By Eisha Sarkar
The predicament of a refugee in the land where he/she is seeking asylum can hardly be described in words. You’ve left everything you’ve ever known and created behind and taken a perilous journey with hundreds, thousands or millions of other people to a land which gives you hope for a better future and a chance to create a home again. But before that, you must answer questions:
“Who are you? Where did you come from? Why did you come here? How did you come here? Who helped you? How did you pay for this? How many of you are here? Are you sure you had to flee? What if we refuse? Will you go back? What will you do here? Do you even have a degree? …”
The questions don’t stop. And so you keep answering to people: immigration authorities, the police, the authorities at the detention centre, friends, peers, neighbours, colleagues (if you’ve managed to find some temporary job), lawyers, activists, UN representatives, journalists, teachers, principals and so on. You’re tired, but you have to do everything you can to assimilate into a new culture. You start by learning the language. And that’s no easy job.
In 2014, I met Zoya (name changed to protect identity). She helped out at the cafeteria of a church in Brisbane, which was helping her with the process of getting asylum in Australia and also giving her a chance to learn English. Zoya, originally from Tehran, Iran, had been in Australia for a little more than a year. She was sweet to talk to but since I had almost no knowledge of Farsi and she knew little English, our conversations were limited to, “Hello! How are you?”
Then one day I saw her in the library pulling books off a shelf. I asked her what she was up to. She told me she had enrolled into a teaching assistant course at one of Brisbane’s vocational institutes. The course was in English so she was looking for some books that would help her. I noticed she had accidentally picked a Farsi-to-Spanish dictionary. I pointed it out to her. “Oh, but the letters look the same as English!” I told her, “Yes, the letters are the same but the language is different. Let me know if you need help with your assignments.” With that, I left.
One Friday evening, I received an SMS from an unknown number. “Hi Eisha, this is Zoya, you told me you would help me with my assignment. Can we meet on Sunday at the library?”
We met. While her conversational English had improved, Zoya hadn’t realised she would have to turn in long written assignments to earn the certificate. It took us three days of eight-hour-shifts to complete those assignments. She would try to communicate with me her experience of working as an intern at a school in Brisbane as best as she could in the most descriptive manner and I would translate it into English that she would be able to use in formal writing. When she would not understand a word in English, she would look up the English-to-Farsi (Persian) dictionary on her phone. It was tedious and would have been easier if I would have written those assignments for her. But I really wanted her to learn how to express herself in English in a formal space.
A month later, she got a job as a teacher-aide in Brisbane’s best state school. I couldn’t be more proud.
I moved back to India and joined Pax Populi to teach Afghans English. My student, Muhammad Qasem Jami, from Herat in Afghanistan has been a delight to work with and been instrumental in helping me improve my knowledge of Persian and Dari language, music and literature. I started posting about our interactions on Facebook and found Zoya to be commenting frequently. Once, I posted about Skyping with Jami’s five sisters. Zoya commented in Farsi. I replied to her, “I cannot read Farsi. Can you please translate?” Then Jami responded to her in Farsi as well. I begged them to translate. Jami obliged, “Zoya has written to me: Salaam Qasem jan, I am very proud of you. This girl is extraordinary. She helped me in Australia through a teaching assistant course. I wish you lots of luck!” His response to it was: “Salaam! I agree. Thank you!” I wasn’t able to wipe that smile off my face.