Arts and Design

A year since fleeing Kabul: ‘Now my children can grow up in peace’

Chapter one

‘Everyone was running to go’

By the time we arrived at the big blue gate of Kabul airport, there must have been tens of thousands of people there. They were rushing from this gate to that for safety, shouting and yelling for help. Taliban were yelling at people and pointing their guns at them. You could hear gunshots everywhere. I saw a man bleeding from the side of his face yelling for help but nobody cared. Thousands of the old, young, male, female, kids hurrying up and down and not knowing where to go and what to do. We all just wanted to get out. Such a panic was created by the Taliban.

After 20 years, everything in Afghanistan was back to where it began. After years of waiting, hoping and dreaming about our country, we were leaving our belongings, family and friends.

Everyone remembered the first time the Taliban came. The ones who were young and didn’t remember heard from elders. We all knew who Taliban were. That’s why everyone wanted to be the first to leave. All our belongings were on our back and we were running for life. Celebrities were running, politicians were running, we were running and everyone was running. Elderly people were out of breath, children were trampled and some died, but still everyone was running to go.

Afghans looking for a way into the airport are blocked by international peacekeepers.
Afghans looking for a way into the airport are blocked by international peacekeepers. Photograph: Noor M Ramazan

My little family was amid this commotion – the crowd, gunshots, falls and get-ups. Me, Masuma, four-year-old Daniel and four-month-old Diana were trying to open our way after 24 hours and many efforts in the crowd pushing towards a gate blocked by British soldiers. Daniel was heavy on my shoulders and Diana was falling asleep in her mother’s arms. The midday sun was pouring its heat with all its might on the helpless population. One was falling out of thirst and hunger and another fainted due to the lack of oxygen and heat. Our fourth try after five hours took us to British soldiers. After checking our documents, they opened their wall-like riot shields to open a little gap so we could enter. Then Australian troops surrounded us. They were real heroes.

One of them saw how tired and energy-less we were. To help us, he picked my little daughter up just like a doll in his arm. Light and easy. They did the same to any other families when they saw they need help, especially when their kids couldn’t walk. Then they took us to a place which belonged to Australian forces and gave us something to eat, with bottles of water. I don’t really know how much you can feel the depth of a catastrophe. Sometimes I thought we are part of a scene of a movie. But that day there was a catastrophe happening and the army was managing the situation. I admire that.

They guided us to our staying spot about 11pm – big cages, like 15 sq m. All fenced up. The floor was natural land full of thorns, rubbish, there were many giant cages connected to one another.We looked like animals in the zoo locked in their cages. We stayed there for the next 24 hours, till the next night for our flight. We had to sleep on the bare ground. It was a cold night and we couldn’t sleep, the whole night shivering, hearing gunshots and crowd noise from outside the airport. Days in Kabul were hot and sunny but the nights were freezing cold.

Thousands of Afghan residents trying to evacuate Kabul are stopped by a river of raw effluent
Thousands of Afghan residents trying to evacuate Kabul are stopped by a river of raw effluent. Photograph: Noor M Ramazan

Flying away like a bird to an unknown part of the world bothered me … It was gunshots, bullets and people dying down there

Noor M Ramazan

Men surround a van stocked with drinks
For a day and a night Noor Ramazan left his wife and children to seek a way into the Kabul airport. Photograph: Noor M Ramazan

The next day morning we were waiting in a very long queue for our flight to United Arab Emirates. We waited in line for 17 hours. They took us to the plane from the back. The opened gate of the plane looked like the enormous jaw of a dinosaur. We went in and sat in lines on the floor, about 250 people. The plane was warming up with a loud noise as it started moving and then went higher and higher. I could only see the dim lights of Kabul airfield flickering from far away in the darkness. The rest of Kabul looked like a black necropolis.

I had been on many flights around Afghanistan because of my work. Anytime when we were landing and getting closer to the ground, I imagined thriving life going on in the rectangular houses of Kabul. I imagined an old white-bearded man is fixing his turban on his head in front of a mirror, or a woman bowing to pray, or a big family with many children sitting on the floor carpet chatting and drinking tea with a big teapot in the middle.

But the feeling of flying away like a bird to an unknown part of the world bothered me. The scenes down there in darkness were fearful, upsetting and rattling. It was gunshots, bullets and people dying down there.

Social media were full of disturbing and painful judgments and photos. They showed the lifeless body of one of my compatriots, stuck somewhere in the wing of a military plane who died of extreme cold. His body waved in the massive wind up there as if it was a flag or a handkerchief tied on a tree branch. You would see images of mosquito-sized people being dropped from the wheels of a giant airplane paddling in the air as they fell towards the ground. Even more painful were the rebukes and jokes being inflicted on us.

