12 Aug 2004, Comments (0)

What was that about values, again

Author: Helen

I’m not spooked by the latest attempts by the AGE to make me fear public education. I could bring up snarky examples of private school “values” again, or I could point out that the AGE is becoming quite attached to the acres of advertorials that the private schools buy in their education section (bias? Never!). But what the hell. I don’t need to. I’m proud, happy, and just a bit teary.

In the same newspaper on Tuesday, there was an article on Ali Alsaai and his family, who, as refugees on the SIEV-4, were the subject of one of Howard’s greatest porkies – the Children Overboard story.

I’ll include the whole story below, but here’s the part about Alsaai’s daughter Hawraa, who goes to Footscray City College– my daughter’s school.


And it was during a year in detention at Maribrynong that Hawraa, now 16, and Banin, 8, began attending school at Footscray.

Peter Noss, then a year 8 co-ordinator at Footscray City College, was assigned the task of making Hawraa’s transition as smooth as possible. One of his first acts was to organise a “whip around” of the staff to help set the family up in their modest unit.

“I was struck immediately by how bright and intelligent she was,” Noss recalls. “I just felt so sorry for their predicament.

“I didn’t know anything about detention centres and I’d like to think I’d be the same with any kid who needed a bit of a bunk up.”


(Did I mention this is my daughter’s school?!)

Towards the end of that first year, Noss recalls waiting outside the school with Hawraa, who was to go to the Royal Children’s Hospital for a check-up. “We are waiting out for the car to pick her up and she says, ‘Here they come!’ It’s a van from the detention centre with a light on the top, blacked out windows, bars on the windows, and I thought, ‘What’s going on?’

“There were two people in the front of the van. One’s got out, undone the big padlock on the side of the door and slid the door back and here is the rest of the family, sitting inside this darkened van.

“We shake hands. ‘Hello.’ ‘Hello.’ ‘See you soon.’ Hawraa gets in. ‘Bye.’ Close the door and a huge big padlock is put on the door. Well, that did it for me. I just broke up.”

The other episode that mystified Noss was when Hawraa came to school one day and explained that she was returning to PNG because, under the Pacific Solution, boat people seeking refugee status have to be processed offshore.

“So they’ve sent the family, a nurse, a guard and God knows what else, gone up there, stayed in a hotel, which was fantastic for the family, and the next day they’ve said: ‘We’ve granted you a temporary protection visa. You can go anywhere in Australia.’

“Hawraa said, ‘I want to go back to Footscray because my friends are at school there’. That’s why they’re back at Footscray.”

Now in year 10, Noss says Hawraa continues to excel at school and is more than capable of realising her ambition to become a doctor. Banin, called “Banana” by her classmates, wants to be a teacher.

Peter Noss, you are a legend. You bring a lump to my throat. (I think I might have mentioned this is my daughter’s government school?) I can’t think of anyone who would teach better “values” to my child.

I wonder what school Peter Reith went to?


The truth overboard

The AGE, August 10, 2004

In the second of a series reflecting how Australia has changed under John Howard, Michael Gordon speaks to a refugee.

Ali Alsaai tells his story through an interpreter, careful to include every detail, every nuance, of his family’s escape from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to Footscray. It is almost an hour before he gets to the most important bit, the moment when he and others on the boat known as SIEV-4 were accused of throwing their children overboard.

It was October 7, two days after John Howard called the 2001 federal election, when Philip Ruddock announced as fact that children had been thrown overboard in a “planned and premeditated” tactic to thwart Australia’s uncompromising border protection policy.

The following day, the Prime Minister expressed his outrage at the asylum seekers’ behaviour, declaring he did not want people “like that” in Australia. “There’s something, to me, incompatible between somebody who claims to be a refugee and somebody who would throw their own child into the sea,” Howard explained. “It offends the natural instinct of protection and delivering security and safety to your children.”

It wasn’t until after the election was won (in part on the slogan “We decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”) that the truth emerged: no child on SIEV-4 was thrown overboard.

Alsaai’s account begins with the admission that “we submitted to fate, to God” in embarking on the journey. But he insists that his purpose, unconsciously borrowing a phrase from the Prime Minister, was to deliver security and safety to his wife and children.

First, they went to Jordan, where his three sons were turned back (they remain in Najaf). Then the flight to the Emirates, then Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia. Then being forced to board an overcrowded boat. And finally, being “interrupted by a military boat”.

Yes, he explains, in two separate episodes a child was held aloft on the deck of the unseaworthy boat, but “we were trying to draw their attention, to say, ‘Look, just take the babies with you and, if we die, it’s OK’.”

On the first occasion, he says the asylum seekers could not see the sailors on the HMAS Adelaide, but they assumed those on the ship could see them through binoculars.

The second time was to make the same plea after Australian sailors had delivered food and water to the boat and lifejackets to those who did not have them, just as the overcrowded boat began to sink.

Alsaai describes how his wife and daughters were among the last to enter the water and how he cradled the younger one, Banin, on his chest for about 40 minutes before they were rescued.

It was not until several weeks after they landed on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, having been assured they were flying to Sydney, that they became aware of the accusation that they had, in effect, used their children as bargaining chips.

Alsaai says the thing that hurt him and other parents most was the charge that they were bad parents. “We come from a society where we are family-oriented. We are very close to family members. We don’t throw our children overboard.”

To emphasise the point, he says that if he was offered the world in return for his daughter’s finger, “I wouldn’t upset it.”

