The other day, I visited an Iranian refugee. My family and I had been “assigned” to her and her family a while back; to help look after them, teach them more English and basically assist their transition into Australian culture. I had not seen her for about a year because we lost contact when she last moved. So much had happened in that time. She, like me, had had a baby. Her English was astonishingly better. She seemed happier.
Because our ability to communicate with one another was freer, I asked her why she left Iran. In her improved but still broken English, she told me her story. She told me that her husband worked for the Iranian army. One day, during a protest, the army was ordered to violently assault civilians. Her husband did as he was told but that night, he went home and told her that he didn’t think what he was doing was right. He didn’t want to hurt his people any more. So the next day, he left the army.
As she continued talking, it was becoming more and more difficult for her to express herself, so I sat patiently as she struggled to find the words. She picked up her dictionary and pointed to the word “menace”. I nodded back at her. She then flicked through it again and pointed to the word “threat”. She looked at me, her dark eyes full and said, “Do you understand?” I said, “Yes. Yes, I do understand”. She then told me that they did things to her husband. She told me that he went on the list, and once someone is on the list, things can be very bad. So, her husband told her they had to leave.
They kept their plan secret for fear of being found out and thrown in jail. In the last week, they told their family, said their final good byes and left. She cried morning and night. During the six week boat trip she cried. When they got to Christmas Island, she cried. When they finally arrived in Australia, still she cried. Every morning and every night for a whole year, she told me she wept.
She told me she had to hold her four year old daughter day after day and watch her sob. She told me how her daughter went silent for so long and how hopeless she felt in making things better. She told me how scared she felt. She told me how much she missed everything she had ever known. She told me how strange she thought Australia was, and how hard it was to learn the language. She told me how much she longed to see her mother again. She told me about how it felt to start a new life with nothing but the few belongings they had left.
I looked at this woman, two years younger than me, and I was lost for words. What could I possibly say?
Not knowing what else to do, I reached over, grabbed her hand and held it in mine. She looked at me and smiled. We sat like that for a moment, the silence spilling into all those deep, human gaps that words fall short of filling. Finally, she spoke. “I’m bigger now. Do you know? I am so big.”
I broke out into a deep, warm laugh, and said, “You are definitely big. You are SO big.”
She beamed back at me.
How nice it would have felt, I thought, two years since her arrival, to be sitting here, in a safe and quiet home, speaking to a near stranger in a foreign language, conveying such a deep part of her heart and finally being understood. What an achievement, to have adapted to a life where she no longer cries. Where she looks at her daughter playing with other kids in the street and feels nothing but relief. I asked her if she was glad she left. She said, “Now, yes. All that matters is that my husband and my children are together. For this, I am happy.” She paused. “Now tell me. How did you lose your fat after you had the baby?”
I couldn’t help but laugh. I couldn’t but help but think that we’re all just the same, in the end. When everything is stripped away, we were just two women perched on the edge of a couch, sipping tea, worrying about our figures, cooing at one another’s babies, and discussing how bad our husbands are at cleaning. We were just two women – two mothers – who understood the love that binds a family, and the lengths you are capable of going to to have it protected. We were just two women, with completely different stories but who have both, in our own little way, become big.
People are amazing.