Without this refugee cabbie I would have been all at sea
Last Friday morning, on a busy street in Sydney, I hailed a cab to head back to work. Nursing a broken arm in a sling, and carrying a bag full of research for that night’s Insight, I was feeling a bit apprehensive.
I’d had five long weeks off, but the specialist treating me had warned I might need longer. “The workplace is hazardous” he’d said “and I’ve seen you on TV, you throw your arms around a lot.”
A taxi quickly pulled into the kerb and as I peered through the window, I hoped I’d see a friendly face - someone willing to help me with all my stuff and drive slowly over the bumps. A slight dark haired man looked up at me and broke into a warm smile. He was out of his cab in an instant, opening the door, taking my bag and checking to see if I was OK. “I know who you are” he said, beaming. “SBS! It’s an honour to have you in my cab.”
Other TV presenters may get mobbed in shopping malls, by at SBS we’re used to being recognised by cabbies. Sometimes it feels like every single taxi driver in Australia watches the network.
Many are migrants with compelling personal stories. I’ve learnt a lot about day-to-day life in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Lebanon and a raft of other countries in the nation’s taxis. So as we settled down for our trip across town I asked this friendly cabbie where his family had originally come from.
“Afghanistan,” he said.
It turned out he had fled Afghanistan as a 17 year old in 2000 at the urging of his father, who worked in security. The Taliban was rounding up young boys, and he and his 15-year-old brother were terrified of being targeted. “All the boys were very scared, running away” he said solemnly. So the two brothers fled their home, family, everything they knew, with just one thing in mind. Safety.
Driving across the Harbour Bridge on a sparkling Sydney morning, he haltingly recalled the challenges of that long journey. Two teenage boys alone in the world, heading for Australia with no parental guidance. He quietly shook his head, as though twelve years on, he almost couldn’t believe it himself.
I asked how they’d finally made it here.
“Boat” he said solemnly, waiting for a reaction.
“What was the boat like?”
No words. Then finally “If I’d known what that boat was like I would have never have put my brother on it. But by then it was too late, we had to go.”
When I asked about the boat trip itself, he said he couldn’t bear to think about it, that it had been too frightening. I apologised for asking, feeling ashamed of how readily we often expect refugees to recount their horror journeys, but he assured me it was fine. So instead we talked animatedly of his father back in Afghanistan, his brother, and his own young family now growing up in Australia : his wife, a daughter who wants to be a nurse and a little boy who dreams of being a chef. “They have a very different childhood to me and my brother,” he said proudly.
The Afghan brothers arrived in Australia a year before the Tampa dramatically changed the way we talk about asylum seekers in this country. He said they had been “very, very lucky” to spend just three days in detention. When I asked how he felt about the way politicians talk about asylum seekers, he displayed a gentle, masterful diplomacy. “We make good Australians, we refugees,” he said. “We work hard, very hard workers. You want a job done? Ask a refugee.”
Then he asked me what I was working on. I told him we were doing a live ‘Insight’ special that night with the cast of Go Back to Where You Came From. Had he seen the series?
“No” he said, shaking his head again. “I can’t watch it, seeing the people upsets me.”
“The people who criticise asylum seekers?”
“No, the people trying to get here, it makes me very sad.”
As he carefully opened the door to help me out of the taxi, we warmly wished one another luck. It was only after he’d driven away that I realised I’d forgotten to ask his name.
So if the cabbie who dropped me at SBS last Friday morning happens to be reading this, there are a couple of things I meant to say.
I’m really glad you and your brother made it here, it was an honour being in your cab, and thanks for being so kind to me on my first day back at work.
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