A company designed a T-shirt with an image of a plane with some people floating in the air, with the words “Kabul Sky-diving club”. People were dying, running out of fear for their lives in my country but somewhere in the first class world, among civilised human beings, they were making fun of us. We neither asked America to come to Afghanistan nor to leave. They don’t ask for your permission when they come and don’t seek your consultation while they go. And when they left, everyone was rushing towards the airport for their lives. I wish this would never ever happen to anybody anywhere.

Masuma Panahi boards an Australian airforce carrier
Masuma Panahi boards an Australian airforce carrier as the family are evacuated from Kabul to Dubai, en route to Melbourne. Photograph: Noor M Ramazan
Rich Afghan rugs and drapery in the Ramazan home
Rich Afghan rugs and drapery in the Ramazan home in Melbourne
Noor Ramazan writes in the local library
Noor Ramazan writes in the local library, a place he finds ‘calm and peaceful, away from the craziness of home’. An aspiring author, he is working on a book of stories

Chapter two

‘Welcome to Australia, mate’

The back of the plane had opened once again and the light in the air showed it was quite early in the morning. We, like zombies, unsteadily walked out of the military plane. The gloaming morning of United Arab Emirates looked warm, humid and foggy. When my buttocks hit the soft seat of the bus that was to take us from the plane to the coronavirus test centre, I felt like a prince from my childhood fairytales who was sitting on his chair made of swan feathers. Seemed like it was a long time since I sat somewhere soft.

We were tested for coronavirus and, after the results were negative, we were taken to Camp Cardinia in the same dream bus. Camp Cardinia was a nice place. There, in the 45C heat we had a cool room with an air-conditioner running 24/7. We had a small clinic, doctors and medicine and a small library where we could borrow books. The children picked pencils, notebooks, books and toys. They gave Diana diapers, too. Due to the large population and scarcity of space, men were separated from women. Masuma and Diana had gone to the women’s section. Daniel and I were in a room with seven bunk beds and 14 men.

They were offering us meals three times a day. There were lovely varieties of nutritious food available at the beginning. We had rice, meats, chicken, vegetables, fruits, soft drinks, etc. But the quality and quantity of food decreased day by day. During those last days we waited in long, chaotic queues for a sandwich that wouldn’t fill half of our stomachs.

Masuma with the children
Masuma with the children
A portrait of the Ramazan family drawn by five-year-old Daniel
A portrait of the Ramazan family drawn by five-year-old Daniel
English word card prompts on a door in the Ramazan household
English word card prompts on a door in the Ramazan household. On arrival in Australia Noor was the only family member who spoke English. Almost a year later, Daniel is fluent and Masuma can converse

Lists of Australian flights were posted on the dining hall wall every day. Large crowds gathered there, hoping to see their names on the list. After the fourth night and the fifth day, I also saw me and my family on the list. I was filled with joy and happiness. When I told tMasuma, her eyes sparkled with excitement. She kissed Diana. “You mean we’re going to Australia?” she asked in a soft happy voice. I said: “Inshallah.”

Because of an administrative problem, we didn’t catch that first flight but, four days later, for the second time, I saw my family’s name on the list. The next day, with our boarding passes in hand, the same magical bus took us the door of the airplane. You could see Australian army planes everywhere. But among them there was another commercial aircraft that looked nice.

It was a historical moment for me and my family. The plane had soft wide seats. They even gave Daniel and Diana separate seats. Daniel could watch cartoons on the small TV in front of him. From the map it had, I could see how far I was going from Afghanistan, and I felt sorry for everything.

The plane had beautiful flight attendants who treated us with special kindness. Masuma was jealous when I looked at them so was warning me, putting her V shaped middle and index fingers to her eyes then pointing at me. The plane crew spoke to each other in unfamiliar language. Out of curiosity I asked one of them where they were from. She said Portugal. I guessed the plane belonging to a Portuguese company was leased by the Australian government.

Masuma adjusts her headscarf
Masuma adjusts her headscarf

The plane was so elevated. I could not believe how small and insignificant the land was against the calm waters. From above, it looked like pieces of broken ice that were separated from each other and floating. From those heights the water seemed black and eerie. I wondered what would happen if the plane fell from that height. Suddenly my heart went out to my friends and immigrants who, out of desperation, threw themselves into all the vast waters hoping to survive.

