Monday, June 1, 2015

Speech: My life as a refugee - Yarrie Bangurra

Yarrie Bangurra, Special Youth Representative for Australia for UNHR

For those of you who were unable to attend our Mother’s Day Lunch in May, I want to share with you Ms Yarrie Bangura’s deeply moving keynote address including the poem she wrote and recited on the day.  
Australia for UNHCR Special Youth Representative, Yarrie Bangurra

Yarrie reflects on her happy childhood in Sierra Leone before her country descended into civil war in the early 1990s. She tells of her family’s flight from violence, of life in a refugee camp and of her feelings on being resettled in Australia. It is rare to be given an insight into the refugee experience as seen through the eyes of a child. I know that you will find her words as uplifting and inspiring as we in the audience did that day.   
Some of you will have seen Yarrie perform in the hit stage play The Baulkham Hills Ladies Troupe which has enjoyed hugely successful runs in Sydney and London.  

We are delighted that she has agreed to join Australia for UNHCR as a Special Youth Representative.

Please watch Yarrie's inspirational speech, or read the transcript in the text below.

Keynote speech
Ms Yarrie Bangura, Australia for UNHCR
Mother’s Day Lunch, Friday 8 May, The Ivy Ballroom, Sydney

I was a happy bright young girl who lived in a bungalow house with my family. We had a big lounge where we sat as a family to relax and talk, sharing individual opinions in discussion. I had friends and we played together when it was sunset, and outdoor African games that every child my age loved to play but when the night began to settle in we finished our games and went back to our homes. I was blessed with beautiful clothes; my father bought several things when he travelled on ship around the world.  I loved the beautiful nature of life; beautiful trees, breeze and natural foods were all I knew. Life was meaningful and I had huge hopes to study in order to fulfil my dreams; we were living a comfortable life, there was food and my mother even sponsored some children to go to school. Everybody was living in happiness, peace and love; it was fun and everything was wonderful.

Yarrie Bangura with her father and mother at Australia for UNHCR's Mother's Day Lunch.

Then, one day when I was very young, everything changed in a deadly and bloody day that recorded the beginning of war in my country, Sierra Leone. People were killing each other; the young and old ran for safety; children crying because their parents were nowhere to be found or they witnessed their parents being murdered by rebels; hands and legs chopped off in brutal acts with victims left in a pool of their own blood; houses burnt down; and gun shots everywhere. It was a terrible experience to see young teenagers recruited without choice as rebel soldiers; young, innocent children who had their bright futures stolen from them and turned in to horrible pawns of war. 

Streets became empty and quiet like a graveyard, animals silent in the street, heavy smoke from gunfire and houses on fire. The only loud voices were the rebels and their loud music rejoicing in their actions. It was an inhuman and barbaric experience. My mother and father knew our family must escape.

After a long journey, we reached Kalya refugee camp, and it was a moment I remember with joy because UNHCR supplied the refugees with tents, groundnut oil, maize and a blanket. The only thing we saw otherwise were refugees and bushes in the unfriendly environment. There were no buildings, only the tents, and people at the camp were sad because of their experience escaping the war. There seemed to be little hope for the future, we all had to do our best to survive; and not long after arriving I was ill, shivering and my teeth chattering. Even though we were cared for in the camp, my family thought it best for me to live with my extended family in the city of Fulcarea, a long walk from the camp. My auntie Kadiatu, accommodated me despite the fact that her home was already full of people, and she helped me to recover.

A captive audience listens to Yarrie Bangura speak at the Australia for UNHCR Mother's Day Lunch.

When I was 10 years old, our family was told they would be moving to Australia. I was told Australia was the last continent on earth.

I remember the day when we were told our documents to travel to Australia were ready and that we could leave. It was such a happy moment. My hope for the future was restored and I kept day-dreaming of a new life with peace and a great future. The process took a long period of time but on the 9th of November 2004 when the time came to fly to Australia, I thought it was a trick and too good to believe. When my mum started to get her African dress ready and cooked a very delicious meal and I ate so much that my clothes could not fit me, then I knew it was real.

