Refugee's tram ride to freedom


Melbourne tramSalman jumped on the tram just before the doors closed. Melbourne was still a mystery to him. He knew he should be happy to be free, but there was still much sadness in him.

He felt Melbourne didn't welcome him. It seemed always to sulk under clouds. Only occasionally the sun showed its face, promising something but never delivering: just like his life. He was confused and often afraid.

His family had sacrificed much to send him here. His mother and aunt had sold jewellery and furnishings that had been passed down for generations. His father had sold his share of a partnership, then had borrowed more. His grandparents gave what they could spare. They had all wanted to buy freedom for him in a country of safety.

His parents had told him they were sending him to a place where there would be many opportunities. But those opportunities had been slow to materialise. He felt he had let them down.

The tram rattled down a hill and jerked to a stop.

Salman had left his home two days before his 17th birthday. He had not wanted to leave his family, his friends, his country. He put on a brave face when his mother and sisters cried over him and kissed him goodbye. He didn't want to go, but his father told him he must. He obeyed.

The trip had not been easy. The scale of the ocean amazed him; he couldn't imagine how a man could travel on top of so much water. When he first saw the boat he was afraid. It was tiny and crowded, so low in the water that each ripple splashed close to the deck. He remembered stories he had heard of storms and great waves that smashed boats. He didn't want to go on board, but it was what his father wanted. He trusted his father's love.

Salman sat on the deck, his knees touching his chin as there was little room to stretch his legs. Soon they were floating over the ocean. Time lost all meaning.


The men and women who came with the dawn were young and assured. They wore smart uniforms, and when they shouted orders the crew obeyed. The boat was towed to an island. Someone shouted 'Christmas Island'.

Salman had been told the country they were going to was an island, but he had not expected to be able to see from one side of the island to the other. How could there be cities on such a small island as this?

There was little time to think about such things. They were hurried off their boat and taken to a compound surrounded by a tall fence topped with razor wire. They called it Detention. To Salman it was prison. He was afraid; perhaps his parents had been mistaken, perhaps this country was no different from his own.

In the months that followed he became bored, restless, frustrated and angry.


Twenty days after his 18th birthday, he was told he was free, put on a plane and brought to Melbourne.

He began the search for work. He should feel happy to be free, but instead he felt lost and alone. People tried to help, but they talked at him, sometimes shouting louder and louder, impatient that they could not make themselves understood. They spoke in languages Salman had never heard. They spoke fast.

He knew his parents were not to blame, that they had put all they had into his future. They had wanted him to live, not be dragged into an army to be killed as his older brothers had. He felt he was letting them down.

He tried to write to tell them he was happy, but it was hard to reassure them when he could not see a clear future. He didn't tell them he could not understand what people were saying, that he couldn't ask the questions he needed to ask. They had suffered enough pain. He lied to them.

Salman was thrown against the side of the tram as it jerked to a stop.

Finally, three days ago he had found work. He had been told that today was the day of the week everyone would be paid. Soon he could begin to look for a better place to live. At the moment he was one of many crowded into a small flat. Two other young men shared his room; they were from another country.

He recognised the Showgrounds: he must get off at the next stop. As he made his way towards the doors, his eyes momentarily met those of a girl wearing a turquoise headscarf. She demurely lowered her eyes, but not before Salman detected the hint of a smile in them.

His eyes rested on her face; the eyes his had met were deep brown, fringed with dark lashes, the longest he had ever seen. She had burnished her lips with gloss to emphasise their natural curve. The girl's conversation with her friend was in English sprinkled with some Arabic phrases he could understand.

He almost missed his stop. He jumped off carrying the memory of the girl with him as he crossed the road and walked through the vast carpark. He was happy as he entered the supermarket where he worked.

A man he had worked with the day before waved to him and shouted 'Hi.' He acknowledged the greeting; it felt good. His manager was from Africa, a man Salman's family would look down on. He spoke Arabic, not quite as Salman's family spoke it, but Salman was glad to be able to understand what he was being told to do.

The work day had begun. At the end of it he'd have some money. He had taken another step towards freedom.

Margaret McDonald headshotMargaret McDonald is a Melbourne based writer. She was involved on the editorial group and as a contributor to And the Dance Goes On — an anthology of women's spirituality produced by the Council for Australian Catholic Women , and has written articles on Saint Mary MacKillop for Together, the monthly publication of the Diocese of Wagga Wagga. 

Topic tags: Margaret McDonald, refugees



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Existing comments

Bidding goodbye to loved ones, a perilous journey, detention, confusion, anger. Then a new life - Melbourne trams are looking better and better for this young man. But Melbourne weather - what can you say!!
Pam | 23 April 2013

Thank you Margaret, for putting a human face on people demonised by Howard and his ilk.
Frank | 24 April 2013


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