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A tougher language test would punish women like my mother, who have lost everything

Monday 26 June 2017

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My mother studied Australian history and politics for months to pass the citizenship test. It was painful, to say the least.

It’s easy for an English-speaking, white politician to legislate a language test for Australian citizenship that even someone born in Australia would find hard to pass. The biggest impact would be on migrants or refugees – my mother, for example. Khal Bibi Hekmat never had the opportunity to go to school in Afghanistan. I can’t imagine how she would fare on this new language test.

My mother applied for her Australian citizenship three years ago. She had arrived here as a refugee from Afghanistan in 2009, along with my siblings. (I came nine years earlier by boat and could sponsor them). She applied as soon as the four-year waiting period was up, at the same time as my three siblings. They passed the citizenship but my mother, whose English was almost nonexistent despite attending many English classes, failed. Her age – she is 57 – together with never having had the opportunity to go to school in Afghanistan, the trauma of losing so many loved ones in the war, and a son (my younger brother) who drowned on the way to Europe, had affected her ability to learn. 

For months, my mother studied Australian history and politics. It was painful, to say the least. She recited lines she could not understand or forgot them the next minute, but she was determined to achieve her ultimate goal – acquiring the Australian citizenship. She hit the books as if it was the only thing that mattered in her life. My sister, Latifa, would quiz her. “Who is the Australian prime minister?” she’d ask. “Tony Bot Bot” (Tony Abbott was the prime minister at the time). We would laugh. “Bot bot” in Hazaragi means a person who bluffs. A fair description, we thought. For Captain Cook, she would say “Captain’s Cake”. For the Australian capital she would say “Canabira,” the words tumbling out of her mouth, heavy as stones.

Five times she would come back from the citizenship tests with a big sigh and red eyes. Her pride did not allow her to admit it was a language problem: “Oh, I did not know how to use a computer” or “My eyes got blurry because of the screen,” she would say. Seeing her so frustrated, I said, “Mum, maybe wait a few more years until your English gets better.” “No, no,” she replied adamantly. “I want to pass the test.”

I watched her sitting at home all day with a citizenship booklet on her lap, her eyes red and swollen from staring at what seemed so much like gibberish dancing on the page. But she never gave up, running her fingers across those lines, asking questions, and if we were busy with our own projects, scolding us: “What’s the use of you if you won’t help me.” Her sheer persistence or good luck paid off – she passed the test in September 2014.

I hadn’t seen my mother so happy for a long time. She was so proud and cheerful and had a big grin on her face as she waved her test paper in the air like a child. My siblings’ citizenship ceremony happened three months after passing their test. After my sister received her certificate, my mother grabbed it and posed for a photo with the master of the ceremonies who looked bemused. “My mother is waiting for her own ceremony, she hopes this will bring her good luck,” Latifa explained. 

I never understood why she wanted to become an Australian citizen so badly. One day I asked. “I want to vote, I want to to be able to visit my sister and my brother,” she said. She wanted to be part of the Australian community, to have an identity of her own, to be free, to travel wherever she wanted to and see her family dispersed around the world. As a woman growing up in Afghanistan, she did not have an identity of her own; she was defined in relation to others – as a daughter or wife or mother, ruled by the code of namus practised in many rural communities, over which men fought for centuries in the name of honour. Living in Australia with a passport, she would be her own woman.

Although she never went to school, she is a remarkable and liberal woman who believes deeply in the value of education for both girls and boys. Back in the 1980s in Afghanistan, she had fought against my father and the whole village who opposed even my education because they thought we would become communists or “infidels” if we went to school. When her daughters were banned going to school in Afghanistan under the Taliban, she smuggled them out of the country; they became refugees in Pakistan, and that was hard – but they could go to school. My sister Latifa wanted to go to university the day she got off the plane in Sydney in 2009 (I asked her to be patient and wait until her jet lag was gone). She graduated from the University of New South Wales with good marks and is now a youth worker, assisting other young people to reach their dreams.

My mother’s English may not be great, but she is a very sociable person who has made many friends here. Sometimes on the street she greets passersby, waving at them as she used to do in Afghanistan. Although they smile, it makes me cringe. I remind her we’re not in Afghanistan, it’s not common here for people to greet strangers. She shrugs me off and says, “Saying hello is a good thing.” One day I was walking with her when a barrel-chested man with a stern expression walked past holding a big bucket of flowers in his hand. “Beautiful flowers,” she said. He looked up in surprise and said “Thank you” with a smile.

The struggle with the citizenship test is only one part of my mother’s story. The immigration department delayed her citizenship ceremony for three years for no apparent reason. During this time, we tried everything, writing and calling the department many times and even appealing through our MP but there was no response.

While the world was outraged about Donald Trump’s travel ban on Muslims from certain countries, my mother was trapped here, unable to leave the country without an Australian passport to visit her chronically sick sister in Europe or her sick brother in Afghanistan.

Last month my mother’s beloved brother died in Afghanistan. All this occurred around the same time that prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and immigration minister Peter Dutton were announcing plans to further tighten the rules around Australian citizenship, which would make it even harder for people like my mother. She still hadn’t had her ceremony. Without the ability to travel on an Australian passport, she could not be with him in his final months or even attend his funeral. I’ll never forget how heart-wrenching it was to see my mother crying inconsolably for her brother, wiping her tears with the hem of her chador.

Although I have covered other people’s struggle with Australian citizenship and the department’s incompetency, I did not imagine my mother going through this painful journey. Her situation is not unique – it is far more systematic. In defiance of the federal court ruling by Justice Bromberg for Dutton’s “unreasonable” delay of two Hazara refugee citizenship applications, the minister has put about 10,000 applications on hold. My mother received the news of her citizenship after she complained to the department that she would take a legal step. She received her citizenship on 6 June this year. She was excited, but not seeing her brother before he died will haunt her for the rest of her life.

And now this compassion-challenged man seeks new powers – powers that would place him as minister above the court and the law. The new rules would make people wait even longer for citizenship, whatever their family circumstances, and expect them to pass an even more difficult language test than the one my mother struggled through.

I can’t imagine how others would fare under the tougher citizenship test. The group who would be hit hardest under this legislation is women – those who lost everything, have not gone to schools and survived horrific violence to call Australia their homes. For over 10 years I have worked with migrants and refugees, supporting their settlements. Many would struggle to pass the test and be excluded from the Australian community.

I agree that people should learn English – my siblings and I have done so of our own accord. But there are many people like my mother who will never master it completely. We don’t judge their level of proficiency in English, because they are our mothers and fathers, and for that we love them. Should we punish them? Is this the new Australian value the minister is dictating?


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