After the election, Howard played down the impact of the controversy on the outcome, saying: “The people of Australia on the asylum-seeker issue voted for our policy. They didn’t vote according to whether children were thrown overboard or not.”

While opinion polls suggest the Government’s hard line on border protection has majority support, it is also the case that many Australians have taken up the cause of the asylum seekers with passion.

Among them is Dorothy Page, a volunteer who teaches Alsaai and his wife, Widad, English at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in North Melbourne.

It was on Manus Island that Alsaai’s older daughter, Hawraa, was diagnosed with diabetes, ultimately resulting in the family being moved to the Maribyrnong Detention Centre (via Port Moresby, Cairns and Brisbane).

And it was during a year in detention at Maribrynong that Hawraa, now 16, and Banin, 8, began attending school at Footscray.

Peter Noss, then a year 8 co-ordinator at Footscray City College, was assigned the task of making Hawraa’s transition as smooth as possible. One of his first acts was to organise a “whip around” of the staff to help set the family up in their modest unit.

“I was struck immediately by how bright and intelligent she was,” Noss recalls. “I just felt so sorry for their predicament.

“I didn’t know anything about detention centres and I’d like to think I’d be the same with any kid who needed a bit of a bunk up.”

Towards the end of that first year, Noss recalls waiting outside the school with Hawraa, who was to go to the Royal Children’s Hospital for a check-up. “We are waiting out for the car to pick her up and she says, ‘Here they come!’ It’s a van from the detention centre with a light on the top, blacked out windows, bars on the windows, and I thought, ‘What’s going on?’

“There were two people in the front of the van. One’s got out, undone the big padlock on the side of the door and slid the door back and here is the rest of the family, sitting inside this darkened van.

“We shake hands. ‘Hello.’ ‘Hello.’ ‘See you soon.’ Hawraa gets in. ‘Bye.’ Close the door and a huge big padlock is put on the door. Well, that did it for me. I just broke up.”

The other episode that mystified Noss was when Hawraa came to school one day and explained that she was returning to PNG because, under the Pacific Solution, boat people seeking refugee status have to be processed offshore.

“So they’ve sent the family, a nurse, a guard and God knows what else, gone up there, stayed in a hotel, which was fantastic for the family, and the next day they’ve said: ‘We’ve granted you a temporary protection visa. You can go anywhere in Australia.’

“Hawraa said, ‘I want to go back to Footscray because my friends are at school there’. That’s why they’re back at Footscray.”

Now in year 10, Noss says Hawraa continues to excel at school and is more than capable of realising her ambition to become a doctor. Banin, called “Banana” by her classmates, wants to be a teacher.

Hawraa is a shy girl who has neither concealed nor advertised her situation to her classmates and teachers. She wants to be treated like everybody else and did not want her picture to appear with this story.

Recently, her creative writing teacher, Emma Pollock, asked the class to write two short pieces, one on the things that made them happy, the other on the things that made them angry.

Hawraa’s first piece began: “I’m really happy because I left detention centre and I hope everyone will. I’m really happy because I came to this school and have very nice teachers and friends.”

The second piece concluded: “It’s really hard for people who left their country to be in a safe place but they are kept in detention centres. I have been in a detention centre before and I understand how these people feel.”

This girl, who crossed the ocean in a boat that sank, entitled the piece: “Refugees like this fish want their freedom.”

Pollock says that, for the first time in her career, she was moved to tears by the work of a student.

Hawraa’s parents, meanwhile, with limited access to English training because of their temporary status, are making slower progress. Both hope to gain permanent protection, get jobs and be joined by their three sons (one now has two sons of his own).

Since they left Iraq, their home in Najaf has been destroyed in a bomb blast. Last month, Alsaai’s cousin died when he was hit by stray fire from a helicopter gunship, leaving behind a pregnant wife. Hawraa says it is hard being separated from her brothers, who regularly speak by phone to their mother.

Ali Alsaai walks for hours at a time each day, tinkers with the car he hopes one day to drive, and worries about his sons.

When The Age asks Widad what she likes most about Australia, she smiles broadly. “The people. Very nice,” she says, gently pounding her fist on her heart.

Comments (0)

  • Sedgwick says:

    Underlines the success of the gov’t’s approach to refugees.

    Don’t let “the refugees”, “the illegals”, “the queue jumpers” possess or (worse) share their personal stories. Keep them shadowly amorphous, talk about them as a group, add a little overlay of sotto voce sub-text racism and so on.

    A story like that makes them sound human, a bit like us, with a story with which we can identify and (wash my mouth out with carbolic) empathise.

    (Sorry … as well as having an attack empathetics I’m also having a simultaneous dose of the sarky cholerics.)

    The better half has a raft (probably inappropriate, or perhaps appropriate term, in the context of the article) of similar stories from some of her kids. Did I mention that she works at a government school? ;0)

    (Don’t ever get her started on that On Track survey. Suffice to say her school didn’t fare well in the published results. Suffice to say that her school doesn’t know how to (or won’t) “play the game” when it comes to responding to the survey. Suffice to say you could run one of them thar pretty 2nd hand Abrams tanks through the validity and reliability of the methodology. Fancy that the % of kids who can’t get a job is identical to the unemployment % figure for the area in which they live. Dammit don’t those kids know that if they’re from Broady they too can grow up to be Eddie Maguire! Bloody little slackers, every one of them!)

    But as usual, I digress … unconscionably.

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