My heart burned for Mahmoud, my childhood playmate who drowned in the waters between Asia and Europe. I suddenly missed my English teacher Aref, who was lost in the waters on the way to reaching Australia. I was heartbroken for Jalil, my classmate, who drowned on his way to Australia.

Where is my friend Karim and his family? Where is Jalil, Eisa, Haider? We were all close friends in small communities. We saw each other every day. We grew up together and we were going to grow old together. But cruel life has torn us apart.

Noor measures up a window in a kebab shop for a promotional poster promoting Noor and Masuma’s bolani pastry pockets
Noor measures up a window in a kebab shop for a promotional poster promoting Noor and Masuma’s bolani pastry pockets. After quitting his job at a manufacturing plant, Noor momentarily ventured into the food business, producing and selling bolani to small kebab shops owned by Afghan refugees in Melbourne’s south-east

Immigration staff greeted and welcomed us to Australia with utmost kindness and smiles

Noor M Ramazan

Daniel plays in the family home in Narre Warren
Daniel plays in the family home in Narre Warren

Hours passed. A pack of food containing a bottle of water, some cooked spinach, mashed potatoes, half a grilled tomato, two fried mushrooms and two chicken sausages looked finger-licking tasty. After those sandwich days, it was the first varied food and I will never forget the flavour.

The plane had come lower through the torn clouds from which the sun was shining, and was roaring at a lower altitude over Melbourne houses. Although it was midwinter in Victoria, the Melbourne plains and trees were green and lovely. The triangular roofs of Melbourne houses were reminding me of old western paintings on the walls of some houses in Afghanistan. It was interesting and spectacular for me. In Afghanistan we had round domed houses or square houses where you could play kite on the rooftop or sleep at night during the warm summers. I believe you can’t do anything on the rooftops of Australia. If you ever have to do something on the roof here, you have to be careful not to hurt yourself.

“Welcome to Melbourne,” a woman said over the speaker. The lady’s voice still echoes in my ears like excellent music. Yes! We had actually arrived in Australia.

The family share a cup of tea after Masuma returns home from Tafe
The family share a cup of tea after Masuma returns home from Tafe

Immigration staff greeted and welcomed us to Australia with utmost kindness and smiles. After a long entrance and registration, we were taken on a bus that left for the city. Heavy raindrops were hitting the windshield and the wiper washed it rapidly. The changeable Melbourne climate was unbelievable for me. An hour ago it was half sunny and now it was raining, washing the whole city. I was thrilled to see the big streets with many lanes and traffic lights. I was recording all of these moments on my phone. Traffic lights were seriously respected and sometimes up to six cars went through the same direction side by side. In Afghanistan we only had one lane going and one lane coming.

“Is this your first time in Australia?” asked the bus driver, a respectful middle-aged man.

“Yes, I already like everything here,” I replied.

The wrinkles on the edge of his eyes increased. I knew there was a sweet smile beneath the thick mask covering his mouth and nose. Then with a friendly voice he asked the second question: Where are you coming from?

“Afghanistan. We are coming from Afghanistan,” I replied.

“Oh my God! I am sorry for what happened to your country.” He sympathised with a meaningful look. “Welcome to Australia, mate.”

Chapter three

‘Tall buildings were connected to the clouds’

I couldn’t believe that a bus at such speed was taking me and my family into one of the best cities in the world. I thought I was watching a scene from a Hollywood movie. We were right in the middle of the city. I was so fascinated by seeing the tall buildings that at the other end were connected to the clouds. The people who walked on the sidewalks, the boy and the girl holding each other’s hands, the man with the headphone on his ears and shaking his head to the rhythm of the song he was listening to. I thought they were the luckiest people in the world. “Do they know where in the amazingly unique part of the world they live?” I asked myself. I hoped they did.

We had to spend two weeks in a room for quarantine. Adult Multicultural Education Services Australia members looked after us royally in a nice hotel in the city. We had everything. In the cold weather of Melbourne, I enjoyed the hot shower I took every morning. Our varied three meals regularly reached behind the door on time. We were corona tested every two or three days and fortunately all were negative. The doctors always took care of us. Psychologists always had time to hear what we had to say. Nice life, isn’t it? Such a warm welcome relieved many years of tiredness.

Noor works on his book of short stories as Daniel lingers in a doorway
Noor works on his book of short stories as Daniel procrastinates about brushing his teeth
Masuma and Noor place Diana in her crib
Masuma and Noor place Diana in her crib. Despite their rented home having three bedrooms, the Ramazans all sleep in the same bed

Two weeks passed as a blink. The Ames office provided us a unit on Swanson Street.

