It’s the first day of August, I turn twenty-four in twenty days, and all my homes are foreign countries.
The first time I answered the question of ‘Where are you from?’ with ‘Shenton Park’, it didn’t even register. Having tied my identity to a suburb I hadn’t lived in for years, in a city I still could not accept as home was something my conscious mind could not reconcile, not when I still violently recoiled at the thought of Australia as home. I balked at the idea that I could be giving up that and then for this and now.
Perth was never meant to be home; the thought of it as such still scrapes at me like the gravel on that street in Balga where I first learned to ride a bike.
It is twenty days until my twenty-fourth birthday; it has been eighteen years since I last saw Sudan. It has been eighteen years since I played football in the streets of our neighborhood of Al Maygoma or gone to visit my grandparents in what my siblings and I called ‘Al bayte al kabeer’ – our big house, our family home. Al-hasahisa is my hometown and yet if I returned I would be a stranger.
How do you live when you’re caught between a land that does not want you and one that is now unknown to you? A foreigner in your country and a ‘guest’ in your home? My passport, under nationality, says Australian; when I think of rivers, the image of the Derbarl Yerrigan cutting through the heart of the city comes to mind. But I still dream in Sudanese Arabic. What happens when you deeply miss a place you cannot return to or truly know?
When I walk through Northbridge, I no longer imagine walking down a road to my grandparents’ house in Arqwit – and I’m still bothered how long it took me to notice the absences of what was once the most comforting of daydreams.
How do you live when you’re caught between a land that does not want you and one that is now unknown to you? A foreigner in your country and a ‘guest’ in your home?
It has been eighteen years since we left Sudan, but we left it was as though we were only going away for a day. A room full of books, a kitchen with cookware older than my youngest sibling, a tap in the courtyard, that always dripped no matter how many times we fixed it. We left our home in Sudan as it was; Mama even watered the plants around the house and picked lemons from the tree outside that morning. In a kinder world, maybe that house would have been waiting for us. That is a wound that has yet to close over. I imagine that, in returning, we would be foreign bodies entering an unfamiliar land.
In the philosophies of my people, time is not a linear concept. Everything that will happen has already happened and the past is happening now. It’s kind of like a waveform function in quantum physics: the existence of something in multiple states simultaneously.
The pain of things that happened in both the distant and recent past is still with us, still affecting us, as it will affect those who come after. I am here as a product of multiple and ongoing colonisations, as both a beneficiary and a survivor – in the physicality and the institutionalisation. Because here is the thing: systems of power and dominance are not just ontological concepts, not to those who have to navigate them every day, they are also somatic experiences. That’s part of the reason why transgenerational and intergenerational trauma exists. We embody the struggles and experiences of those who came before and those who will come after. How do you navigate that? How do you deal with then and now when the line between is so thin that it might as well be non-existent?
What is there for the children of diasporic heritage? Those of us born or raised in the conjunctions and oftentimes conflicts of multiple languages, cultures, and identities. Caught in between homeland and heartlands unable to distinguish which is which? How can we answer a seemingly innocuous question such as ‘Where are you from?’ without spiralling into a crisis of identity, of existence? In the case of Australia and Sudan, I feel that neither is willing to make a space for me. I am too much a Khawaja to be properly Sudanese (if there is such a thing) and far too Black to find space in a ‘white’ Australia (a false construct this nation continues to perpetuate).
In trying to find a connection to Western Australia, and to Australia as a whole, I am accepting that I cannot truly do so. I am a guest here; this land has given me shelter, food, and education, but the reality is that my family, by being both refugees and settlers, are simultaneously both victims and beneficiaries of imperialist white supremacy.
The reality is that my family, by being both refugees and settlers, are simultaneously victims and beneficiaries of imperialist white supremacy.
Coming from a country that has endured and is, in my opinion, still enduring colonisation to a ‘nation’ where I am an occupier is not a comfortable feeling. But instead of shying away from that discomfort, I am trying to move away from the passivity of allyship into action. No non-First Nations folk should walk upon this country without some measure of discomfort. I cannot change the circumstances of my arrival nor can I ignore the violence that occurred and is occurring on two continents which put in place the systems that allowed my family to seek refuge here. But so long as I exist here, I will try my utmost to reduce the harm I cause.
Twenty days later, I am now twenty-four years old. I am travelling to a festival in Naarm and there is a leadership spill in Canberra. A politician makes a comment and the top floor of the Mirrabooka mosque burns in a suspected arson attack. I am twenty-four years old and twenty children have drowned on their way to school due to floods in Sudan and there is no government aid. I don’t know how to write this. This is not supposed to be a memoir because memoir means vulnerability. It means allowing people to see the factors that come together unevenly to make me.
I joke with friends that sometimes I’m barely a person. It’s not really a joke. When the world doubts your humanity so often, sometimes you begin to do the same. I joke that twenty-four is middle age for me because I have nearly died more times than my actual age. I joke and speak these not-quite-jokes in hope that someone realises how I feel – as though I am pulled apart in all directions by intense gravitational forces.
I joke – and this is not a memoir because a memoir means having to lean into those feelings rather than lean out of them. A memoir would mean speaking of the rage I feel when people are there to celebrate my triumph – and whatever arbitrary milestone I achieve that makes it seem as though I am an ‘inspiration’ and validates the white supremacist idea that refugee lives depend on merit – but the same people will be silent when I am close to shouting that all my homes are foreign countries and all my homes are falling apart. There are only two sides to the refugee story that people want to read, the triumph and the tragedy, and this is not a memoir because my life is not a learning experience.
I am twenty-four years old and feel like I have lived for far longer but the fear that still lingers is the worry of being robbed of a home.
The leadership spill happens, and I don’t sleep for two days because ‘home’ here is not on stable ground, not for people like me and home there is not safe at all. It seems like the whole country is holding its breath. The streets of Perth feel suffocating.
When I think of rivers, it’s the Blue Nile that courses through my heart and Derbal Yerrigan through my mind.
A friend makes a joke about moving to another country if Peter Dutton becomes prime minister and I have to walk away, teeth clenched. For so many of us, that is not a choice and will never be a choice – I am tired of all my homes being warzones for self and spirit. I get on a plane to Naarm and try to shut my mind off for those four hours. When I land I check Facebook to see who the prime minister is, I call a friend in a panic from the airport, hoping it’s a joke. I am so tired of wars, yet it seems like there is no choice but to keep fighting.
I am twenty-four years old, writing this article in a city different than the one I currently call home. I am more than the sum of my wounds and any accolades I have accumulated. I have been away from home for both a fortnight and a lifetime. I have not seen the majority of my family for eighteen years and sometimes it’s difficult not to wonder if my memories are merely fantasies.
And yet when I think of rivers, it’s the Blue Nile that courses through my heart and Derbal Yerrigan through my mind. I have been in Perth for nearly fifteen years now and English is still a foreign language. And every day that I see the criminalisation of people who look like me, love like me or pray to a similar god. I think of home and feel fear because all my homes are hostile countries. If I step on Sudanese soil tomorrow, in the town my family has called home for generations, will I recognise my country? Will my country remember me? Will it want me?
I am twenty-four years old and all my homes are foreign countries falling apart. And I will fight until my last breath for all of them to be free.
Forced to flee from their heartland,
Not fearing death, but demanding life.
Year after year, their alien souls shrivel.
They are returning, not for the weight of nostalgia
But to be buried in their homeland.
——– Afeif Ismail Abdelrazig, ‘Refugees’