“I’m of­ten sur­prised to dis­cover how much we share”

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - /cover - Pho­tog­ra­phy CAMERON GRAYSON Styling KELLY HUME In­ter­view MADELEINE WEST

She and her fam­ily fled war-torn Iraq when she was 10 years old. Now Fadak Al­fayadh is a lawyer liv­ing in Mel­bourne and sits down with ac­tor Madeleine West to share her har­row­ing and hope­ful story of start­ing over as a refugee in Aus­tralia, as she aims to change opinion and bridge dif­fer­ences

Fadak Al­fayadh pauses, sips del­i­cately from her cup of espresso, and launches into an im­pas­sioned dis­course about the plight of Mel­bourne’s home­less and the epi­demic of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence. Only mo­ments be­fore, we were gig­gling help­lessly at her ac­count of a re­cent trip to the Mercedes-benz Fash­ion Festival in Syd­ney as a guest of Dior. To con­verse with this re­mark­able 27-year-old is to re­ceive a les­son in hu­man­ity – you walk away want­ing to strive to be your very best, and then use that plat­form to en­sure those with­out a voice have the chance to do the same.

Al­fayadh is a lawyer. She is also a com­mu­ni­ca­tions man­ager for the Vic­to­rian De­part­ment of Trans­port, a TEDX talk pre­sen­ter and an out­spo­ken cham­pion of so­ci­ety’s dis­en­fran­chised and dis­pos­sessed. She is el­e­gant and elo­quent – the kind of young pro­fes­sional that up­per-crust uni­ver­si­ties and leafy eastern sub­urbs jos­tle to proudly call their own. So it can seem in­con­ceiv­able that the fi­nal me­mories of her home­land are of hud­dling be­side her sis­ters be­neath a stair­case in Bagh­dad, wrapped in her mother’s arms as bombs oblit­er­ated all she had ever known. Per­haps even more dif­fi­cult to con­tem­plate is that her first im­pres­sions of Aus­tralia were glimpsed from be­hind the walls of an asy­lum-seeker pro­cess­ing fa­cil­ity: “My name is Fadak, I am Aus­tralian, and I am a refugee from Iraq.”

When she was five, her doc­tor fa­ther Jalal was con­scripted to Sad­dam Hus­sein’s army. Ob­ject­ing would sign his death war­rant, so he fled, via Malaysia and by boat, to Aus­tralia as a refugee, one forced to leave his young fam­ily be­hind. It would be six years be­fore they could join him. “Iraq was home,” Al­fayadh tells me with a sigh. “Life un­der a dic­ta­tor­ship is crush­ing but my mother was con­tent to wait for our

op­por­tu­nity to join my dad in Aus­tralia.” Their pa­tience was tested daily – the spec­tre of a loom­ing in­va­sion meant con­stantly sand­bag­ging their home and stock­pil­ing food.

By 2003, that life be­came un­ten­able. “Mum hid us in the back of the car, we drove through the night with the lights off, and waited a full day at the bor­der, hav­ing to bribe of­fi­cials, be­fore fi­nally en­ter­ing Jor­dan,” re­calls Al­fayadh.

They ap­plied to the Aus­tralian Con­sulate for res­i­dency, and her first im­pres­sion of the lucky coun­try ac­tu­ally oc­curred far from these shores. As she and her sib­lings passed through im­mi­gra­tion in Malaysia, an im­pos­ing Aus­tralian cus­toms of­fi­cer waited with them while her mother was in­ter­viewed. “I had no idea what he was say­ing,” she says wist­fully. “But I do re­mem­ber won­der­ing why he smiled so much, why he made the effort to hunker down and talk to us on our level. He made me feel safe, wel­come. So he came to sym­bol­ise Aus­tralia.”

Once here and re­u­nited with her fa­ther, Al­fayadh and her fam­ily even­tu­ally set­tled in Dan­de­nong, just in time for Christ­mas. “We had fled a world of colour, move­ment, fear and dev­as­ta­tion, a world rav­aged by war,” she says. “Christ­mas in Aus­tralia pre­sented a world of colour, move­ment and light. It was a world de­fined by beauty, and so much love.”

En­rolled in school, she re­calls, “I never felt like an out­sider, be­cause there were kids from all over the world in my class­room and com­mu­nity – from Al­ba­nia, to the Congo and Turkey.” But the lan­guage bar­rier seemed in­sur­mount­able. “I was a top stu­dent in Iraq,” she says. “My in­tel­li­gence de­fined me, it was how I iden­ti­fied my­self. But with­out the words to ex­press my­self, I felt in­vis­i­ble... worth­less.”

