“In 1980, I left El Salvador because of the war. If I didn’t, I would have been killed. The military and paramilitaries systematically raided homes, so most people killed were civilians — mainly women and children. Men were more likely to escape with a rifle to defend themselves, as my husband did. Women stayed behind to defend their children. I had ten children, between one and fifteen years old, to protect on my own.
This is how the majority who are left behind in wars are women and children, unarmed and defenceless. I ran with my children into the mountains. We walked for miles without food, but we did escape the military. My mother and sister stayed behind with her 11 children. I later found out that they were all killed by a U.S. bomb.
In 1989, after nine years in Costa Rica, my children and I came to Australia, because it was one of the countries accepting refugees. It was very difficult to get here because of all the documentation that was required. I had to make personal disclosures about why I left my country, which is very hard when the reason is political persecution.
When we arrived in Australia, we didn’t speak any English. The first two years were very stressful. We couldn’t communicate about our primary needs. We were isolated and still felt the trauma of the war. The children became depressed, and I had to see a psychologist to deal with the trauma.
The government helped us with the social security payments, but that was all. The rest of the support we received was from the church and other charities.
Because I don’t speak English, I’ve felt isolated from the rest of the community. Not being able to openly express yourself with a clear voice, with your own intelligence, is oppressive. On many occasions, I have felt attacked and threatened without the ability to defend myself. The first three years were especially hard. Getting onto a bus, for example, I was humiliated by the driver for not being quick enough. It was really because I’m a migrant and a woman. For three years, I avoided taking the bus with that driver. I feared being treated like this wherever I went.
Refugees these days are getting more squeezed than before, and their situation is economically very desperate. The restrictions imposed on them are more stringent: they can’t get welfare, English training or jobs. With rents and consumer needs getting more expensive, they can’t make ends meet.
Governments must ensure equal treatment for refugees. Social services must be opened to them, and just wages and welfare entitlements must be guaranteed. To get this, there has to be massive popular organising to demand rights for refugees. Worldwide, the solution is to stop situations that make people refugees. Governments represent the rich, but they must be made to provide economic, social and political support for everyone, instead of creating wars that displace and persecute people.”