week.
And we don’t have a choice. So I said, ‘Okay, we’ll see.’
So we came to this place and saw it. Then we went there and applied for it.
She say, ‘Don’t let me down. I’ll see what I can do.’ She tried her best. I think so. And she called us and said, ‘The owner is agreed with you. So you have to maintain the house properly.’
Does she come and inspect?
No. But we say, ‘Look, we used to maintain a house before. Hopefully you won’t find anything, no complaints about that.’
She said, ‘Okay. Let’s sign it for six months. After that, if everyone is happy with you then we are going to increase [the length of the contract], more one month or more two months. Let’s see.’
How are the neighbours?
I have met one of the neighbours. This [name removed] guy. He’s a nice guy. Lives with his family. Older guy.
And the handyman – his [Abdus’s] friend is on the other side. This much I know. But we don’t talk to them that much. Didn’t get the chance. Neighbours are good.
And do you have friends who come around?
There are few guys, when things get sorted out, they may want to visit us. It will be nice.
There is a family who came with us [on the boat]. They live in Brisbane. The wife, she thinks of us as her brother. They are very nice family here. They really misses us. That’s the only people on the boat that really feels like a family. So when we came here, the lady cried. ‘Why are you leaving for Melbourne? Why can’t you stay in Brisbane?’
Why did you leave Brisbane?
Abdus has the idea that he wanted to live in Melbourne. His friend used to be here. He thought that he was going to meet them.
Did you meet them?
Actually they’re in Sydney. Not in Melbourne. We don’t like hot weather that much so we wanted to see cold weather. My plan was to go to Tasmania. He wanted to be here.
After our six weeks [assisted housing] in Brisbane, I suddenly decided to go with Abdus.
After coming here every plan changed. I thought he’s going to go on his own and it’s going to be a lot of trouble for him. That’s why we thought, let’s stay until we settle.
Hard work made harder
“I’m finding this $105 in three days [of work] and you’re telling me that I have to pay. You told me that you’re paying these things.”
Salim chops up a whole lot of onion, which he says is going to make the sauce for the fish and the fried rice. ‘Anytime you want to make more sauce, just add onion,’ he says.
He greases a frying pan with a little bit of vegetable oil and puts it on the fire. He adds the onions and garlic, then suggests going out for a cigarette while the onions soften. Although I don’t smoke I join the boys on the back deck to have a chat.
Do you take turns with chores?
On weekdays – vegetables and everything – he cooks it. All the protiens – I cook once a week. I cook a lot, because in the whole week we don’t have any time. I’m living four hour from my workplace. When I come I don’t have that much energy to go for cook. If I go for cook it’ll take two-three hours. Whenever I come, I have some milk, get back on the bed, watch one movie or half of the movie – then I fall asleep. Because I’m so tired. But everyday it goes till around two or three o clock.
In the morning? That’s too late.
Because in morning I don’t have any job. My job is in afternoon. I try to start at three. But my supervisor always say, ‘Try to start at three-thirty.’
What do you do?
What sort of cleaning.
School? Is it classrooms?
First I done a few months classrooms, lavatories. Then one building chemistry lab, classes in one floor. In the middle floor it was physics lab and physics classrooms. And the ground, lower one is theatre and other side maths class and some of the offices. All the floors have some of the offices.
I do this one for three months. The school was closed for two months. It was a big college. Forty acre lands. [Within] that time they have taught me the machineries, how to operate everything. After that they change my area.
What’s it like?
You have to vacuum it out. Clear all the bins. If you see any…messy around anywhere, wipe it off the desks. If sometimes needed, just mop once a week all the timber floors. That’s it.
And then after the three months?
First time, there was a card – Working with Children check. I told them I need a card. I don’t know that I have to make it an employee card.
They tell me that, ‘We have paid everything. You don’t have to worry. You go with this card and you put it on the post office.’
Who’re ‘they’? Your agency?
Yeah. I go and I put that one. I didn’t read it. It was ‘volunteer’. For one and a half months I go and the supervisors tell me, ‘This card will not work. This is “volunteer”. Why didn’t you put it in the “employee”? Without “employee” we can’t take you for work.’
I was just frustrated.That time they [agency] told me, ‘then you have to pay $105.’ [I said],‘I’m finding this $105 in three days [of work] and you’re telling me that I have to pay. You told me that you’re paying these things.’
‘No, you have to pay it.’
After that I say that, ‘I’m going to resign.’
