As a result of bloody civil and tribal wars which have devastated a number of African countries for decades, a steady flow of refugees from some of those countries have been resettled in Australia in recent years. Isatu Jalloh is one of them.
Isatu was born in Sierra Leone, a small and impoverished country in West Africa, torn apart by civil war for many years. In 1996, when she was 16 years old, her town was raided by a gang of rebel thugs. They swept into town early in the morning when most people were still asleep, banged on doors, forced everyone out into the street and proceeded to loot their homes. Some people managed to flee but many of those who didn’t, or who resisted, were killed. One rebel thrust a gun into Isatu’s hands and told her to shoot someone. When she refused and dropped the gun retribution was swift. Her right arm and left leg were hacked off with a machete and she was left lying on the road amongst the carnage. As soon as the attackers departed some young men from the town commandeered a truck and picked up as many of the injured as they could and drove them across the nearby border to the U.N.-run hospital in neighbouring Guinea. So Isatu’s life was saved. Other family members were not so fortunate: her parents had escaped to Guinea during that raid and a few weeks later, having been told it was now safe, returned to their home to try to salvage anything the rebels may have left. Tragically, while they were there, there was another raid and they were both killed. Isatu’s brother-in-law was also killed and his three children were kidnapped. One of her brothers, Yayah, was kidnapped too but later managed to elude his captors and escape to Guinea.
Isatu spent almost a year in hospital and then lived with an uncle and his family in Guinea. Eventually she and Yayah were able to apply for refugee status through the UNHCR and were accepted to come to Australia in 2002.
I first met Isatu three months after she had arrived, through my work as a volunteer with Mercy Refugee Services, an organisation administering a Government subsidised program which tries to help refugees in the enormous task of settling in Australia. Coping with their own personal tragedies together with all the challenges of adapting to life in a new culture speaking a foreign language is a formidable task for anyone – let alone someone who is severely disabled.
When I first met her, she and her brother were living in a small flat above a shop, reached by 24 steps from the backyard. This access problem coupled with the heavy, ungainly, primitive and painful prosthesis on her leg made it almost impossible for Isatu to leave the house. She was isolated from the English classes she desperately wanted to attend and form any engagement with the Australian world in which she now lived.
Our first aim was to get her mobile, so she could achieve what she wanted most, to learn English. We made many visits to the Amputee Clinic at Westmead Hospital and to the wonderful prosthetists who made her new limbs – with Isatu’s beautiful smile and indomitable spirit winning hearts wherever we went. She was amazed at the comparative lightness and life-like appearance of the leg, especially the natural looking foot with its ‘fingers’ that she delightedly showed me.
Learning to use these limbs entailed sessions with a physiotherapist to practise walking, and with an occupational therapist to learn to use the prosthetic arm with its metal ‘claw’, in conjunction with her good arm, to perform all sorts of manual tasks. Isatu amazed us with the ease with which she mastered every task the therapist set her: chopping vegetables, making a cup of coffee, opening an envelope, hanging washing on a line, undoing and doing up a zipper and buttons – imagine it!
With mobility restored to her it was time for the bird to fly. We agreed that learning to catch a train was the next skill to tackle so that Isatu could get to her English class. She’d never been on a train before, so this was a big adventure. Catching a train is something a local, able bodied person such as myself takes for granted – but for a severely disabled person who has to manipulate a concession card and money to buy a ticket, find the correct platform and timetable, negotiate steps, avoid being knocked over by people alighting from the train, board the train bearing in mind the wide gap between train and platform, and know where to get out when you don’t read English, it’s a Herculean task. On our first expedition we visited Campsie and the location of the English classes. In my naivety I imagined we’d practice the trip a few times and then Isatu could try it alone with me following from a distance to help if necessary. But no, she rang me a couple of days later to say she’d been to Campsie. ‘How?’ I asked. ‘I go train’, she replied. ‘Who with?’ I asked. ‘I go self’, she said, ‘I go English now’.
All that happened four years ago. In the interim she has studied English and made incredible progress. This was brought home to me recently when we went to see a movie together, ‘King Kong’, Isatu’s choice. I was terrified and kept covering my eyes. She patted my arm whispering, ‘Don’t worry Jan, it’s only a movie’. It’s also brought home when she discusses her latest TAFE course with me and laments the complexities of spreadsheets or whatever else she’s studying in her Information Technology or Business Course. Her priority now is to get a job so she can be independent of Social Welfare.
She now lives by herself and manages all the normal household tasks. She never complains but I know she misses Africa and the love and support of her parents and her large extended family. Two years ago, as soon as she could legally do so, Isatu became an Australian citizen. I don’t know who was more proud as she received her certificate – she or I. Despite all the trauma Isatu has suffered, her optimism and courage sustain her in her adopted land and in her desire to be a good Australian citizen. She is one of the most inspiring people I am privileged to know and I am lucky to have her as a friend.