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Real Life

EXCLUSIVE: Refugees from war-torn Afghanistan and Ukraine share their terrifying journeys to Australia

Plus, how a group of Aussies have helped them find a place to call home.

By Samantha Trenoweth
An aromatic rice dish, stirred through with finely chopped carrot and cardamom, is warming on the stove.
A pot of fragrant lamb karahi bubbles beside it. Fatima Mohseni and her younger sisters, Atefa and Tahira, are busy in the kitchen of a suburban Sydney bungalow, filling it with the aromas and flavours of Afghanistan, which until last year was their home.
They're preparing a feast to say thank you to their Australian friends – all 15 of them part of a mentor group that has pulled out all stops to help Fatima and her family settle into their new life in Australia.
"They are like family to us," Fatima says.
This time last year, Fatima, who is 41, was working for an international aid organisation in the Afghan capital, Kabul.
She'd begun her professional life managing a women's shelter in Bamiyan in central Afghanistan, a part of the country populated by the much-persecuted Hazara people, to which Fatima's family belongs, and a part of the country that she loves.
But Fatima is capable and compassionate in equal measure, and in 2018 she was promoted out of the regions.
By the time Kabul fell to the Taliban in August last year, she was designing and coordinating national programs for women's rights, child protection, food security and disaster management.
The family reunited in safety in Australia after escaping the horror of the takeover of Kabul by the Taliban. (Image: Alana Landsberry)
Neither Fatima nor Atefa will ever forget August 15, 2021.
"Everywhere, people were running and crying," says Atefa, 25, an industrial chemist who worked for the Ministry of Interior Affairs and on international research projects at Kabul University.
"I saw a woman crying into her phone and advising someone at home to hide her son's military uniform. Everyone was afraid. In one day, everything we had achieved was destroyed. It was especially the end for women. The night the Taliban occupied Kabul, no one had any sleep. We were all crying."
Today, out in the grassy, suburban yard, Fatima's children, Abdullah (five, who started kindy this year) and Hajar (three, who wants to be a princess) are playing frisbee under the Hills Hoist with their dad, Esmatullah, and a new Australian friend, Mandy.
The laughter in the air makes it easy to forget just how much these little ones have seen.
When the capital fell, Atefa and Fatima reached out to their international contacts.
"That day," Fatima recalls, "I received a message from one of my Australian colleagues. She said: 'How are you?' I said: 'I cannot breathe.' She said, 'We will see what we can do for you'."
Fatima and her sisters (Image: Alana Landsberry)
Visas arrived within days for some of the family and Fatima was put in touch with Susan Hutchinson, a civil military adviser who was working behind the scenes to help women escape Afghanistan.
In the days to come, Susan somehow seemed always to know when roads and borders were open or too dangerous to pass.
The family's first escape attempt was via Kabul International Airport.
"There," Atefa says, "we saw shooting and beatings, people being killed in the street. Everyone was running and the children were afraid. My nephew saw a corpse. 'What has happened?' he asked me. I said, 'Don't look. Just come with me.' We were there for 16 hours. We had hoped to stay through the night, but the children were shaking and the colour had completely gone from their faces, so we returned home."
Late that night, Fatima received a message from Susan advising them not to go to the airport again. The following day, suicide bombers killed more than 180 people there.
They tried to exit the country again and again, by foot and by car, and from different towns.
Finally, Susan urged them to go quickly to Torkham, on the Pakistan border, insisting they must be there within 48 hours.
Julie, Atefa, Tahira, Fatima and Loriza pictured together in Australia (Image: Alana Landsberry)
Fatima, her husband and children made the 18-hour road trip.
They had barely slept for days. But when they reached the border, it was closed, and they were forced to wait overnight on a garbage heap.
"There were animals and people, and there was rubbish," Fatima says. "There was no toilet, there was no food. Thankfully, we had brought water."
The following day, as the sun rose, the border opened, and Fatima's family walked free.
"I was crying as we crossed the border," she says.
And thanks to Susan, a car from the Australian embassy was on the far side to whisk them away to a hotel in Islamabad.
After a month of worry, Atefa and Tahira (in hijabs and masquerading as students from a university in Pakistan) and their parents also crossed. Finally the family was reunited in Australia.
Yet even for women as courageous and accomplished as Fatima and Atefa, building a new life after so much trauma is no small task.
CRSA volunteer Julie and Tahira chat together in the kitchen (Image: Alana Landsberry)
Fatima planned to take classes to improve her English and then look for a job in her area of expertise. But how to begin?
"Even the simple things were difficult," she says. "Using the transport system, opening a bank account, using your bank card at the shop. And then there were the more complex things like finding a permanent home, finding work and enrolling the children in school."
It seemed she was expected to puzzle all this out on her own, and to add to the challenge, the city had been in COVID lockdown since they arrived.
It was an immense relief when a chance meeting led Fatima to an organisation called Community Refugee Sponsorship Australia (CRSA).
The family was matched witha volunteer group, all newbies who had just completed their mentorship training and were bursting with enthusiasm, and life began to turn around for them overnight.
"They helped with school enrolment," Fatima says. "I did not even know that my son should go to school, because in Afghanistan children start school at seven. They helped me to find school uniforms. They came to Centrelink.
"They enrolled the children in swimming classes because they said that is important here. But the most important thing was the emotional support. We went on outings and picnics together. They would call just to check I was okay. After we'd made contact, I thought, 'Now I have some friends here, and whenever I face a problem, I can go to them'."
This is one of the benefits of mentorship, says Lisa Button, CEO of CRSA.
"It's very different from the relationship you might have with a paid caseworker. This is someone you can call after hours, someone you don't have to book an appointment with."
CRSA hopes to take this community support model further. Nine months after Fatima arrived here, her brother and one last sister had still not escaped Afghanistan.
