Refugees who want to be like ‘any other Australian’ build boats and community

By Cameron Best – ABC News

As a Christian woman living in northern Iraq, life wasn’t easy for Shahad Bahnan.

Her home town of Bakhdida, just outside Mosul, was about to be overrun by ISIS militants intent on establishing their caliphate.

Their historic Assyrian town of Qaraqosh, was the largest Christian city in Iraq.  Its name was changed to Bakhdida and it was laid to waste when the jihadists took control in 2014 and life for the 50,000 residents changed forever.

Shahad Bahnan (left) and Rasen Haddad are making a new life in Geelong after fleeing Iraq.

“This is the simplest thing – I couldn’t wear whatever I want, I couldn’t show my hair, I’d have to wear a scarf just to be able to go to university,” Ms Bahnan said.

“We always had had to hide ourselves – hide our personalities.”

Bahnan and her husband, Rasen Haddad, fled to Jordan before Bakhdida came under siege, their families are now split across a number of countries.  “In one year my brother now is in Kurdistan, I am in Australia, my younger brother is in Lebanon, and I have my parents in the United States – they joined my brother there and my sister is on boats to Germany,” Mr Haddad said.

“We are now a global family but we couldn’t prepare for it and we miss each other.”

Once a cabinetmaker in Iraq, Sordin Habash is using his talents in boat building.

Both talented artists and highly qualified, Ms Bahnan and Mr Haddad found their way to Australia as part of the intake of 12,000 additional refugees from the Syrian conflict, hoping to make a new life for themselves in Australia.

“I want to be like just as any Australian person; I don’t want to be just a refugee,” Ms Bahnan said.

“I want to be just Shahad, living here and giving something.

“I feel like I have many things to do.”

Refugees have a lot to teach each other

Ms Bahnan and Mr Haddad are among a group of Iraqi and Iranian refugees now living in the Victorian city of Geelong, wanting to contribute to their new community.

A number of the refugees have joined with survivors of church-related child sexual abuse to learn how to build a wooden coastal rowing boat.

A number of the refugees have joined with survivors of church-related child sexual abuse to learn how to build a wooden coastal rowing boat.

It’s part of a program by a group called ‘Corio Bay Communities – Skiff Rowers & Raiders’ intent to not just equip these people with language and work-custom skills relevant to their new home, but to demonstrate the Geelong community that they are determined to contribute.

“We’re not building a boat, we’re building a community,” said Mr Habash.

“We are not building a boat for the sake of building a boat. We are here building bridges between peoples,” Mukhles Habash of Geelong’s Iraqi Syriac community said.

The language barrier has done little to dampen the enthusiasm in this cross-culture exercise of people from Middle Eastern deserts, building Scottish St Ayles Skiff boats under the guidance of Australians from the Royal Geelong Yacht Club.

“It’s a real sharing of cultures across what, in another place and time, were barriers between them for hundreds of years,” organiser Peter Doyle said.

A whiteboard list with translations for common boat building words. 

“We’ve got women in this group who are physicists, a veterinarian, mathematics teachers and tradesmen.  There’s an enormous depth of skill and capability here actively searching for ways to bring their skills to the advantageof their new home.”

“These people come from the cradle of civilisation – the Euphrates and the Tigris valley.  They have a lot to teach us and a lot to teach each other across old borders between Iraq and Iran that were traditionally very disputed.  The same applies for others in our Geelong community who are challenged in other ways: they too will have experience to exchange and lessons to take away. ”

“Here they are getting on and building boats together”.

Once launched, the boats will be used in festivals, competitions and for recreation, providing a permanent reminder of community diversity. Peter said, “Our goal is to put the richness of Geelong’s forty-plus ethnic communities on show on Corio Bay, right at the foot of the city where the world can see their achievements, participate with them and be proud of them.”

The group plans to build 10 skiffs with other migrant communities and social support groups with the support of Diversitat, Deakin University and the Royal Geelong Yacht Club.  With building the first two boats now well underway and funding from the Victorian Department of Multicultural Affairs through Geelong MLA, Christine Couzens, Peter’s focus is now on organizing the next build team, raising $8,000 for the third boat and securing a water-side location from which they can be easily used every day.