Just before Christmas our news was full of the incomprehensible – the mayor of a country town (Tamworth (Google Earth31° 5’58.45″S 150°55’22.31″E)) here in Australia declared a group of Sudanese families unwanted in his town. Some rolled their eyes and simply put it down to our redneck community. Others, including many in Tamworth, were outraged. In the middle of it all the Sudanese remained poised, apolitical and out of the fray. The Australian Refugee Council put it all down to ignorance.
They are partly correct. If James Treloar (the mayor no less) had been on an Emirates flight out of Dubai last year and shared the same experience with these Sudanese families as many of us did, he may have a different perspective.
As we prepared to board our Airbus back to Sydney a large group of tall and elegant Africans were herded out of a side door into the departure lounge. They were all dressed in the same light blue tracksuit. They might have been all part of a sports team except there were no logos and these people were unusually shy and unsure of themselves. It was clear they were relying on a middle aged woman who behaved like a good master sergeant and saw them through the checkpoints and into the aircraft.
I had settled into my seat – well up the back but where I could get a window seat, some peace and quiet (it is a 14 hour flight) and some leg room. I was doubly blessed by having the seat beside me vacant. We were delayed by about 30 minutes as the Emirates staff reorganised all the seating to put these Africans all in one place – right down the back of the plane. They asked if I would prefer a seat up the front, instead of sitting with these people. I felt slightly affronted but the European flight attendant hastened to add that their BO was offensive. I declined – I am at the very least, a window seat hog. But I did not think BO was enough to deter me.
I was fairly warned. The BO was easily the worst I have ever experienced – and I have experienced my fair share in the military while in the field. Terrible. Pungent. Acidic. For 14 hours!
These Africans were very subdued. But they were an interesting mix. Young couples with children. Unsure of what they were to do in the plane. Very reliant on their Master Sergeant to translate for them. To help them with their meals. The Emirates staff were brilliant and went out of their way to look after them. Patiently explaining things to them. Showing them how the inflight entertainment worked. How the headphones worked. Giving them a tour of the toilets to show how they worked. How to work those infernal folding doors. Watching young children work out a Pokemon game was pretty special. Can you imagine it? What a flurry of overwhelming experiences these kids were soaking up. The Master Sergeant was later explaining only a couple of the adults had seen a TV screen before. For everyone else this was all so very new.
In a quiet period I went and spoke to the Master Sergeant. She told me they were Sudanese migrants to Australia. That this was the second flight in their lives, the first being the Russian cargo plane that had flown them out of the desert into Dubai. In Dubai they were taken out of their rags and placed in the tracksuits, with no opportunity to bathe or shower. Some of the children were wearing clothes for the first time. All of these young couples had no extended family – they had all been killed or had died through malnutrition. But mainly killed. The lack of other family was one of the factors that determined their eligibility to migrate to Australia. No wonder they looked shy and unsure of themselves. Twenty four hours earlier some of them had never seen an aircraft before.
As we approached Sydney I was delighted to discover that my seat was going to give me a view of the harbour, the bridge, the Opera House. With the sun just rising over the Pacific Ocean this perspective is Sydney at its shiny and glistening best. Dragging my eyes away from the window as we straightened up over the bush north of Sydney to start our run in I could see the boys, about ten to twelve years old years old, sitting in the centre, straining to see out the window. The attendants had just strapped themselves in so I signed for the boy closest to me to come over and sit at the window (I had that spare seat next to me). He was quick to understand and unbuckled and jumped the aisle, we swapped seats and he pressed his face to the window, both filthy hands grasping the wall.
The Harbour slid in to view and the bridge, buildings, harbour, Opera House and bush were all set off in a glorious landscape under a gorgeous blue sky. It is a fantastic sight. As we descended over this scene and it started to drop behind us the face at the window turned to me with saucer eyes which were full of wonder. And in one breathless, rasping whisper exclaimed to me in a quizzical tone of discovery “Australia?!” It actually sounded more like “Oh-dah–lia“.
Never have I been so glad to give up a window seat. It took all of me to compose myself and not weep, and to assure him it was indeed Australia. I smiled, wiped away a tear and assured him again that this was so, and that he was very welcome to be here. He nodded and turned back to the window – in time to watch the suburbs close up and to experience the rush over the perimeter fence to land with a steady bump and to arrive at his new home.
While we taxied in to the terminal I sat there and watched this lad and silently gave thanks that I was part of a country that could offer itself as a refuge. That could share its wealth and resources and opportunities with those who had nothing, and with those who were losing what little they did have(family).
Since then I have often wondered where they ended up – now I see they are in Tamworth. With the same composure I saw in the Airbus. And clearly out of their tracksuits. I hope they understand the mayor is out of step, and that there are many in this country who love the fact we can share what we have. I hope James understands his role of custodian carries with it a requirement to be generous. For except by the grace of God there go the rest of us.