When a bomb exploded just 100 metres from her brother's home, Fatima and her family were beside themselves with worry. They confided in the mentor group, and after some thought, two members sponsored the remaining siblings' applications for Australian visas.
This is a serious commitment, both financially and in terms of mentorship, but it's testament to how close this group has become.
This is just the kind of community sponsorship idea that CRSA will now implement with funding from the federal government.
Community refugee sponsorship has been working successfully for more than 40 years in Canada, where ordinary citizens have sponsored more than 300,000 refugees. And the idea is spreading around the world, with the UK, Ireland, Germany, New Zealand, Spain and Argentina all developing community sponsorship schemes.
From mid-2022, Aussies will likewise be able to band together and support refugee households through the new Community Refugee Integration and Settlement Pilot run by CRSA.
It will, Lisa believes, harness the enthusiasm and compassion the Australian community has shown during the crisis in Afghanistan and the war in Ukraine.
Mentor group coordinator Loriza greets Tahira (Image: Alana Landsberry)
Mariia Rubyn and her nine-year-old daughter, Margot, had a wonderful life in Mariupol before the Russian invasion.
It was a vibrant Ukrainian port city on the Sea of Azov, and "a very beautiful place to live," Mariia tells The Weekly. She had just bought her first apartment there.
"There were so many activities for children. Margot was in ballroom dancing competitions and she was about to begin art school. There were beautiful parks, fountains, theatres, the famous Sultan Suleiman mosque.
"There were cafes and restaurants, and people from all over the region – Greek, Turkish, Jewish, Russian people all living together in Ukraine. I loved being by the water. Before and after school, we would walk to the beach. In summer we would swim; in winter we would walk along the promenade. All that has been destroyed now."
Mariia remembers her ex-husband phoning at 6am one morning in late February, saying:
"War has started. The Russian Army is bombing the airport. You need to pack a bag and leave Mariupol if you can."
"I stood there for five minutes with my hands shaking and trembling," she recalls, "and then I packed one small bag. I truly believed I would be going back. We moved in with my sister who lived in the middle of town. After five days, the electricity was turned off.
"On the sixth day, the water stopped. By the seventh day, there was no electricity, no gas, no water, no internet. Shops were closed. There was barely any food and constant shelling – for weeks there had been explosions every 10 minutes."I was also very scared because I heard reports that people who had got into their cars and tried to escape had been killed or turned around. Then a bomb exploded in the apartment next door and we moved into the basement.
"All our neighbours were in the basement. We barely slept. I tried to sleep in a chair with Margot on my lap. It was cold at night – minus seven – and there were rats in the basement, so we hung the food in bags from the ceiling. During the day, I would go out to look for food and water, and we would cook our food on a small fire on the footpath outside our building. It was very hard."
Mariia and Margot in Sydney (Image: Supplied and used with permission)
On the day Mariia left Mariupol, March 16, her mother was killed in a bomb blast as she cooked her breakfast.
But Mariia didn't find out until she arrived in Australia a fortnight later, having traversed Ukraine on foot and by car, train and a bus that had to swerve to avoid land mines.
Mariia's sister, Vita, meanwhile, was half a world away in beachside Bondi.
She had last heard from her family in Mariupol when war broke out and she had been worrying day and night.
To feel she was doing something to help, she went along to a gathering of the Ukrainian community in Sydney's Martin Place, and there she learnt that it was possible for her to apply for an Australian visa on her sister's behalf.
Days later, Mariia managed to get a call through to Vita. She was on her way to the border.
"I asked Mariia to send me her passport information, and Margot's," Vita recalls, "and my husband Warwick and I applied for a visitor's visa. It came through in just two days. Thank you, Australia!"
Mariia and Margot with family members Natalie and Marina in January 2022. (Image: Supplied and used with permission)
It was thanks to the fast footwork of the Australian Federation of Ukrainian Organisations and other groups that visas were fast-tracked and there was so much help for the new arrivals.
Australian Ukrainians and those with no connection stepped up, donating time and resources, and even inviting newly arrived Ukrainians into their homes.
The Blue and Yellow Hearts charity gave Mariia and Margot the essentials, as they had left Mariupol with little more than the clothes on their backs.
It's this kind of generosity that Lisa believes could be harnessed in a formal community sponsorship program.
Last year, the UNHCR estimated that 89.3 million people around the world had been forcibly displaced, and that was before the exodus from Ukraine.
"Millions of people, right now, are looking for a safe place to call home," Lisa says, "and community sponsorship can play a significant role."
Earlier this year, Fatima told her mentor group about Susan. She said that she didn't think her family would have made it across the border without her.
"And I said," she tells The Weekly, "that it was my dream to meet her and thank her personally."
So the group organised a trip to Canberra to meet Susan, enjoy a picnic and visit the National Gallery.
And that trip, Fatima realises now, was the greatest gift the group has given her.
"In Afghanistan," she explains, "it was difficult to enjoy life. I received threats to my life and to my family as a result of my work. If we went on a picnic, I would be looking over my shoulder, worried some bad thing would happen.
"But when we went to Canberra, I realised that for the first time in a very long while, I was happy. One of the members of the group said, 'While you are away, you have nothing to worry about – just enjoy', and I did. I forgot everything. I didn't think about the future, I didn't think about the past. I just enjoyed the time we were there together. Perhaps that is the most important thing this group of Australians has taught me."
To learn about CRSA, mentoring and sponsorship, visit refugeesponsorship.org.au; to support displaced Ukrainians, visit ukrainecrisisappeal.org. To offer hands-on support, visit ozeukes.org or state-based groups auv.org.au, ucnsw.org or helpukrainiansaustralia.com.au
You can read this story and many others in the August issue of The Australian Women's Weekly - on sale now

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