This is Badraa Al-Darkazly. She bears a name from another culture. She knows many countries. Has made a bed in many places. In safety and in fear. In warmth and comfort and on stone cold concrete feeling fearful in the dark. She speaks two languages. And her story lies in both.
This week she wavered between English and Arabic as she told her tale to an auditorium of VIPs. To politicians and consul generals, CEOs and high commissioners, for the Commonwealth Bank’s annual Iftar dinner in Melbourne. “Iftar is the time at sunset where we all break our fast during Ramadan,” Badraa says. “It’s a very significant event for Muslims. A time for celebrating but also to think about being at peace and trying to help others. It’s really important for families and people to come together.”
The dinner included a panel of guests asked to speak about how their work helps culturally diverse people connect to the wider community. As the Bendigo Campus’s international student services coordinator, Badraa was the perfect candidate.
“I spoke about how my story impacts on my job,” Badraa says. “I do think a lot of international students see themselves in me. Because I have a name from a different background, I come from a different culture, I struggled, I had no English but now I work for an organisation like La Trobe, so it’s not impossible. You can do it and you’re able to do it, you need to be determined and go for your goals. This is my message.”
Badraa works alongside approximately 200 international students from 50 countries in Bendigo, every step of the way. She sorts out their Visas, makes sure they understand the education system, are meeting course requirements, making friends, making connections.
“I say you can do it, but you can’t do it by yourself. This is the best part of my job, trying to help these students achieve, but it’s not just about the academic. They need to make connections. They need to have interactions with other people because that builds who you are.”
A child in bombed Baghdad
Badraa credits her years of uncertainty and upheaval as giving her the resilience she now passes onto others. The challenges started when she was ten and living in Baghdad. It was 1990 and the beginning of the Gulf War.
“I remember the first day of bombing, very very well,” she says. “It was 2 o’clock in the morning, I still remember the clock on the wall. All I hear is bombing everywhere. We all woke up. Our front door was shaking a lot. Because our suburb in Baghdad was very close to the airport, and the airport was one of the first targets. Remember those big old freezers? My mum took the freezer, pushed a very big freezer into the door so the door didn’t collapse – she’s an engineer, she’s an educated person, she put us in the corner and turned everything off. In the dark my dad was calling all his brothers and sisters and mum and dad.”
Badraa’s family endured many months of terrifying bomb attacks, until her father vowed to get them out of Iraq. “Where are we going? We don’t know. We’re just going to take our luggage once the borders open,” she says.
“It was a very, very difficult journey. We had to travel by bus. We had to sleep on the concrete, on the floor, in the dark, on the borders.”
On the move
The family made its way from country to country, staying mostly in hotels, before settling in Libya, where Badraa’s academic father received a contract role at a university. During that time the New Zealand government accepted them as refugees.
“We had to leave without saying goodbye to anyone and we had to leave my dad there,” Badraa says. “He had to work out his contract. So it was only my mum, my brother and my sister who went. I was 16 at the time.”
It would be another year before the family was reunited, during which time they communicated in secret. Due to sanctions in Libya prohibiting western migration, Badraa says if anyone knew they were in New Zealand, her father’s life would be in danger.
“I spoke a little bit about my journey in New Zealand,” Badraa says of her moment on stage this week. “I arrived in New Zealand, in a high school, with zero English. As a teenager you’re trying to understand that, and on top of that your family told you you’re leaving but not saying goodbye to your friends. But I am lucky because I think that’s what’s built my character. Which is being resilient, being accepting, being a fighter sometimes. You’ve got to fight for things sometimes.”
Believing in Bendigo
Fast forward a number of years and Badraa met Mustafa, her husband. They married and moved to Australia, where Mustafa had migrated in his 20s with his family. They made their home in Bendigo. “That was another changing time for me because I’d settled in New Zealand and I’d found my way. I had my own friends, my family and then suddenly I had to redo it again. That’s why we’ve been 15 years here. I think I’m traumatised from the moving. I say, I don’t want to move my kids from this city.”
That conviction was tested a number of years ago when anti-mosque protests took over the centre of Bendigo. The two events were covered extensively in the national media, promoting what most of the community felt was a misguided view of Bendigo. The majority of protesters had come from elsewhere, fueled by a planning application for a mosque in this city.
“When the mosque thing happened me and Mustafa said, what are we going to do? Are we going to have to take our kids and leave now because this place is not safe? My god, we’re going to have to leave? They’re born here. They’re Australian. They’re as Australian as anybody else, but just because of my faith and that I decided to believe in something, even though I am giving everything I possibly can to the community, to my work, do I have to take my kids and run again?”
The protests gave rise to the group Believe in Bendigo, spearheaded by prominent business owners and community leaders, including Badraa’s husband. The group organised several events to celebrate the city’s growing cultural diversity, under a canopy of bright yellow balloons, in contrast the black ones used by protesters. While the protests are in the past, the yellow balloons prevail in Bendigo.
On culture, connections and character
The mosque build has now begun, however Badraa says the tension over its approval is a reminder that, “like it or not, there are racist people everywhere in the world. You can’t change everyone. All we want is to say, have you met a Muslim before? Have you made connections?
“I don’t want to lecture people about culture. I just want to make those human connections and for people to accept me for who I am. I don’t want to lecture people that you’ve got to be accepting of diversity, no, let’s build those human relations first.
“Do you know that my worries are exactly the same as your worriers? My school juggles and sport on the weekend, my bills and mortgage, it’s exactly the same. What I believe and what I do is not going to impact on anyone else’s life. It’s me. It’s for myself only.”
So is Badraa’s beautiful Arabic language, which she regularly speaks with her Muslim friends and within the walls of her Bendigo home.
“First, it’s very nice to speak more than one language but also it keeps your identity. Whatever you do it’s very important, with your character, with everything you do, you need to keep your identity. That’s what I want to do with my kids. Even though they’re Australian, they’re born here, I want them to keep their parent’s culture, their faith identity. I want them to be proud of it and celebrate it and not hide. I don’t want to hide who we are.”