Then they put another person. He was also asylum seeker. They make him fool again. That they will pay him every fortnight. But they don’t pay per fortnight. Sometimes they delay one month. We have to force them to give our salaries.
After that my contractor – he’s the main one, the one who gives me this job – his assistant called me and told me, ‘My boss likes you too much. He wants you to keep going in this job.’
I said, ‘Sorry I will not do this one under this threat. I need my salary more.’
Then the contractor called me again. He said, ‘How much [do you need]?’
I said, ‘I will not do this job below 18.’
Is that $18 per hour?
After few minutes he [contractor] says, ‘Okay. Done. You go on, you do it. I will take care of you.’
Did you get the Working With Children card?
I’m then going and trying to apply for that card but I couldn’t. Because my visa paper is not correct. It doesn’t have any expiry dates. Otherwise I have to show my licence.
Yeah. I don’t have it. It’s too expensive to go for these things. I didn’t tried for that. Because I have to buy car. I have to go for driving schools. I have to go for test. After that I will get the licence. So it’s too much.
After that I asked to my caseworker. After few days he’s saying, ‘We’re trying but we can’t do anything, because at this moment your papers are in processing. You have to go and tell your supervisor everything.’
I told him [supervisor]. ‘I tried my best. Soon as possible when I get my papers I will show you the cards and everything. You don’t have to worry.’ He said, ‘You better go [because you don’t have the card].’
But then my caseworker, he used the VEVO papers [Visa Entitlement Verification Online.] papers. Now I have the card.
And now you have the better job?
They have given me the main area. One of the main areas. Gardening and maintenance area. Right now I am doing that. Offices and kitchens and everything. They like my work, that’s why I’m put in there.
“Now Abdus is doing all the stuff and I’m…”
Salim slips back into the kitchen. We follow him inside. He starts cutting up some green chilli. ‘This is not for heat. Only for flavour,’ he says. He discards the veins and seeds. He adds onion, the chopped chilli and prawns to another pan.
The boys busy themselves with the cooking. They offer to put on a movie for me while I wait. Salim brings out his laptop, plugs in speakers and sets me up on the desk, right there in the kitchen. ‘What movie do you like to watch?’ He starts Thor 2, which I gaze at for a few minutes before getting bored by the fantasy world with its hideous creatures and indestructible heroes.
And you, Salim? Do you work?
I can’t work.
How come you [Abdus] can work and you [Salim] can’t?
We applied [for a Tax File Number] from Brisbane. I don’t know what happened there, but before getting the Tax file Number we moved to Melbourne. After that we got the news saying he got his Tax File Number and everything…
Did you apply at the same time?
I called my caseworker, one who was in Brisbane, she said, ‘I think there was a problem with you. You send me a copy of your visa. Let’s see what happens.’
So I send her my copy but after that the caseworker changed and the caseworker I got from Melbourne. That way I didn’t get my Tax File Number, first of all.
Second of all, I don’t know why, but when we go to check VEVO his [Abdus’s] status is there. But when I check my one it says that ‘Visa has never been issued at that name.’
So, I don’t want to take risk.
First I start voluntary work at [Removed] Institute [A local Institute of Technology]. The owner came to me and said, ‘You have this capability so why don’t you get paid? We are going to pay you.’
I said, ‘Don’t pay me. I been through so hard stuff, I don’t want to take any risk. I don’t want to jeopardy the foundation that I have. If I get paid from you somehow if they [government] knows – they have the thing [power] – to do anything.’
‘You can do one thing. You can give me a black and white paper written that, yes, I have the capability to work. Give me some good reference so that after everything is sorted I can show it…that will be more than paying me.’
So do you still go there?
I go there four days a week. Work there for four hours each day. Sometimes less. Depends. Sometimes I don’t work.
So your roles have swapped.
Now Abdus is doing all the stuff and I’m…
You have free time.
Yes. Free time.
What do you do on weekends?
Today is exceptional. Today have a guest. Woke up a little bit early. Did the cleaning part early. Not all the cleaning – as-usual ones.
Saturday we’ll wake up a little bit late. We’ll go for weekly shopping that we need. We’ll come back and Abdus will start cooking and preparing everything. There’s much cleaning I can do for the whole household thing – we’ll do it. By the time we finish cooking, cleaning, eating, it’ll be afternoon. Sometimes close to evening. Then we start watching a little bit movie or talk to other people or skype.
