Inside the Collection

Refugee Week, ‘No more running a mother and daughter story’

Widyan Al-Ubudy and her mother at the opening of the Faith, fashion, fusion exhibition.
Widyan Al-Ubudy and her mother at the opening of the Faith, fashion, fusion exhibition.

To recognise National Refugee Week, we invited Widyan Al-Ubudy, an up-and-coming journalist and media personality to write a post for the Museum about her personal experiences with refugees. Widyan, 20, originally from Iraq, was born in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia after her family escaped Saddam Hussein’s regime in the early 1990s.

Migrating to Australia in 1995, Widyan is currently studying for her Honours degree in Journalism at the University of Wollongong and also works as a Community Engagement Officer with the NSW Government’s Community Relations Commission. In this role, Widyan assisted in an advisory capacity on the ‘Faith, fashion, fusion: Muslim women’s style in Australia‘ exhibition at the Museum and was also photographed for our street scene fashion shoot. This particular post called ‘No more running: a mother-daughter story’ reflects on Widyan’s own family story which we are privileged to share with you here.

Sometimes the most ordinary people hold the most extraordinary of stories. These stories often remain untold, held close to their owner’s chest like a locked diary – unread – however on rare occasions they are told. This is my mother’s story.

Born and raised in the city of Najaf, Iraq, Hannah Al Nary lived with her aunty, an older woman who was unable to have children of her own. At the age of thirteen, Hannah moved back with her parents when members of the Iraqi military arrested and sentenced her aunty to two years imprisonment for practicing her religion. Saddam Hussein’s regime did not tolerate high degrees of religious worship.

After her aunty’s arrest, Hannah refused to return to school, “it was run by the government, so as a protest I dropped out,” she said. Two years later, at the age of just fifteen, Hannah married.

What seemed a momentous step in Hannah’s life would turn into a story of struggle, fear and refuge. Samah, Hannah’s new husband, was conscripted in the army right after their marriage, “it was so hard for me. I was so young and having my husband away from me made it difficult, especially when I fell pregnant with our first child,” revealed Hannah.

“I was so ecstatic when my husband finally came home. We could start our lives together without any interruptions,” says Hannah. By July 1990 Hannah and Samah had three children: Sarah, Mustafa and Amal.

In 1991, while Hannah was pregnant with her fourth child, Saddam’s government declared an invasion of Kuwait. “The second we heard the news, I knew that my husband would be needed for military duty,” says Hannah. Hussein’s oppressive regime and conflict with neighbouring countries meant that Iraq was becoming increasingly unsafe. In a bid to protect their family and unborn child, Samah and Hannah planned to escape the region in search of a better life.

Late one grey night, as the sound of gunshots cracked across Najaf, a heavily pregnant Hannah and her family travelled to the border of Iraq towards Saudi Arabia. “Leaving Iraq was torture – we left our parents, siblings, friends. That night was the last time I felt like I belonged somewhere…”

Finding refuge in the town of Rafha, Hannah gave birth to her fourth child, Widyan, and three years later her fifth, Ameera, followed. She reflects on life in Rafha,“it was bitter-sweet. The Saudi government was good to us, but the extreme Saudi weather and continual unemployment was just too much for us.” So, in 1995, Hannah and her family migrated to Australia, “when our names came up to come to Australia it was such an overwhelming feeling,” says Hannah. A year later the family received Australian citizenship, and Hannah gave birth to her sixth child, Monieer.

“Australia was the fresh start we needed. My children enrolled in school, my husband found a job as a truck driver and I could finally make our house a home,” Hannah explains. Despite this, Hannah missed her family immensely, finding it difficult to make friends and assimilate into Australian culture.

Hannah’s teenage years were plagued with uncertainty and fear. Her early life was spent in search of peace, prosperity and stability for her children. And she succeeded in Australia.

It is because of my mother that I am who I am today.

Growing up as a young Muslim woman in Australia, my life has not been without challenges. High school is a nerve-racking experience for most teens, but for me it was nothing short of hell. Being a young Muslim teenager and adorning the Islamic headscarf presented endless opportunities for other students to hurl racism at me. I was labelled a ‘terrorist’ and ‘tea towel head’, which forced me to rebel against school – much like my mother did in Iraq.

I soon realised, however, the power of my education and what it had to offer. So I turned my schooling life around. I studied hard. I became an A student. By the time I was in grade ten, I had my heart set on becoming a journalist.

My mother always said to me, “when people do wrong by you, do not let them bring you down, God deals with all,” and she was right.

I learnt to stay quiet and ignore the bullies. I encouraged myself to vent my anger and frustrations through other means like writing. Through my writing I want to give a voice to those people who are continuously silenced, people like my mother.

Growing up in Australia as a young Muslim woman has been challenging but also rewarding. Living in Australia has opened my mother’s mind, and in turn provided me with freedoms that I could not have imagined in Iraq.

Being a young Australian Muslim has given me opportunities that my mother never had. While my mother’s experiences are vastly different to mine, we both share our story.

Hannah Al Nary sacrificed the familiarity of her family and country in order to provide for her children; to give them the life she never had. Without my mother’s sacrifices I would not be at University studying Journalism.

In the years that have passed since her escape from Iraq, Hannah has no regrets, ‘I am thankful that we came to Australia. No more running.”

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