"At Sydney airport, my eyes were everywhere and I said to myself that I am in heaven because it was so beautiful and breathtaking, and so multicultural! I had no idea there would be so many people from around the world!"

My extended family came with us to the airport, and as we were about to pass through security to the boarding area, they were in tears which made me emotional too. When we boarded the flight to Australia I waved goodbye to sorrow, sadness and poverty. The journey took three days to arrive in Sydney. At Sydney airport, my eyes were everywhere and I said to myself that I am in heaven because it was so beautiful and breathtaking, and so multicultural! I had no idea there would be so many people from around the world! I was full of joy.  I had no doubt that I was the happiest person on earth. That night I could not tell if I was dreaming or if it was all real.

Dressing up for my new school and seeing my future begin in the greatest country is also one of the best feelings I have ever had. Putting on my new school uniform increased my self-esteem and it was a joyful moment to feel like a student. My parents, especially my mother, told me and my brothers and sisters that if we studied hard we would be successful in life. I started wondering and questioning myself, ‘how can I be educated, when I do not know how to read or write?’ In Australia before I enrolled at school, I watched television programs all the time, particularly the ‘Oprah Winfrey Show’. I was amazed and surprised when I saw a coloured woman on TV, talking to people of different race and nationality and watching her inspired me; if she can make it, maybe I can too!

In Africa, school students were sometimes beaten as punishment. So school was a fearful and scary place for me at first. I didn’t know what to expect but I soon realised my new school was so different and wonderful even though it was challenging learning for the very first time to read and write. My teachers were excellent; they were so patient with me and totally committed to help me achieve my best. I loved it and it really changed my life. I began to read and write; my understanding of the world opened up. On the way to school, I would see people of different nationalities going to work which was amazing and then I started picturing myself in their shoes. I have always prayed to God and each time I pray, it gives me faith and strength that nothing is impossible. 

A year after I arrived in Australia, I started having nightmares. At night I could not sleep and my eyes stayed open. I would cover my head with my blanket and my body would be shaking. I could not bear to be alone at home during the day or night. I would start to see something like a quick flash and all of a sudden someone calling my name. Every night when I closed my eyes I was in a battle field, people being killed, rebels chasing me, gunshot everywhere, and I tried to save the people in my dreams. I wondered why my past was haunting me; I was so confused, why was I experiencing this when I knew I had left everything back home. I was depressed and it was getting out of hand. 

"Writing was like counselling and healed me of my experience, and when I began writing all the nightmares vanished; it was unbelievable how I could put my experience and feelings into words."

I told my mum and she said to me that if it continued we would seek help. So I started writing; I decided to go to a bookshop to buy a notebook, and I would describe what was happening to me because I could not tell people what I was going through but with my writing I could express my feelings, my thoughts and my story. Writing was like counselling and healed me of my experience, and when I began writing all the nightmares vanished; it was unbelievable how I could put my experience and feelings into words. It was like a divine gift from God.  Some days I still write lyrics or poetry and short stories.

I feel so lucky and favoured by God to be in Australia because I have a golden opportunity to study human rights and international development at university. The reason why I chose to study this is to one day assist those back home who are victims of war and to contribute to African development. UNHCR has been one of my biggest inspirations to study this course because their support of refugees in Africa has been tremendous. When I saw their supplies at the refugee camp for the first time it was really a relief to know that someone cared about us. Here I am today, speaking at an Australia for UNHCR event, supporting their mission and objectives. This is a dream come true and a moment I will never, ever forget.

UNHCR helped me to be the person I am today, and all I ask is that you help them. With your support, UNHCR will continue to help so many other people, just like me.
Thank you, and happy Mother’s Day for Sunday, Mum.

Speech and poem reproduced with the kind permission of the author.

Yarrie Bangurra being presented with the title of Special Youth Representative to Australia for UNHCR by Chairman John W.H. Denton AO