What’s the best movie you watched recently?
Thor, Wolverine…lot of good movies are there so we’re starting to watch. But the best movie if you want, till now, I have seen is Battleship. Did you watch it?
No, I haven’t seen it.
The thing with the alien attack. Please do watch. It’s awesome movie. The best movie I have seen till now.
Have you been to any of the theatres here?
No. It’s like, now is not the time to spend that much money. But I’m happy to watch the movie here [at home]. Two reasons – first of all I can control the movie the way I want. I can pause it, rewind it, if I want to see the part again, if I didn’t get the part.
That was the main reason. In Bangladesh there was theaters. Abdus went with his friends so many times. I don’t know. I never went there. Because it’s like, spending a money that doesn’t worth it. I can watch the movie HD quality, whatever I like.
Same as I don’t go watching big game at the stadium also.
What did you do when he was working, Abdus? [referring to the time in Bangladesh when Salim was the primary earner and Abdus was still young. See Running out of places to go.]
That time he had a lot of friends.
I don’t have any way to find the work. I tried. But no other way.
Like, if you don’t have anything, a document or something, you can’t. This is going to be the same thing here. That was the problem up there.
Cities are too much crowded. It’s like the whole Melbourne in one small place.
And that Bangladesh thing is not good. People are not good. Like here they try to help you out. There they try to take you down.
It’s too much crowded. There will be big apartment, eighteen or twenty levels. In this one, how many people – maybe two thousand people living. Everyone’s so selfish that, if you go up little bit, they’ll make you down.
Not everyone but most of them…but he had lots of friends.
But those friends are not like me. Working or anything else.
Covering the distance
“When it was not a age of mobile, he used to come and meet me before going. When it became age of mobile and everyone had a one, half the way he’s gone, he used to call me. ‘Look I’m not coming.’”
The fish is cooking in a rich onion and tomato sauce. Salim combines the prawns, also cooked in a tomato sauce, and the rice coated in oil and now bubbling away in water. ‘This is how you make fried rice,’ he says.
Abdus is a little restless, he goes to the living room, turns on the TV and starts watching ABC News 24. He watches it for a while and comes back, occasionally interjecting and adding to the conversation.
Do you still keep in touch with your friends?
Friday is the weekend in Bangladesh. Friday and Saturday. It’s like, if you want to talk to everyone, all the friends – it’s Friday the best. Friday night is like – Abdus does talking with all the friends. He makes a call or Skype or there are Vibers.
You’ll find Abdus, on Friday like, he have his mobile headphones in his ear, viber is going on, he’s talking to someone, and in the same time you’ll find he’s chatting in Facebook with another one.
You don’t talk to many friends, Salim?
Not much. My time is Saturday night. Some of them are there, so I talk to them.
And I used to teach those students –– it was a very good time I spent with them. Saturday time I kept for everyone, so whoever is available at that time, if they need to talk to me they come on Saturday night. That’s the only thing I do.
Where did you teach?
Coaching centre where students come after the school [in Bangladesh]. Sometimes I stayed there for one month or something. Because it was far.
Like, if I go back home it takes so long time and I don’t have the time to sleep. If I do that, that’s two and a half hours that takes to the travelling – that time I can work and I can take extra sleep in the time that takes to go. So in both case I am saving five hours.
It was not that bad. And it was like a family. We were all the guys that used to work around that place. There was a man who used to sell cigarettes. There was a man who used to give top-up mobiles. They have a small desk. They sit on the side of the road and they do their job. They are like good friends of mine. They became. Not friends, but family. They respected me. I do also respect them. So they’re kind of family.
When I stayed back, they used to say, ‘Okay. I’m not going home today. Let’s stay here. Let’s have a picnic.’ I don’t have to clean the whole coaching floor.
They used to do that. ‘You sit here and do your work. We’ll do that.’
Sometimes he [Abdus] will call and tell me, ‘I’m not going to come home today.’ ‘Where are you?’ ‘I’m out of the city.’
Were you worried?
When it started to happen, first, I worried. I used to tell him that, ‘Why? What is that worth? Why do you do it?’ Later on he did so many times that, and he’s growing.
Was he drinking or something like that?
No, he just get togethers with a friend and going to out of the city. [Friend] told him that, ‘Come with me, I don’t want to go alone.’ So he’s like, ‘Yeah.’
