Refugee Story: How My Family Made It


July 19, 2013 Friday
First Edition

With cash hidden in a chicken, my family became refugees

by Charlotte Akopian

What does a refugee look like? I believe there is a distinct image
people have in their minds which is generally unjustified. I would
never have guessed that my father was a refugee. To me he is your
average (ethnic) Joe Blow. Does this mean all refugees are tall,
tanned with dark hair and dark eyes? That’s the stereotype, isn’t it?

The Oxford Dictionary states that a refugee is “a person who has been
forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution
or natural disaster”. To me, a refugee is a person who is courageous
enough to leave their old life for a chance to be free in a new one.

My paternal family are Christian Armenians who were living in
a Muslim country. My father’s sole intent to escape was fear of
religious persecution, as Christians were no longer welcome. His
family escaped from Iran for the chance to succeed in a new life in
Australia, a welcoming multicultural society. I couldn’t imagine
leaving my life in Australia behind. Luckily for me, and for you,
we live in a society where we are able to voice our own opinion,
to vote for who we want, to follow our own religion. For my father,
and for many, this wasn’t the case.

At the age of 16, my father, Ara, fled Iran with his younger brother
Aris and mother Eliz. His eldest brother was studying in London and
was told not to return to Iran but to meet his father in Australia;
they would soon all reunite. That was the plan. What my grandmother,
father and uncle did not plan on was becoming refugees in Thailand.

It began a day like any other. Ara and Aris had their breakfast of
yoghurt and honey before walking to school with their grandmother.

Halfway there they heard a piercing, loud sound. Planes began to
flood the sky, lower and lower until a bomb fell. They waited for the
planes to pass before running home, fearing death all the way. Ara
and Aris were told to pack small bags. The adults spoke of how Iran
was not ready for the Iraqi attack and how they must flee. The boys
moved to their holiday house, which was close to the Iraqi border,
without their grandmother.

The following week, Ara and Aris were woken at 3am by their mother who
took a shirt and a pair of pants each inside a backpack with a canteen
to share, and a chicken. The cooked chicken was stuffed with family
jewels and $US6000. Nobody would ever think to search the chicken.

They were to drive across the border that night. They met neighbours at
a park down the road where they dressed Eliz in a burqa to disguise her
as the neighbour’s second wife. Ara and Aris were to take a different
route across the border. For four hours they were passengers of two
“tour guides” on motorbikes. When the trails ended they were given a
machete to cut their way through. This is the only way to travel from
Iran to Pakistan avoiding border control. They camped for two nights
and continued walking for three days until they were reunited with
their mother in a secluded village in Pakistan, where were offered
India or Thailand as places to seek refuge.

They flew to Thailand, giving $US50,000 to their guides as promised.

They went to apply for a tourist visa for Australia, believing it
was as simple as one form and a maximum three-week wait. However,
they were given no choice but to opt for refugee status and apply
for permanent residency. They may be in Thailand for a while.

As the chicken money began to deplete, the boys were forced to find
jobs. Ara and Aris became guides for Iranian tourists. After six
months, they moved into their own apartment.

After three years in Thailand, and listening to their mother cry
herself to sleep every night, they finally received their letter of
acceptance from the Australian embassy.

The organisation Council of Churches loaned enough money for three
plane tickets to Australia and a bit extra to start a new life. It was
tough adjusting to life in Australia, especially because they found
it difficult to find jobs and live as affluently as they had in Iran.

My dad paid $100 every month until the loan was paid off.

I discovered this information due to a school project, and will use it
to educate people about the experiences of refugees. I believe I am
an activist; I support the rights for refugees coming to Australia,
because if it were without the generous “open door” policy that
Australia has, I would not be standing here today.

By denying refugee status and the right to asylum for the boat arrivals
to Australia, we are violating the United Nations Human Rights code.

Charlotte Akopian is a year 11 student. This is her speech to the
University of Western Sydney 4D national conference.

From: A. Papazian

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