It regularly rained at night, and the scent of flowers, grass and trees of Carlton, Treasury and Flagstaff gardens wafted through the city in the mornings. Every day we went for a morning walk and listened to restless happy birds singing. We stayed there for nearly two months, which was one of the good memories of the first days of life in Australia. We were now free.

What made life smooth and enjoyable in Australia were the good friends who kept visiting and looking after us. My comrade Aziz who took us on a tour around Melbourne with his brand new car. James and his beautiful wife, Mara, took us to the beach for the first time. Masuma and I were shocked to see all those naked bodies and felt ashamed of the shirts and pants we were wearing. Kind Peter and Trisha, these two senior lovebirds, came to us and gave us the freedom to call them whenever we needed anything.

The search for a job has been difficult … I had to restart everything from zero for the third time in my life

Noor M Ramazan

Peter bought me and Masuma travel cards and taught us how to use them. Margot invited us to her house and allowed us make pizza in her kitchen and her husband, Rod, played guitar for us. Dear John and Marie, with that aching back, came to see us from a distance with a world of gifts, toys and storybooks for Daniel. Senator Janet Rice, who helped us get to Australia, took us for a walk in the Treasury Garden and gifted us 12 eggs from her hens, freshly dated with a pencil by herself. My photographer friend Chris, who took our first family photo with Melbourne skyscrapers in the background. Fawad, who bought Australian Open tickets for us. Donna and Ashmid, who took us to their house and allowed Daniel to play with their rabbits. Zarif and his beloved family, who cared and looked after us in his home for two months. All these amazing people who provided us care so life in Australia went on smooth and easy.

Little by little we were entering a more serious phase and the reality of life in the new land. First of all, we needed shelter. The Ames workers tried their best to find us a house but, due to the flood of immigrants, it was difficult. We had found that there were lots of people from Afghanistan in Sunshine and Dandenong regions. Whenever a house was online for rent, you would see a long line of people from Afghanistan attending the inspection. At first we pretended that we had never seen each other. Later we became friends and we saw one another almost at every inspection. We would tell stories and make jokes together.

Noor Ramazan and his friend, fellow Hazara refugee Aziz Bamyani, sip coffee
Noor Ramazan and his friend, fellow Hazara refugee Aziz Bamyani, sip coffee in the city before a screening of Barat Ali Baatoor’s film about his horrific journey by boat to Australia
Daniel in the living room
Daniel in the living room
Young Daniel sits on his father lap as he prepares to have fillings inserted at the local dentist.
Young Daniel sits on his father lap as he prepares to have fillings inserted at the local dentist. According to Noor, Dental hygene is not seen as a priority in Afghanistan and Daniels teeth have cavities as a result. Photograph: Christopher Hopkins/The Guardian

In Afghanistan, you could find a house, pay the rent and move in. It was the total opposite here – renting a house was a gruelling task. The first thing real estate people used to ask for before stepping into the house was an Australian driving licence, then job, work contract, income, reference, contact numbers, employers and the owners of the previous houses, reason for leaving the previous houses and many other things that none of us had. Little by little, looking for a house turned into a nightmare. A friend from Afghanistan let us move into his house and now we are lucky to rent the house from him.

The search for a job has been difficult. When we first got here the Ames delegate asked me, “What were you doing in Afghanistan?”

I explained I was a translator at the beginning, then I worked for some international NGOs advising them in the field of security. In the last five or six years, I had my own company and was a tour guide, employing 20 people. I also wrote short stories about the fate and life of Afghan people. He said he only had jobs that don’t require experience.

That meant I had to restart from zero for the third time in my life. I had to go through many other dead-end jobs in my childhood when Taliban took over my hometown Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998. I had to shine shoes and sell water, cigarettes, chewing gum and cherry juice on the streets to help my family have food on the table. OK. Let’s do it for the third time. At least this is Australia and I hope no one will harass or bully me as they did on the streets when I was a child.

The Salvation Army found me a job at a water heater production company. The very kind members of SA bought me boots, safety equipment and work clothes. The work started with three giant machines, washing heater tanks with acid. We wore special white clothes, long rubber boots and protective glasses. The work was heavy and exhausting. What made me tired was not the physical work but two very bad-tempered colleagues who were always grumbling and complaining: “Don’t take the tank like this, take it like that. Don’t put it here, put it there. Move quickly, all these tanks must be washed today.”

