Inside the Collection

Refugee Week, Seeking refuge in hope

Asme Fahmi with her mother and sisters.
Asme Fahmi (far left) with her three sisters Zainab, Rabia and May.

During the course of developing the Faith, fashion, fusion: Muslim women’s style in Australia exhibition, we met Asme Fahmi. Asme, 31, is a Community Engagement Project Coordinator with the Community Relations Commission, a third year Shariah Law student at Daar Aisha Shariah College and a student of Islamic Studies at Charles Sturt University. In addition to this, Asme also serves in a number of important volunteer roles for MuslimVillage.com, Mission of Hope, Foundations for Tomorrow and the Deen Intensive Rihla Program. We invited Asme, who is of mixed Iraqi-Syrian parentage, to share with us her personal family refugee stories in this special post ‘Seeking refuge in hope’ as part of National Refugee Week 2012.

It was the early 80’s in Beirut Lebanon, my Syrian grandparents’ house was teeming with guests. My uncle was visiting from the United States with his new wife Katherine — as were many other relatives who had come from near and far. Family members had taken advantage of a rare opportunity in which a ceasefire had been called during the Lebanese civil war, to visit my grandparents. Although theoretically they should have been safe, they were still nervous about visiting Lebanon during such a volatile period.

As the merriment of catching up and sharing stories ensued, people would eventually relax into a false state of security. However, an all too familiar sound would draw close to the festivities as my grandparents urged everyone to take cover. In a matter of minutes a missile would shoot through to one of the apartments below my grandparents’ residence rocking the entire building. Followed by a thunderous sound and the panicked guests elapsing into a near state of hysteria. The missile landed in apartment eight. My grandparents lived in apartment ten.

As destiny would have it, apartment eight had been recently flooded, preventing the missile from detonating. And just like that, a plumbing problem and of course, the grace of God, would save my entire family.

Though my parents are not Lebanese (my mother is Syrian, my father is Iraqi) they lived in Beirut for a decade during the civil war. They lived mostly in fear as the explosions would go off near our apartment. My mother Feryal Akbik, said it was the worst period of her life. “It was hell. I would drop my kids off at school and half an hour later, I would hear the sound of bombs and I would run back to the school to pick up the children. I would lose it. I would just lose my mind not knowing what had happened to the kids. Once the kids were back with me, only then would I stop panicking.”

Living without electricity or water became the norm and the family became accustomed to living in the dark and staying indoors all day. Feryal recalls “electricity and water would come back every few days. We would fill the bathtub with water and as many buckets as possible and we would try and conserve as much as possible over the course of the week but we weren’t sure when we would be getting water again”.

Food supplies were dwindling. At one point, there was no food at all as the fighting intensified and shop keepers would close their businesses for long periods of time. Feryal was panicked about what to feed the children “eventually there was no food” she said. We would buy bread and then dry it out and put it into bags and then live off it for days as there was nothing else for us to eat”.

Living in a war zone was becoming too much to bear for Feryal. “I used to hear the sound of bombs and see buildings fall and burn all the time. When we would hear the sound of a missile, we would all huddle, block our ears and wait for it to explode. We didn’t know where it was going to land. Sometimes you can hear if it’s close or far, and when it was close, there was a chance it could hit our apartment. Once we heard it explode, we would breathe a sigh of relief and say Alhamdulillah (praise be to God) it didn’t land on us but we were also saddened that others may have been hurt”.

At night, the family would sleep in the hallway; the hallways were safer than the bedroom because there were no windows to shatter and sometimes we would sleep in the basement of the apartment. Although the bombing seemed indiscriminate, men in the streets were being killed for the faith they subscribed to. Feryal recalls “when your father would go to work, I didn’t know if he would ever come back. If they looked at your identification card and saw that he was Muslim, he could have been killed straight away for that. People were being killed on the basis of their religion”.

Eventually, the experience of living in constant fear amidst a warzone would become too much and my family would decide to move abroad. There would be one last hurdle before freedom and safety. “In order to get to Cyprus, we had to go into enemy territory” said Feryal. “My husband wanted me to take off my hijab — as being visibly Muslim was enough to get you killed — but I refused. Hijab was too important for me to let go and I had faith that God would protect me”.

It was a difficult time for the family as Feryal had to sacrifice everything she had to ensure we got to safety. “We left everything in Lebanon, our house, the business and many of our assets. We had to let it go and start anew. We had no choice.”

As many sacrifices that were made, she firmly believes it was all worth it in the end. “When I arrived in Australia, I couldn’t believe it. I simply couldn’t believe it.” said Feryal. “There was electricity and water all the time and security. You can’t put a price on security. It was beautiful.”

Feryal Akbik’s story is not uncommon. Unfortunately, there are many people in the world today who are living under tyranny, oppression and conflict. I draw strength from my mother’s story and I have been inspired by her steely determination to give her children a chance at a better life. One of my earliest memories is abandoning my toys to leave to Cyprus. It was tragic for me to farewell my toys. I couldn’t understand why we couldn’t take all our belongings with us and I didn’t understand why we had to move quickly. I now understand that it was more devastating for my parents to drop everything they had; their homes, their livelihood and most devastatingly, to leave behind their friends and family in a situation that was precarious. They escaped to enter a world that was unfamiliar and unknown. There was no choice in the matter; we had to leave.

Though we did not arrive in Australia as refugees, I can understand the turmoil; frustration and desperation people feel when they are trying to escape injustice and dangerous conflict. My father had escaped Saddam Hussein’s oppressive regime in Iraq and sought refuge in Saudi Arabia. Had he not been granted refuge, I would probably not be here to tell this story.

Now, that I am older, I cannot fathom the horror my parents must have endured as they tried to keep us safe. It’s not easy to live in a war zone. It’s not easy to have your children huddled in a darkened hallway, cradling you because they are too scared to sleep. It’s not easy to live without electricity and clean water.I guess this is hard to grasp when you are not faced with life and death scenarios every day but it is a reality for too many people around the world. The sound of bombs should not be a normal sound to anyone, especially children.We are extremely lucky to be living in a safe, secure country like Australia and we will always be grateful for the kindness shown to us when we first arrived.

Most refugees who come to this country carry an incredible story. It will only enhance our lives to show compassion and mercy to those who have sought refuge in Australia because enriching their lives will inevitably enrich our existence.

2 responses to “Refugee Week, Seeking refuge in hope

  • What an amazing story. Thank you for sharing this, I’m sure it was painful to recall those memories for you and your mother. I feel for the hundreds of thousands of innocent people out there in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and other places who are living this hell right now. 

  • What a sobering and touching story. Factual, but implicitly emotive. The strength of your parents is amazing. Nor can I imagine the utter dispair that one goes through before making a decision to abandon everything you know everything you’ve worked towards and built. 
    We live in such a privileged country here in Australia. So far away from the trauma of war with no persecution, justice and equal rights for everyone. 
    What I want from Australians is to have more compassion and empathy towards refugees and stop having an “us and them” attitude. These people are humans escaping persecution and imminent death. Let us open our borders – or at the very least, open our hearts and minds. 

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