Cross-cultural connections

Regina Lane

A conversation with a young Muslim refugee introduces Regina Lane to a world of Somali warlords and worship; a life full of poetry and pain; and a heart of kindness and compassion.

In my recent work, I have been advocating for action on climate change. Recognising the destruction of the environment has been overwhelming, I’ve often felt distressed and powerless. I’ve had to remind myself that change begins at home, and so in an attempt to live more sustainably, I’ve taken some time out to retreat to the country, grow my own vegetables and reconnect with the earth. Walking softly and learning to listen to the rhythms of the earth, has been a healing experience for me.

With this feeling of greater connectedness, I meet Yusuf at La Trobe University on a crisp, autumn afternoon. Greeting me with a huge smile, he asks if I’d like to chat outside. Always eager to escape the confines of four walls, I agree to catch the last rays of beautiful sunshine.

As we settle under the gum trees, Yusuf Sheik Omar begins his story. ‘I am a product of a nomadic people, a poetic people, a desert people’, he says. ‘I miss my homeland terribly.’
Home for Yusuf is in the semi-desert country of Somalia, where he grew up among five brothers and two sisters. As he recalls his memories of his nomadic childhood his eyes become bright and active. I can almost picture Yusuf as a young boy, picking fruit from the trees, tending to the goats and camels and sleeping under the stars.

Pointing to the screeching cockatoos sitting in the gum trees above, he talks about the interconnectedness of all living things and their great gift to our world. As I learn to live in sync with the seasons, I agree wholeheartedly with Yusuf when he says that in the hustle and bustle of city life, we are losing the ability to listen to the ‘beat of nature’.

If he had his own children, Yusuf would bring them up in the country, where they might learn to connect with nature in the way that he did as a boy. They would also learn social skills like leadership and teamwork, he says. Growing up in a tight-knit Victorian rural community myself, I agree with his sentiment.
Yusuf would then recite the stories and poetry that his mother had recited to him.

‘My mother is a gifted poet. She could not read or write. She graduated from the “natural university”, everything she knew she learnt from the earth. I grew up listening to her poetry. She is a woman of great strength and a great leader. She was very influential in my life.’

As a young man, Yusuf was granted a scholarship to study in Sudan. It was 1991 and Somalia had disintegrated into civil war. It was a challenging time being away from his family, not knowing whether they were dead or alive. Influenced by his mother, Yusuf took up his pen and began to write. He wrote about the plight of the Somali people, and was often critical of the social system and the warlords.

‘In Somalia, if you are a poet, you are seen to be well educated. They respect you, but they are scared of you too, scared that you might hurt their reputation.’

I admire his strength and resolve to speak out against injustice at such personal cost to his own life. I lament that his story is familiar to many refugees in Australia, a truth I first learnt about when I was at university. There, I became impassioned to speak out against the treatment of refugees, and other poor and marginalised peoples. Yet, my dissent did not come at the price Yusuf was forced to pay.

Because of Yusuf’s vocal criticism, he knew he was destined to live a life in exile. After completing his Masters of Social Science at the University of Malaysia, Yusuf fled to Australia fearing persecution if he returned home.

From there, his story is shamefully familiar. He was questioned by immigration officials, placed in a holding cell, then transported to Maribyrnong Detention Centre in Melbourne. It would be nearly two years, and many rejections from the Department of Immigration, the Refugee Review Tribunal and the Federal Court before Yusuf was finally granted protection.

While in detention, Yusuf again took up his pen. Though the guards initially wouldn’t let him write or email, he managed to publish 55 articles for international publications. Writing about his homeland, the civil war, detention in Australia and his dreams for peace and equality helped him to overcome the inevitable depression caused by a life under lock and key.

Hope came from his supportive legal advisors and others who visited him in detention. ‘They were people with a purpose, very compassionate and committed, committed to their faith too’, he says.

He tells me that detention opened his eyes to other religions, and to sense in each of them a common basis encouraging love, respect and equality. ‘Though I am Muslim, I am no different to Christian, Jew or Buddhist’, he says.

That opportunity was something he never could have had in Somalia, where nearly everyone is a Muslim. ‘I don’t just enjoy the diversity. It’s what I believe in. Diversity helps to create tolerance, acceptance and harmony’, he says.

Almost as if to celebrate the fact, Yusuf excuses himself halfway during our interview, as the sun goes down to go and pray. I watch people file into the mosque for prayer at dusk as I wait, and realize how accustomed and comfortable I have become with difference and diversity.

It is nice to be reminded of how lucky we are to live in such a multicultural country, free of war or civil strife, based on ethnic or religious grounds. Though I realize we have not achieved racial and religious harmony in this country, it is good to step back and realize just how far we’ve come.

Yusuf is currently studying for a Masters in Educational Leadership, and provides curriculum advice to teachers on helping migrant and refugee children integrate into the classroom.

When he returns from his prayer, I ask Yusuf what drives him. ‘Pain creates people’, he says. The war in his homeland and the fear of being persecuted for his beliefs were understandably life-altering experiences, which fuelled his resolve to fight oppression and discrimination.

Detention in Australia was the second transformation in Yusuf’s life. ‘It was very painful, but when you live with human disaster, you live among the women and the children, you forget your own, you forget yourself. It puts your own experience into perspective and gives you a greater vision.’

Indeed, a couple of hours with this inspiring man instantly broadened my own vision. It is easy to despair at the injustice, the destruction of the earth and war and poverty in the world. Yusuf has known all this, and he continues to live life with a smile, celebrating the beauty of creation, and with love and compassion in his heart.
I don’t expect it’s an easy example to follow. But I leave Yusuf feeling stronger, with a deeper understanding, my senses alert to the world around me. My passion for social justice has again been refuelled, and so has my hope for the future of the planet. I am ready to celebrate life, and as I walk away, I too am smiling.

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