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Centre for Stories

Rafeif Ismail

A young woman who came to Australia as a refugee at the age of eight decides to be a doctor, a lawyer and a politician.

Food, Faith and Love in WA is a nine-piece video series that has captured the stories of an incredible and diverse group of West Australians surrounding three of the most basic human values. This series was created for the Office of Multicultural Interests for Harmony Week 2017.A young woman who came to Australia as a refugee at the age of eight decides to be a doctor, a lawyer and a politician. Rafeif talks about her family’s belief in her and the new country they call home.

Copyright © 2016 Rafeif Ismail

This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by the Storyteller. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.

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I guess, for me, food, faith and love are so intertwined. I asked my mum this weekend what she thinks when she cooks and she’s like, “Every time I cook I think about you and your brother sitting down and eating and growing, and in every intention and everything I do is just, I fill it with love because I want that love to translate to you.” She learnt that from her mother.

I remember my grandmother, in the mornings, during Ramadan, waking up early in the morning to make it, and to make the kisra, and to have that ready so that people like for their futoor, or when they break their fast, they have that ready. I remember it every day in the morning,  just every day in Sudan, my grandma would be up like, before the sunrise, she would be sitting there, she would be making that food, she would be telling us stories, she would be like, “Go collect some eggs.” I was afraid of the chickens that we kept.

So, for me, those memories do keep me warm, and that’s my comfort food because I grew up surrounded by love, grew up surrounded by this love and this unshakable joy, and even though our country was in the middle of war, even though our family was besieged, basically, I never felt afraid, because in my family, I knew undeniably that I was loved, that my brothers were loved, that we were safe.

Even though our house was raided, even though the government would take away my father, my uncles, my mum has to go and get them, or my aunts, people disappeared, people we knew died, still there was so much love. Not just in our family but in our street, in our neighbourhood. Sudanese people, I think, are built on love. That’s why in Arabic we’re called ‘the kind people’ because our country’s just built on people doing every day kindness just for each other, helping each other out, and I’m just so happy that this is the culture where I come from, a culture where you’re taught to love unconditionally, and the thing is, for me, faith was a bit hard, because when I was younger, I didn’t question anything but, at the same time my teachers, when they tell you these small stories to start you into religion, they tell you the scary parts first, they tell you the sins and the apocalypse and the end of days. They teach you to fear God before they teach you to love Him, to love them. So, for a long time I felt that I only held onto my faith because I was afraid of what would happen without it. But then when I started learning, exploring it myself, reading, listening, talking to people, I saw that I could find God in the everyday, in just these small moments where I could find my faith and I could find myself through my faith, and that that’s a part of my identity that I never have to let go, but I get to decide from my terms, it’s not on anyone else’s terms, how I see God, how I communicate with God, how I express my faith, and that was one of the most empowering moments for me because I could finally be myself and know that there’s no right or wrong way to, like, be a person of faith.

I went from fear to faith, and that’s what I try to do, because the world is a scary place. For me, I exist as a woman, as a Muslim, as black, I’m a minority within a minority within a minority, I should be constantly terrified but I’m not anymore, because I try and see every opportunity, I try every one of my failures as a new possibility and I try and see every one of them as an opportunity to learn. I think that’s why I try and see God in small places, in places where before I would’ve ignored it, I wanna see the magical in the mundane if that makes sense. I try and look at the trees and think, “Well, if they’re still here despite everything, why can’t I be here?”

I see my brothers laughing, and I think, “How much of a miracle is that, that through everything, we’re surviving, we’re laughing.” I see young children in playgrounds, and just like, the fact that we’ve gone through everything we’ve gone through, we’ve created families, we’ve created communities, and that sense of love is still here, even across an ocean and years, my people are still here. We’re still surviving, we’re still thriving, and we will be. That gives me hope, that encourages my faith.

About a year since our arrival, my dad brought home some balloons, and I was incredibly, incredibly homesick. Like, those first few years, I had the same dream since the moment we left Sudan, I always had the same dream, just going to sleep and walking, and walking, and turning a corner, and finding that familiar street to my grandparents’ house and then knocking on the door and opening the door and seeing my entire family there. That dream just kept recurring,  it was there every night when I was there in Egypt, it was there when we arrived, and I had really, really missed my family, so what I did was–I had this little pink Quran with me all the time that I read from, it was tiny, it was hot pink, it was the bomb, I took it to everywhere, and I read it at school, even though the other kids were giving me really strange looks, I was like, “No, this is what keeps me grounded.” But that day, I woke up and did my own little prayer, and Dad brought home these balloons for us to play with, and I started writing notes. Every time I wrote a note, I would blow up a balloon, tie it in a note, and those notes were letters to my aunt, so she could read them to my whole family. I would release the balloon, and I had every conviction that those balloons, those red balloons, were gonna go all the way to Sudan with my letters, and my family were gonna get them, and that got me through that first year. Every day, that balloon, that letter, sending it to my aunt, and when I talked to her on the phone, I’m just like, “Did you get my notes?” and she’s like, “Yes, I got your notes,” and I’m just like, “I knew it, I knew you’d get my notes.” I think my parents might have low-key told her like what’s going on, just play along with it.

I remember those first few months, we didn’t have Sudanese food, and I didn’t understand Australia, Australian food, I did not like any of this. I was like, “I want my grandmother’s cooking, I want things to make sense.” Then, one day, my mum made (speaking foreign language) which is like, with minced meat and okra and everything, and I just, I ate it and I was just in tears because it was like this is home, and home isn’t us, like we were all sitting together because my family, even now, dinner time is family time. It doesn’t matter what we’re doing, we’re together. If my dad or my mum are away, they’re Skyping for dinner. So, just all of us sitting there together, I realised this was home, and home isn’t a place, it’s the people you’re around. I could feel connected to everyone I had left, and everyone that was there, cause we had people we’d invited over, our neighbours and everything, and that was really beautiful.

I never thought of myself as just an individual, I’ve always thought of myself as part of a family, part of a community, part of a country. I could never think of just doing something for myself, I have to, it has to be for other people as well, so, I guess, that’s where I find my faith, that’s where I find my love.

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