The Big Issue : Edition 484
THE BIG ISSUE 15 – 28 MAY 2015 27 ABOVE LEFT: SAHAR’S FAMILY FLED WAR IN AFGHANISTAN. SHE WAS EIGHT WHEN SHE ARRIVED IN AUSTRALIA. HER HOBBY IS PLAYING WITH HER SISTER, SOHAR, WHO WAS BORN IN AUSTRALIA. BELOW LEFT: MARIAM ABOVE: LAY SAY MARIAM ISSA SITS at the base of a ghost gum. The shutter clicks twice and she swats at her hijab. “You’ve sat me on an ant nest.” In 1991, Issa fled civil war in Somalia then lived as a refugee in Kenya for seven years before coming to Australia. Now she’s battling ants in a suburban park. A few weeks earlier I’d visited Issa, an active voice in Australia’s refugee community, and asked nervously if I could photograph her for a series called Freedom. The series is about refugees and asylum seekers who find a safe place where they can enjoy simple pleasures, hobbies and pastimes. I was worried she’d think my theme was trite, that the topic would make light of a serious issue. “But this is the point,” she said. “This is why people risk their lives to come. Life should be as simple as your child being able to play soccer in the street without being shot...as beautiful as being able to go for a walk... I volunteer to be your first subject.” Issa wanted to be shown enjoying nature. But now, with the ants, I wonder if she has second thoughts. “Please get up,” I say. “It’s okay. They’re not biting, just crawling.” She tightens her headscarf. “Get the shot – it’s important.” A few weeks later a Burmese refugee, Lay Say Pe, volunteers to be photographed. Her hobby is playing with her children in a park. Later, while reviewing the images, I’m struck by her expression: she’s smiling like there’s nothing else. When she tells me her story it makes sense. She and her partner had a daughter, Smile, in a refugee camp on the Thai–Burmese border. The camp was attacked frequently and many were killed. So at night they slept cocooned around Smile to protect her. “My hobby is watching my children play safely,” she says. “That is enough.” Later I meet Harry Fixler, a 91-year-old Czech Jew whose family was killed at Auschwitz during WWII. He was also interned, and forced to cart bodies to mass graves. He cries as he talks about seeing the worst people do to one another, but also recalls moments of compassion: a German commandant risking his life by allowing Jewish prisoners to observe a sacred holiday; a soldier secretly collecting crusts to give to starving prisoners. Remembering such acts of kindness overwhelms Fixler, because they show hope in a hopeless time. After the war Fixler migrated to Adelaide where he married Helga (another Holocaust survivor), had two children, worked as a tailor and retired to Melbourne. He taps the table once with his palm – a full stop. “That’s everything. You’re up to date.” We discuss a hobby I could photograph; his eyes brighten. He loves fishing, gardening, reading and cooking. We settle on a picture of him reading as Helga tends her bonsai trees (see the Contents page). Afterwards he disappears into the kitchen, then his head appears around the doorframe. “Do you like chilli?” I nod, but I’m wary. I hear the fridge slam and he’s back with a teaspoon of something red and threatening. “Our homemade chilli relish,” he announces, passing me the spoon. He’s beaming with anticipation. It’s delicious. A perfect balance of sweet, sour and heat. “Just a minute,” he’s off to the kitchen again, this time returning with a bag of red chillies and his relish recipe, handwritten. The next day he leaves a flustered voicemail message. I wonder what’s happened that could rattle a man who has endured so much. “I’m so glad you called back. You haven’t made the relish, have you?” “The relish? No. I’m making it on the weekend.” “Oh, I’m so relieved,” the phone blows static as he takes a breath. “The thing is,” he begins to chuckle, “I told you to use too many chillies! Oh, I’m so relieved.” by Andy Drewitt » Freedom is at the Immigration Museum, Melbourne, until 8 June.