When it was not a age of mobile, he used to come and meet me before going. When it became age of mobile and everyone had a one, half the way he’s gone, he used to call me. ‘Look I’m not coming.’
“He’s a little bit relaxing, so if he doesn’t praise me I’m not going to cook. So in that case he must say that I can cook well.”
With chicken and beef reheated, a cucumber salad quickly thrown together, lunch is ready. There’s barely any room for the plates when all the food items make their way to the desk. The boys politely wait until I’ve finished serving. They offer cutlery but I remind them I lived in Sri Lanka for two decades eating with my fingers.
I taste the rice and it’s salty and delicious on its own. The chicken and the beef are tender and creamy. The fish is sharp and crunchy. Every dish tastes exceptional, better than most South Asian restaurants in Melbourne or even Colombo. I can’t bring myself to speak as I wolf down as much as I can.
Among the three of us, we fail to eat half of what was cooked. After we finish Salim insists I take some fish for Melanie. He takes out a tupperware box and packs in a full fish and adds sauce. He fills another box with rice. He offers meat too but I remind him that Melanie’s pescatarian.
We sit around feeling stuffed, letting the heavy meal digest.
So did you cook much in Bangladesh, Salim?
I didn’t cook at home. Never at home.
I used to work. Most of the time I used to buy from the restaurant and eat there. There are some good restaurants. It was beside the coaching centre. Everyone knows me very well. So when I go to eat there they will always serve me better than the other guys. Much better. Like the amount they’re going to have they’ll give me more. The thing they’re going to have – they’re going to give me the better one.
Because they people around there, they’re working, they all are like a family. The people who are at the restaurant, the cook, who is the waiter, who is the manager. The people who work in our kitchen who make sweet. Sometimes if they came to the coaching and I was cooking – the cook of the restaurant he came to see what am I doing…they come. They come and say ‘hi’ and ‘bye’ on their way in and out.
Did Abdus do most of the cooking at home?
Yeah. And there was other guy, to cook. They come and cook for us. Most of the time he does – whenever we are hungry. He knows that I cook in the coaching – but he never tried my cooking.
So this is the first time after coming here he’s tried my cooking.He called my mother. Because my mum knows I can never cook. She knows that I can’t even make an egg also. He was cooking from when he was small. He loves to cook. He loves to cook his own food and serve others. He loves to cook in different ways. That’s how he started cooking.
What did your mother say when he called her?
She said that, ‘Hey, I heard something about you.’
I said, ‘What?’
‘You can cook. He [Abdus] said that you cooked well and that it was good.’
I said, ‘ I don’t know.’
‘But Abdus said it is good. And if he says it is good, it is good.’
‘He’s a little bit relaxing, so if he doesn’t praise me I’m not going to cook. So in that case he must say that I can cook well.’
My mum was laughing. ‘Okay. That’s good. I was little bit worried. How you’re going to cook? If you two brothers don’t stay together how you’re going to eat? So I was like a little bit worried.’
In Bangladesh if you can’t cook you can go and like, eat it from the hotel and there are some small restaurants and hotels where you can just have your food with fifty-bucks [50 Bangladeshi Taka, equal to 0.69 Australian dollars] and good food.
Very cheap. In Australia if you go to restaurant, I heard from people saying restaurants are very expensive. If you’re cooking very cheap.
[Carrying on mother’s dialogue]‘So if you can’t cook, how you’re going to survive? How long you are going to eat your noodles and biscuits and other stuff?’ ‘It’s good to know that you can at least cook your own food. For Abdus it doesn’t matter. Abdus can go anywhere and he can cook his own food. He can cook not for him only, he can cook for everyone. I have seen that.’
How did you learn to make so many different types of food, Abdus? Like the Korma?
It’s like in our religion, its one thing that we go for – we sacrifice of some days, like 120 days – religion days. So we go for that – it’s called Jamath. We go for that one from our workplaces.
To other places. Like to big cities to talk about religion with other people. Something like that.
Those who were part of the religion, we invited from the mosque to the place. We try to tell them benefit of everything.
20-30 people goes from the same pack. Some guys from the thing have to cook. He was in charge of the cooking. There are people from Pakistan, Nepal, Burma.
I learn from them.
He learnt swimming like that.
How did you learn how to swim?
There [where the religious observance takes place] don’t have bathrooms and all that stuffs. Have to take the bath on a pool or on a lake. You don’t have your shower with you so you must learn how to swim. So there the guys with him taught him how to swim.