In a tragic twist of fate, and mere months af­ter they were brought to­gether again, her fa­ther was killed in a car ac­ci­dent. Now even the sound of thun­der felt like a threat, re­call­ing bomb blasts, death and dev­as­ta­tion. With­out a solid grasp of the

lan­guage, she strug­gled to ex­press the trauma of war; her grief, her fear. Then along came her Year 6 teacher, Mrs Su­race. “She was tall, with blonde curly hair,” says Al­fayadh as her eyes well with tears. “Ini­tially, I didn’t un­der­stand most of what she said, but she was in­stru­men­tal in me be­com­ing who I am to­day.”

Mrs Su­race equipped her stu­dents – many of them refugees and witnesses to the hor­rific atroc­i­ties men wil­fully in­flict upon each other – with tools to be the best ver­sion of them­selves. “It was more UN than a class­room, but she took time out­side of school to pa­tiently wade through chil­dren’s books so I could grasp English,” says Al­fayadh. “I could then tackle maths, sci­ence, start friend­ships. I could ex­press my­self. I felt un­der­stood. I felt I be­longed. Mrs Su­race prob­a­bly did the same for ev­ery strug­gling kid in her class­room, but her care demon­strated she saw po­ten­tial in me. I felt seen... That was all the mo­ti­va­tion I needed.”

Post-tampa and the Chil­dren Over­board af­fair, much of her stress was fu­elled by an in­creas­ing sense of un­ease about her place in Aus­tralia. The events of 9/11 had de­monised an en­tire cul­ture, so her Ara­bic her­itage be­came a source of shame, and she ex­pe­ri­enced racial vil­i­fi­ca­tion in ca­sual acts of cru­elty. “I was con­stantly teased about my lunch­box,” she says, winc­ing at the me­mory. “Mid­dle Eastern food is every­where now, but back then, amongst a sea of Vegemite sand­wiches, it was smelly and messy. I felt ashamed about who I was.”

Small acts of kind­ness ended up hav­ing great im­pact. She tells me of a time when Mrs Su­race asked if she could try one of her mum’s home­made rice dumplings. “She took a bite and started rhap­so­dis­ing, ‘Oh! So de­li­cious. So beau­ti­ful!’ I had to ask my mum what ‘beau­ti­ful’ meant. From that day for­ward, my class­mates be­came cu­ri­ous in­stead of cruel about my lunch and my cul­ture. De­spite some ‘Aus­tralia doesn’t want Mus­lims’ rhetoric, my com­mu­nity didn’t fear me, they wanted me to suc­ceed... that is why I wanted to share my story – I wanted to change the world.”

So she went on to study law and pol­i­tics. Mi­grant ad­vo­cacy in a com­mu­nity le­gal cen­tre, pub­lic speak­ing en­gage­ments, and com­men­tary in the me­dia fol­lowed. The cul­mi­na­tion was Meet Fadak, a na­tional speak­ing tour aimed at break­ing down walls. She re­cently rep­re­sented refugees at the an­nual United Na­tions High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees (UNHCR) NGO Con­sul­ta­tions in Geneva.

“I want to change the nar­ra­tive for refugees and asy­lum seek­ers,” she ex­plains. “Meet­ing peo­ple who have al­ways been an ‘un­known quan­tity’ to us cre­ates com­mon ground, bonds and com­mu­ni­ties. I’m of­ten sur­prised to dis­cover how much we share.”

The asy­lum seeker is­sue is as com­plex and mul­ti­lay­ered as Aus­tralia’s cul­tural iden­tity, but Al­fayadh says that at its heart is the need to em­brace com­mon­al­ity by putting a hu­man face on an es­ca­lat­ing moral cri­sis. “If peo­ple meet me and hear me out, their neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tion to­wards refugees might shift.”

Small shifts can prompt seis­mic change, hence our mu­tual in­volve­ment in the Asy­lum Seeker Re­source Cen­tre (ASRC)’S The Story Be­side You cam­paign, which cel­e­brates those who over­came seem­ingly im­pos­si­ble odds to call Aus­tralia home – their faces plas­tered on trams in Mel­bourne as part of the Yarra Trams Com­mu­nity Part­ner­ships Pro­gram. We are en­cour­ag­ing them not just to tell their sto­ries, but to lis­ten to the re­sponses. Or, as Al­fayadh ob­serves with trade­mark elo­quence, “There has to be more story shar­ing, more talk­ing, more get­ting to know each other. There is a lot more that unites us than di­vides us.”

To learn more and sign #Thesto­rybesideyo­u pledge wel­com­ing refugees to Aus­tralia, visit asrc.org.au/sto­ries.

FADAK WEARS Marni top, (02) 9327 3809; Max Mara pants, max­mara. com; Reliquia ear­rings, reliquia­jew­ellery.com; Alix Yang bracelet, al­ixyang.com (all jew­ellery worn through­out); Zara shoes (worn through­out), zara.com/au MADELEINE WEARS Lee Mathews shirt, my­chameleon.com.au; Zara skirt, as be­fore; Jimmy Choo shoes, jim­my­choo.com

FADAK WEARS (here and pre­vi­ous page) Scan­lan Theodore dress, scan­lan­theodore.com

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