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Birth Certificate

Updated: Jun 20, 2023

I couldn’t find my birth certificate a few years ago and as dramatic as this sounds, I questioned my existence. I couldn’t find my ground. I felt like I was on a tower of terror that had just dropped, malfunctioned halfway, and stopped. My heart hadn’t caught up to my chest just yet, and I was still holding my breath. A frozen moment melting too slowly under the Southern sun. I licked my lips and could taste some old narratives my migrant parents repeatedly brought up in conversations with guests. “You never know, they could kick us out just like that, whenever they want”. And though I’d roll my eyes and insist they couldn’t do such a thing, I let those words settle in the pit of my stomach anyway. Why else would I be freaking out about a piece of paper that proves I was born here? Surely Australia would never turn its back on me?

It wasn’t until I had this piece of paper in my hands again that I exhaled, laughed a little at my brain for making me go through all this elusive pain, and reflected on the why’s and what-if’s.

Maybe it’s because refugees are too often rejected, and asylum seekers are denied the right to be here, even the ones born on this land and held by the hands of their community for the first years of their lives. Like Kopi and Tharnicaa Murugappan, the daughters of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka. Their parents Priya and Nades arrived in Australia on separate journeys in 2012 and 2013 and lodged claims for asylum. They settled in Biloela, Queensland where they met, married and had two kids. After years of processing, their asylum claims were rejected. While the people of Biloela fought for them to stay, the Australian government constantly tried to deport them.

Or maybe it’s because of how the Australian government treats our Indigenous people. The rising toll of Indigenous deaths in custody alone reveals a ‘worrying trend’ of discrimination. According to an analysis of deaths in custody cases over ten years conducted by Guardian Australia, Indigenous people who died in custody were three times more likely to not receive all required medical care.

The land my parents are from in Syria.

There’s also more to the ‘why’ of this dramatic journey through my mind and it has a lot to do with my parent’s own journey here. Mama and Baba’s plans slowly changed throughout their years on this land, but it was always about ‘the return’. Being here was about working, a means to creating a new beginning back in Syria. When we were born, “just a couple years more” was always all they needed to be here before settling in Syria could finally be a reality. Every migrant shared this extended, mended and sometimes faded but never abandoned plan to return to the motherland where life would finally begin. But the beginnings began anyway, and the plan lingered in thought and in whispers between summer trips, and last moments. We all grew used to our weightless shoes.

Mum and dad - Mt Coot-tha Botanical Gardens, December 1992

I know I am privileged to have more than one home and the freedom to belong to both. But despite this, when I couldn’t find my birth certificate, the anxiety I felt churning in my stomach was reflective of something very wrong with the way Australia both tokenises and criminalises its multicultural communities. We juggle a desperation to belong and to be useful, with the fear of being othered and rejected. As a result, we put our heads down and work. We smile and we fit in.

What was always amongst the mix of the “Australia doesn’t really love us” comments was the comfort that our parents’ homeland does. But amid a pandemic where freedom was limited and our government was capping arrivals and prioritising denying visas and protection for those who need it most, that too was threatened. I felt like I had to choose. Here or there. And though it may be the then current state of the world influencing these words, in the moments of no longer having an official Australian identity, I decided to get comfortable with the idea of “going back”. There’s an Arabic saying older than this colony lingering in the minds of migrant communities: fortune made in a country that’s not yours, doesn’t belong to you or to your children. This idea has kept many migrants in a state of waiting. Waiting to make enough money to be able to ‘go home’. Waiting for their children to finish school here before resettling there. Waiting to pay off their mortgages, for their children to find steady employment, for their families to be comfortable. Waiting and waiting for ‘the return’. The return usually unravels in two ways: you’ve waited too long, the years have piled on and it’s too late, or your motherland has been ravaged by war and is no longer as liveable as it once was. The third kind of unravelling was introduced at the same time as covid restrictions: the dilemma of choosing to stay here and not knowing when you’ll see your family overseas again or leaving and not knowing whether Australia will ever let you come back.

In my reality everything seems suspended in uncertainty and instability, but the one consistency is the deep sense of guilt I feel. Even as I write this, I find it hard to empathise with my own words. While I’m only experiencing the hypothetical scenarios of being kicked out or trapped, thousands of refugees and asylum seekers carry the traumas of their departures, the pain of their rejections and the denial of their human rights and dignity. We either punish them for asking for help by breaking their spirit with cruel promises of effective border security processes or pass them from nation to nation till ‘home’ is a fractured mist. The Australian government refuses to fix the system causing so many malfunctions, preferring to keep the most vulnerable on hold between a painful past and a distant beginning.

The way the Biloela community rallied around the Murugappan family and fought for their freedom, is a testament to the humanity of the people who call Australia home. Now we just need the Australian government to extend the same courtesy. With courage, let us all combine on these boundless plains we have to share, and let’s start by letting asylum seekers stay, and offering a new home for all those torn from their own.

My fears of being kicked out were not manifested out of thin air. They were planted and nourished over a lifetime of malicious media messaging. Australia’s “love us or leave us” mentality, and its treatment of minorities, its refugee policies, and the leaders it elects to represent this country, have all helped build a suspicious society, weary and ready to build walls high enough to keep out a non-existent enemy. So, our own fear sprouts as the police and politicians doubt our brothers and sisters, wrongfully accuse, imprison, and abuse. The fear grows and wraps around our throats, and we start hesitating in our narrations. We lower our gaze and hope not to raise questions. Different versions of “where are you going” and “where are you from?”, as good intentioned as they can be, begin to make us feel small. We are always ready to explain ourselves, ready to expect the worst.

Collage of me as a three year old and my birth certificate.

I always talk about this place I call ‘The in between’, and for me it’s usually where my homes meet. Where they sometimes collide and confuse, but always embrace and enrich in some way. I couldn’t find my birth certificate and I felt invisible for a few hours, but in the comfort of my own house. I felt but a fragment of a fragment of a fragment of the fear millions must feel for years at arm’s length in a cruel kind of in between.

It turns out the ride is rigged, a 'malfunction’ that has stolen so much time from the most vulnerable lives. It’s time to fix it, change the system that upholds it, so we can help us help us. We can’t hold our breaths for any longer.

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