My name is Leila

2 November 2017

My name is Leila*. I am from Iran.

Five years ago, when my plane left Iranian air space, I had a hard feeling.

I couldn’t imagine it was the last time I would see my country’s sky, my country’s land, and it would maybe be the last time I would see my parents and all my memories. I felt like I had left my heart in Iran. I wished my country was a safe place for us to stay.

My emotions were confused. I didn’t know anything about Indonesia and Australia. Only I knew I needed a safe place for us. My eyes were too dry to cry. During the last month I had cried all the time, but I don’t know how they were suddenly dry now. But when I looked at my husband and my children in the seats beside me, I said to myself, ‘You have to be strong, you have a very hard and long journey in the future.’ We have a saying in my language, “you have to make a mountain of yourself”. You have to bury your feelings, your homesickness, fear and frustration, because now you are all your children’s family. You are their grandparents and aunties. You are their uncles and cousins. You are everyone for them.

I was born in Iran in 1983 to a traditional Muslim family. In Iran, the government is based on a very strict version of Islam. I am one of three girls and two boys. My brothers were considered more important than girls under the Iranian Regime.  Girls were told to dress modestly and were not encouraged to express opinions, especially political ones.

I wished my country was a safe place for us to stay.

From the age of nine, the Regime insisted that I obey all the religious rules.  This was done by instilling fear that if failing to obey ‘I would burn in hell’. Any questions about Islam were suppressed.

In my mother’s time, it was rare in Iran for girls to be educated, because they are expected to marry as early as 12 years old.   But because my father was a primary school teacher he encouraged my sister and me to be educated.  I was able to go to university where I obtained a degree in social work.  During uni I became engaged and I married my husband, John.

Whilst my husband was studying at uni he would speak against the Ayatollah to friends and family. The Ayatollah is the ruler of Iran and everything is under his control. John said the Ayatollah was just an old man, not a God. He was told to be quiet but the government found out. He was trained to teach at high school but they banned him from getting a job in government or a school. He continued his education and he’s got Masters in his field. However, my husband continued to question the teachings of the Ayatollah and very much wanted to dress and be like other young men. My husband John was constantly under the government’s watchful eye. They prevented him from working and kept threatening him with punishment and possible death.

Our life in Iran was steadily becoming impossible. But despite all the limitations I loved Iran and our lifestyle, which was very comfortable.  I was very close to my parents and definitely did not want to leave. I had a degree in my field and was considered an expert in my field, and within five years would have been considered for a promotion.

Eventually the government caught up with my husband, took him away and forced him to answer their questions. He had no choice. He was taken away without myself or his family knowing his whereabouts for several days.  I thought he had been killed.

When he was finally released and returned home we only had one month to decide what to do. The government would have definitely killed my husband, and so we were forced to leave in a hurry and in secret.

My son was only four years old and my daughter was a baby. I was not able to say goodbye to my parents or grandparents or tell them that I would never see them again.

I was not able to say goodbye to my parents or grandparents or tell them that I would never see them again.

When we arrived in Indonesia, my fear was more strong to see new faces and languages and cultures. I thought everyone wanted to kill us. I was like a baby who only wanted her mum’s cuddles. It was my first trip overseas, and it was the first time I didn’t know ‘Where is my destination and what will happen in the future?’

We stayed there four months but the conditions in Indonesia were bad and my children were constantly ill.

We came by boat to Australia. We arrived in Darwin in 2013. And finally, in February 2017, we were granted a Temporary Protection Visa.

We came here to be able to feel safe so I started to go to Church, which gave me peace. Maybe this was God’s plan and instead of feeling angry I feel am grateful because I have found kindness. My husband and I became baptised to Christianity. This of course now prevents us from ever returning to Iran.

I hope to get a permanent residency, to apply for our parents to visit us here, because it’s our children’s dreams to have grandparents here just for a month. They see friends at school with grandparents and they ask where are their grandparents. They can see them on Skype but my son says, “No, I want to cuddle them.”

We came here to be able to feel safe so I started to go to Church, which gave me peace.

Right now, on our visas, it’s not possible for us to be permanent residents, or to see our family again. I hope that that will change.

It is very important to me and my family that we feel accepted in Australia. John and I want to be able to work and continue our studies at university. Thank you Sophia* (SSI worker) who supported me to find a casual job – four days a week.  I would eventually like to work as a social worker so I can help others. My family and I are so very grateful to Australia for allowing us in, and for giving us safety.

My TAFE Story

When we were in Iran I worked and I was an expert in my field and I had Bachelor of Social Work in one of the higher quality universities in Iran. All the time I was a full time worker and I had planned to continue with a Masters of Social Work but suddenly we wanted to escape. When we arrived in Australia for a few months we had a relaxing time. We felt grateful for our safety.

At the end of 2013, we went to Granville TAFE to register and take the English level test. In January 2014 we received a letter to say that we had to pay three or four thousand dollars to study. Plus, because we had studied at university overseas we had to pay more than usual. My English was very poor and I couldn’t get a job. Everything was blocked because of my Bridging Visa. We couldn’t study or get a job, and we were depressed. We were at home all the time. We started going to English classes at Granville Multicultural Centre and I heard about English classes at a Baptist Church as well. It was important for me to continue to learn English to get a similar job to my professional job in Iran.

My family and I are so very grateful to Australia for allowing us in, and for giving us safety.

We spoke to a community worker from Granville council. She wanted to help us register for TAFE and she tried, but there were the same restrictions due to our Bridging Visas. She told us about another TAFE which was cheaper but the fees were still $300 a term and no Certificate of Completion would be issued. Plus it was very expensive because we weren’t allowed a travel concession.

I had a very nice caseworker, Penny*, for 3 months and when I spoke with her she said, “after three years I think you and John have improved in English. I don’t want you paying $600 per term”. John was volunteering at Granville Multicultural centre at the time in the Men’s Shed. Penny said it was better to be a volunteer than paying for English classes. Also she found free English classes run by qualified teachers at Read Write and Spell, Ultimo which has a lovely teacher, Tess, and I could learn English there.

In January 2017 I found out that TAFE was free and it was amazing news, the happiest news. Very soon we went to the TAFE and registered. But the lady wanted to check, she didn’t hear that it was free, she said “No, are you a permanent resident? Are you on a humanitarian visa?” I said “Please! Look again, I had heard about it”. She called someone, but I was scared it was wrong. One of her colleagues then found a letter verifying that the NSW government had implemented free TAFE for refugees and asylum seekers earlier in the year.

I felt like I was 20 years old again in University for the first time in Iran.

Three days a week we went to TAFE and we started to learn new things. But more than that we felt like we were like other people, we could be beside them and use this opportunity. Before that, everywhere we went people said “Bridging Visa? What’s that?” but now were just like everyone else.

For more information about how the Diocese of Parramatta supports refugees and asylum seekers, please click here.

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*Not her real name.

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