First day what they do is, you know the banana branch? It’s very light. It floats on the water. If a person hang on this branch he will float. No worries. The big lake, is like, from here to…
Lake is a lake. Big one.
A friend told me just, hang on this branch and clap [kick] your legs. I was just trying and having fun. After a few moments I was…little bit of the middle. I don’t have any touch of the feets [feet didn’t touch the ground]. Like three times like me. I don’t know how to swim.
At that time I was tired. I wasn’t strong. Suddenly I was hanging on the branch shouting, ‘I can’t I can’t I can’t.’
Two guys came and take me on the shore. Then they put me on the small pond. I tried so hard so many times. Within a week I catch that trick – what is that I have to do. To swim.
So mainly the kicking – and the arms?
Yeah, two of them.
Do you know how to swim, Salim?
Can you teach him, Abdus?
He’s not interested. It’s like learning the bicycle.
Can you ride a bike?
Yeah. Like two years ago, or three years ago. First time it was an amazing thing to me. How can you balance on two wheels? The first day when I started to move forward and I can see that I can balance – it’s easy. I didn’t notice it. That’s how it was. Swimming is the same thing. When I figure it out it’ll be easy. Still trying to figure it out.
And you tell your mother about all that?
Do you talk to your father as well?
Whenever I call I talk to everyone. Because of the time we choose there. Don’t want to call each and everyone separately.
How often do you call?
Once a week. I don’t call that often. Because there’s nothing much to say. The same thing repeatedly, we’re saying. So it’s like, once a week there are things to tell them, or hear from them.
What are your sisters doing?
Nothing. They’re not doing anything.
How old are they?
One is twenty and another one is less than twenty. They’re not going to school. They’re not doing anything. In Burma, the girls, they don’t go to school – only kindergarten. Now the muslims aren’t allowed to go to school so it doesn’t matter whether they male or female. I don’t know how long it is going to be like that.
“I have to learn few of them. Like the sensors – how to put the sensors. Some of the things like mains connections, I don’t know. And alarm systems. I know everything else. It’s easy for me.”
It’s late afternoon and clouds have rolled in. It looks gloomy outside. Salim offers ginger tea. Ginger with lemon and honey. I can’t refuse.
Abdus and I decamp to the living room while Salim chops ginger. It starts raining and I begin to worry about getting home on time. Abdus assures me that I can stay on, even spend the night there.
‘No, I have to get home,’ I say as thunder rumbles in the distance.
What’s next? Any other plans? What about getting married?
My plan is that soon I have to buy a car. I have to learn the driving. I don’t know where I will learn. Looking for cheaper driving schools for us. Because we don’t have that ability to do that one. I have asked my caseworker.
Would you like to be a chef, Abdus?
Yeah. I like that one. Because it’s really interesting. It’s about taste – nothing else.
Can you do an apprenticeship?
At this moment if they takes me then I can – but if they doesn’t allow me without any government fund, then it’s impossible for me.
Do you prefer Pakistani or Indian cooking?
Any one. Because I always learn many things. There’s no end of learning. I need to learn.
There’s a lot of Italian restaurants here. And Greek restaurants.
If I can learn, then it’s better.
Sometimes I make pasta. At first I didn’t like pasta – but now I’ve learnt how to make it better.
I haven’t tried all these things. I haven’t had time. Last two months I was thinking that I will make a pizza, but I don’t have that much time.
I’ll give you a recipe.
I didn’t try it.
Not only chef. I’ll go for electrician if I can.
He had some experience about it. Household appliance.
I made a study about that stuff. In my home I was always busy with these things. I love to play with these things. I have to learn few of them. Like the sensors – how to put the sensors. How this works. Some of the things like, mains connections. I don’t know. And alarm systems. I know everything else. It’s easy for me.
The rain has eased but it’s still dark. I finish my ginger tea and pack my bag with the food for Melanie.
Salim gives me a plastic poncho, unused and still in its packaging. ‘You can wear that if it rains again.’ I step outside and Salim tells me, ‘You’re the first guest we have had who’s not an asylum seeker. Next time bring Melanie also. And Rich.’
I thank the boys for lunch, insist that they have to come over to my place for dinner one day and head out to the wet streets.
“I was working in the morning. I thought you were coming at one...”
“I was in suit – in French you’d say chic – I was so chic. They handcuffed me. Somebody came, with beard, very big guy. Check his watch and says, ‘After two hours I’m going to torture you.'”