The Person Who Gave Me The Most Was A Boy Who'd Lost Everything
The first time I met Farid he was packing groceries for families who’d lost everything in Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires.
There’s an irony to that -- he still wanted to give even though he had lost everything he knew of home in Afghanistan.
I was working in regional Local Government supporting the same families Farid was volunteering to help. This young boy, just 16 at the time, had left his belongings and his home on the other side of the world. And he’d lost his parents seven years earlier.
Many Hazara people of Afghanistan, persecuted by the Taliban, lost everything.
It was the school holidays. Farid and his best friend, who were both living in nearby community detention, came to the warehouse every day. It intrigued me why two teenage boys weren’t instead playing video games like other kids their age on holidays.
I coordinated my lunch breaks so I could sit with them and hear their stories. Theirs were incredible tales -- the torture and death of family and friends from their minority group at the hands of the Taliban; travelling through countries with smugglers; avoiding detection and potential imprisonment by authorities; risking their lives again at sea on old fishing boats from Jakarta, designed for 20 people but crowded with more than 100.
I spent every lunch time I could with them trying to understand what they’d been through, their loneliness and displacement.
My manager suggested I take the boys to visit an Australian animal rescue centre in my nearby home town. At first I was keen but then after more thought I put the idea out of my head. I was raised as a conservative, right wing, fundamental Christian, and although I had grown up to challenge many of these beliefs, their influence was something that I often needed to deliberately contradict in my mind. These boys had many labels: Middle Eastern foreigners, asylum seekers, queue jumpers, Muslims and teenagers. I had teenage daughters in my home.
Every morning I would arrive at work at about 10am. Farid would bound up the stairs with a smile as bright as a rising sun. And every afternoon I would watch a lonely boy taken to the detention transport bus and back to his residence in time for curfew.
I watched this daily routine over two sets of school holidays then threw off my conservative common sense and agreed to take Farid to my home town to see the Australian animals.
On the 30km drive, Farid shared his world of sadness and confusion. He said: “I don’t understand when I see other kids with their parents and their families, why I don’t have a family any more, I didn’t do anything wrong?”
At Christmas in 2014, of the six boys living in supervised detention together, Farid was the only one with nowhere to go on the summer break. He would be left alone in the house with only a community worker for company. He came to our end-of-year work Christmas party and followed me around like a shadow.
Five days before Christmas, on the night of my birthday I realised Farid lodged himself into my heart. Friends and family had joined us for a birthday celebration on our veranda. I looked across to see Farid talking in his broken English to an Irish friend with a smile that made him almost glow.
Here was my birthday present -- a son.
But common sense took her revenge. Farid had another six months in detention. Driving him back every evening to detention felt like I was returning him to prison.
On weekends we would request permission from the Government, Farid’s legal guardian, for him to leave detention and stay with us. Integrating a teenage middle eastern boy with four strong western daughters was also not simple. Farid was warm and gregarious, but liked to speak his mind. It was certainly a big adjustment for the girls.
Farid would come to me crying that the girls didn’t like him. I could only encourage him to trust that in time they would accept him -- if he could just be patient.
I was scared when Farid came to live with us in November 2014, scared that I would never be able to live up to the expectations of a boy who had lost his Hazara mother in Afghanistan at the age of nine and had since held her as a saint. Here was someone who I now cared deeply about but who was suffering the loss of his parents, his family, his home, his culture and dealing with wartime memories.
Our connection through humour got us through. He defused most of our tense moments with his larrikin nature and a laugh.
Now he is one of the most precious people in my life. I have told him if Australian mothers knew how lovely he was, they would all want an Hazara boy for a son. He’s an awesome cook and every couple of months he’ll declare: “Mum, this house needs a clean,” then promptly get the vacuum cleaner.
I’ve watched him laugh off racist comments about bringing jihad to Australia. He volunteers at Amnesty International and twice a year at Lorde Somers youth camps. I am so proud of the kind and intelligent man he has become.
My daughter’s laugh about him being their little brother and he teases them about having the best hair in the family. The love and respect that I’ve seen grow between him and his sisters is a testament to the depth of their acceptance. They embraced this challenge without a road map and without a manual. For a mother, this is the dearest thing.
Farid might not be my natural child. What he and I have is different to what I have with my daughters. But it’s just as special – because we chose each other.
My new son is now 23 and a man with so much to offer. He is living proof that people who have lost everything still have a lot to give.
*Jen Dentoom and her son Farid Asghari are strong advocates for the new 40 Hour Famine Backpack Challenge that is turning its attention to the refugee crisis. From 17- 19 August, participants will live out of backpacks for 40 hours to understand a little of the experience of refugees. Globally, more than 68 million people have been displaced. More than half are children. To help young refugees go to 40hourfamine.com.au