Kurdish Resilience, Australian Solidarity
Updated: Oct 17, 2022
Welcoming cultural diversity may improve people’s lives in a range of ways and enrich communities socially, artistically, and economically. Having a distinct culture and language can pose difficulties, resulting from the community’s response. This can include everything from being misconstrued by others, feeling voiceless, or outright racial abuse. I interviewed Haci Kaya to learn more about the plight of refugees in Australia. He has a Kurdish background, and since arriving in Australia in 1999, has been a member of the NSW Democratic Association.
Haci began by explaining why he had sought safety in Australia. “My name is Haci, and I came to Australia to provide a better life for my kids and future grandchildren. Making a living in my home country of Turkey was hard, and I faced racism and injustice.” Haci explained that since the late 1800s, the Kurds—the Middle East's fourth-largest ethnic group, estimated at 40 million—have been arguing for their own state. The limits of a projected Kurdistan were examined as part of the 1918 armistice discussions when the Ottoman empire was dismantled following World War I. “Turkey objected and betrayed the Kurds, and the plans to give back our homeland was abandoned, with the British and French splitting the Kurdish homeland between Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran.” According to Haci, Australian Kurds are severely affected by the violence, which has been compounded by years of marginalisation and prejudice. "This fight is on the other side of the world, yet it feels like it's right here. These are our relatives, our people, and this only feels like the latest episode in a long, terrible tale. Every Kurdish family in some way is traumatised, but we always try to support one another."
“I came to Australia to live a better life. I really needed to find a job to support my growing family. We had just gotten married, and my wife was pregnant with our first daughter. Back at home in Turkey, there was always a division between Turks and Kurds. They would not allow Kurdish people to even speak our language, listen to Kurdish music, or teach Kurdish children their mother tongue. These were all illegal. They would punish anyone who would break these laws.” Haci’s anxiety was palpable as he spoke. “For example, my brother-in-law was a very hardworking man. He cared for cattle in the village. Turkish soldiers came to our village and there was a raid. The soldiers were going through our houses and knocked down and broke everything. They went to my brother-in-law’s house and saw he was speaking in Kurdish to my sister, so they took him away for almost two weeks and brought him back all bruised, beaten and bleeding. I knew then that I could not raise my child here. When I was conscripted to fight in the army, my wife was pregnant. I had put in a special request to visit my wife, who was due to give birth in a few days. My daughter was 12 days old when I fled Turkey.”
He concluded, “I had heard the word Australia simply from a few family friends. Many said it was a nice and fair country. Overall, I knew little else about the country before I moved here, but I knew it would be better than the situation I was in then.”
To learn more about Haci’s story, I enquired as to his experiences after moving to Australia. “I was treated okay. I made few friends arriving here. However, I was financially in a difficult situation. I first started working at a Turkish kebab shop in Perth and then moved to Sydney and did the same thing. It was easy for me to work at a Turkish place, as I know how to speak Turkish. Then I started working on fruit picking farms and lived in Griffith. It separated me from my family, and I eventually invited them to come to Australia as well. While working, I experienced racism in Australia as well; however, I was a hard worker and persisted in my work. At the farm, sometimes I would not get paid what I was supposed to receive as they thought because I came from a different background, I would not know how to count or not realise how I was being treated. However, I was very familiar with the feeling, as in Turkey I was treated the same. It was more difficult in Australia, as I felt alone because I did not know who to turn to talk about these issues at first, and so I felt a pressure on my shoulders, especially with my wife and baby daughter now.”
It was saddening to know that Haci was experiencing the similar things upon arriving here, so I asked if he had any support upon arriving. “When I arrived in Australia, I attended the NSW Democratic Kurdish Association, where I met many fellow Kurds. They helped me learn many new skills and basic knowledge I needed to live in Australia.” Haci continued, “they helped me with things such as applying for a credit card, Medicare card, and telling me things that were common norms and social expectations here in Australia, which I slowly understood overtime. Members of the Kurdish diaspora gather in Sydney to console one another and exchange the most up-to-date information on the military operations, relatives' well-being, and their wishes for a more peaceful existence. They hold events that bring the Kurdish community together. We share our stories, sing and dance, and even eat our cultural foods. Kurds have a saying of no friends but the mountains, but I truly felt that the community centre was home away from home and it was a place that I created my second family.”
It was heart-warming to know that Haci had a place he could call home and have cultural support. I wondered aloud how others in public had acted around him when they noticed he understood very little English, and could not communicate as well as they did. Haci revealed, “I lived in many Kurdish and Turkish populated areas and felt comfortable in those areas. When I was in public spaces where I had to speak English, many people were understanding, however I sometimes felt stressed because of my lack of English. When shopping or communicating with Centrelink, phone companies, and other government organisations, I experienced difficulty and had very little support. I was lucky, however, when some agencies offered interpreting services. This was very helpful. I did experience racism in public at times, especially when others were frustrated by my lack of communication.”
I asked if this made it harder for him to want to integrate into society and, if so, why. Haci reiterated that language was a barrier. “Communication was the biggest factor disabling me from integrating into society, as I could not move out of the comfort of my own cultural group. Experiencing racist comments made it difficult for my wife—who wore a hijab—to feel safe while doing her daily activities, like shopping.” Then Haci started talking about how this made him feel and said, “being away from our home country was hard, we were missing our family and cultural environment. We felt hopeless because our English was not improving as we were working on farms and could not attend many lessons.”
I ended the interview by asking how people in the greater community can help stop racism. Haci urged that “others look past the media, and to know their neighbours. When I came to Australia, I realised many people don't even know their neighbours. When I lived in Turkey, I knew everyone in my village and surrounding villages and would sometimes ask them for food or goods. We are more similar than different, and in my religion, I believe all races and people of all beliefs can live together peacefully. People should start communicating with one another and understand each other. This may seem straightforward, but is easier said than done. However, a simple hello can be the beginning of a beautiful friendship and a way to form a connection with people from different cultures and backgrounds. If you see or hear someone be racist, please say something and support their victim. This is an emotional assault. It should not be allowed, and we should be a part of that movement to stop it. If you see that someone is disagreeing with your perspective, take the time to stay calm and try explaining yourself the best you can without making the other person feel attacked. Sometimes it's hard to understand each other, but the important thing is to be patient with one another. As a friend, strengthening your cultural understanding might help you feel more empowered. Attending cultural food fairs, corresponding to an international pen pal, or reading or listening to other people's experiences and stories are all good ways to achieve this. Knowing more about your own country's history is also a vital element in this learning process. Even exploring Australia's history of colonialism and earlier government initiatives will benefit people in recognising how and why prejudice and racism persists now. All refugees experience difficulties, but the support from the general community and government makes a big change in the way that we refugees integrate into society and navigate our way through a new life.”