Daniel at a local park
Daniel at a local park
Masuma and Noor prepare bolani in their kitchen
Masuma and Noor prepare bolani in their kitchen
Diana plays behind a curtain
Diana plays behind a curtain

Sometimes, when I unintentionally made a mistake, frowns and stares followed me. After about a month, the aggressive spirit came to life in me. There were days that we neither said good morning at the beginning of the day nor goodbye at the end. I finally decided to leave the company. The supervisors and managers were good people – I was always welcome to tell them if I had a problem. But for how long? Once, twice, three times? Finally you are tired of complaining.

Chapter four

‘Australia saved us’

Life in Australia is passing with all its ups and downs. But it is fine. It’s just life. Sometime it doesn’t go according to our wishes. The most important part is not to lose hope or give up. We need to try again and again. I am waiting to hear about another job now.

It has been a long time now that Masuma has been enrolled in college to learn English but she can’t go because a problem with Diana’s childcare subsidy isn’t solved yet. No worries. It’s just a small problem on top of other problems.

I miss the house I had. I miss my people, my country, my brothers and sisters, my friends and neighbours and my colleagues in my company. I wish this wouldn’t happen to Afghanistan. How hard it was the day that I lost hope in our government and the Taliban reached the gates of our city.

On that day I went to see the dazzling majestic blue-tiled mosque at the heart of my city and looked at it for a long time. The beautiful memories of Nowruz festival flashed through my mind like a short film. The platform where Hamid Karzai, the first president of Afghanistan after the Taliban, stood on in 2001 and promised a better new Afghanistan was still there. That day I was a few metres away in the crowd. How happy I was and I screamed with joy. Two years ago Ashraf Ghani, the last president of Afghanistan, stood on the same platform and screamed that he will defend Afghanistan to the last drop of blood. Time flies.

Masuma hugs Diana
Masuma hugs Diana

I saw my teardrops falling on my mother’s hand as I tried to kiss her hands for the last goodbye

Noor M Ramazan

Masuma and Diana in the kitchen
Masuma and Diana in the kitchen

I said goodbye to the Blue Mosque and I parked my car in my yard for the last time, took a deep look, sighing at my dream house that I had worked hard to build, and closed its gate forever. I saw my teardrops falling on my mother’s hand as I tried to kiss her hands for the last goodbye. The Afghan people kiss the back of their elders’ hand out of respect while saying hello or goodbye. I couldn’t look at my mother’s eyes as everyone was crying. I had to leave them all in the hands of an unknown future.

We were taught from childhood to love our country. Country is mother. We love our country as much as our mother. You are safe as long as you are in your mother’s arms. You are free and nothing bad can threaten you. Because mother takes care of you with all her might. But if something happen to this mother, you will become an orphan and no one cares about you. Just like us, the Afghan people, who are like helpless children whose mother has fallen to her knees due to countless wounds.

Afghan migrants, either in their own country or during the process of migration, have seen situations from which a book can be written. We are hoping for a day when there is no war, and no one is displaced. The poet Ramin Omid says: “Heaven is the place where there is no harm.”

If you are very lucky like me, another kind of mother comes and holds your hand and saves you from being trampled and crushed. She keeps you in her arms and her vast heart and adopts you as a child. Like what Australia did to us. Australia saved us. We owe our lives to Australia. Australia accommodated us in its sky-sized arms and gave us freedom and security.

Now my everything is here. This is my home. My family is here. I feel comfortable and well looked after. I love it here. As much as I love Afghanistan and my mother. I heard the name Ash Barty for the first time in my life when I was watching the Australian Open. You must have seen my excitement when she was engaged with her opponent. The women’s final was one of the happiest nights of my life. Ash Barty was Australia that night. I really wanted Australia to win!

The family at a restaurant in Dandenong
The family celebrate receiving their permanent visa

In July, after 11 months in Australia, we are celebrating our permanent visa in one of the traditional restaurants in Dandenong. Diana is using Masuma’s arm to climb on her shoulder. Daniel is playing with his fingers, counting the numbers he just learned in the school: “One, two, three, fou…” When he reaches four, the R is almost silent and he pronounces it with an Australian accent. I am staring at the A4 paper which is our permanent visa and is supposed to be the proof of being in this amazing land for ever.

I think about the future of Daniel and Diana, hoping they will grow up in peace. They will be safe and I will hold their little hands walking them to and picking them up from school every day in complete security. Without someone kidnapping them or a bomb going off at the school gate. I wish peace for all the people and children in my country and in the world.

I feel how lovely this place Melbourne is. It seems like I have a strong feeling about this city, its streets, its wind and rain, its cars and people, and the Australian flag streaming in the soft wind over the Dandenong’s Drum Theatre tower.

Lucy Clark
Carly Earl
Harry Fischer


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