In March this year, the Morrison Government announced that Australian border restrictions will remain in place until mid-2022, preventing international travel in or out. Families around the country too have faced long periods apart, separated by council districts and state borders. But for many immigrant families, separation is a way of life, and has been for countless years.
“Find a way to get me to Australia, Habibti. I want to see you guys.”
Bebe (grandma) makes this request at least once every few years. She does so despite the fact that we don’t speak often, save for the odd videos and photos of my toddler cousin, the only grandchild left in Iraq with her.
The truth is, I don’t really know Bebe. I’ve met her twice in my 22 years. Growing up I’ve spoken to her mostly through awkward calls, filled with desperate glances at my mother to help with my Arabic. When she makes these requests, there is a pain in her voice that pierces my core. It fucking hurts.
Before I even let myself consider the visa process, I imagine her with me in Sydney in her jubba (a long dress with long sleeves). I imagine showing her my life. And then I quickly realise how much of it I would have to omit, for her sake more than mine.
Firstly, I’d have to wear bras — something I rarely do — and much more modest clothing than the crop tops and shorts or miniskirts you’ll typically find me in. I would have to hide the alcohol in the kitchen, the vibrator on my bedside table, and most significantly, the man I share a bed with.
And if she did find any of these things, I imagine she’d have one of the “heart attacks” she's told me about. I say “heart attacks” in quotation marks because in my family they’re as common as the flu. (If you pitched a telenovela of my family’s melodrama it would be deemed too melodramatic for the genre).
Growing up I’ve spoken to her mostly through awkward calls, filled with desperate glances at my mother to help with my Arabic.
Throughout my life, I witnessed my mother struggle through rejection after rejection of visa applications to bring Bebe to Australia. Over the course of a decade, she tried applying for tourist visas, permanent residency options, seeing immigration lawyer after immigration lawyer. She got doctors' certificates as evidence to prove her poor mental state and need for family support, all to no avail.
My mother and I don’t have much of a relationship. The cause of our (for lack of a better word) breakup is that she’s lived the better part of her life believing that the world is against her. This, of course, includes when I chose to live my life differently from how she envisioned I would.
When I look at her life, I see a woman who has lived through two wars, a dictatorship, sanctions, rebuilding a life in a foreign land, an abusive marriage, and raising two young girls post-9/11 as a veiled Muslim woman. There’s no doubt about it: she’s had it hard. You might even say that the least traumatising event was the rejections of Bebe’s Australian visas.
But I would not say that.
What’s the point in living in a peaceful country when you can’t share it with your loved ones?
As a lot of families are finding out during this pandemic, not being able to see loved ones for long periods at a time because of government rules (albeit for our own good) is painful. Now imagine not being able to see your own mother for decades at a time. Imagine knowing that she could easily get on a plane and be with you, if only that bureaucrat had ticked the “yes” box instead of “no”.
It’s the feeling of powerlessness that breaks you.
It’s even more heartbreaking considering my mum sacrificed all that she was familiar with in order to help her family escape conflict and poverty in Iraq. All those government rejections meant that it was a sacrifice made in vain. Is it worth living in a peaceful country when you can’t share it with your loved ones? When you’re all alone?
I recall my mum often saying with frustration, “What’s the point of living in a safe place if you live it in ‘ghorba’?” That word, ghorba, translates to “foreignness”. Mum always said it with a sense of distaste for her whole life, gesturing at everything around her. When my mum said ghorba, it made me feel suffocated. Because I could feel how deeply unhappy she was, and I could never (and cannot ever) do anything about it.
Sometimes though, my mother would reminisce. Most memorable was her description of the US-led airstrikes in Iraq during the first Gulf War of the nineties. She would describe the sirens. How the sound still freaks her out, even now. How they had to close the curtains, light candles, and turn off the lights so as not to attract attention. Even though it was a terrifying time in her life, she always spoke of it with a kind of fondness.
It was during those nights her family sat together in candle-lit salons where she got to hear her grandparents tell stories, spend time with her uncles, aunts, and cousins, bond with them in a way that normal life didn’t always allow.
When Bebe asks me to find a way to bring her to Australia it feels more like she’s saying, ‘find a way for me to have been part of your lives’.
My sister and I would listen attentively to these stories. It was rare for mum to speak of her past and we knew we most likely would never experience anything close to what she has. Not just the air raids and conflict. But the togetherness and the solidarity of having your extended family around you. Your lineage, all present.
It’s a bittersweet feeling; escaping conflict and unrest was the point of my parents' immigration. But somewhere on the way between Baghdad and Sydney, a lot was lost, too. Now when Bebe asks me to find a way to bring her to Australia it feels more like she’s saying, “find a way for me to have been part of your lives”.
Early this year, I was in my colleague’s car as they expressed to me how frustrating it was to be unable to see their grandmother in Europe since COVID started. The frustration that they — and many Australians — are feeling in response to the current border restrictions is the frustration and heartbreak that my family, and countless immigrant families, have felt for our whole existence.