Elly McDonald


With love, to Ahmo (25 September 2014)

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Ahmo's picture of Elly and Toby 2002

Ahmo’s drawing of Elly, Toby and Joshua (2002)

From early 2002 till end 2004 I worked with newly-arrived non-English speaking refugees, as a volunteer home tutor teaching English. The first family I worked with had arrived in Australia two weeks earlier. They’d spent two years in refugee hostels in Denmark waiting to learn which nation would accept them. They’d hoped for America, where the mother of the family had family, in Detroit. They got Australia.

This family were Bosnian Muslims, from the part of Bosnia claimed by Serb nationalists as Republika Srpska. The family were living in Sarajevo, where the father was a police officer (traffic), when civil war broke out. The father’s father and his brother were murdered, as were his cousins in Srebrenica. The father, who’d returned to try to protect his mother, fled for his life. For three months he lived in forests, sometimes surviving on bats and beetles. Then he joined a Bosnian Muslim militia. I don’t know a huge deal about his war, except that he was terrified at what might be happening in Sarajevo, to his wife and child, under siege, and that he was a sniper. I know he was a sniper because I saw him do his thing at the Geelong Agricultural Show, at a sideshow attraction, shooting clown heads for a fluffy toy prize. He shot fast and deadly and left us – myself, his son, the sideshow operator – in shock.

“Show off,” said the sideshow operator. She winked at his kid and raised her eyebrows at me.

This family saw themselves as ‘secular’ Muslims. They were Muslim the way most Australians of European heritage are ‘Christian’. The father drank and partied. Lovely man, beautiful boy: but not religious. The wife did not eat pork, and I think she prayed, but hers was a quiet faith. The boys (the younger born after the war) were brought up in a wholly secular way.

The week I met this family, the older boy turned 10. I turned 41 that week. This boy and I became very close. In fact, eventually I came to recognise that my relationship with this boy, and his family, was filling my unmet emotional needs, that the family no longer ‘needed’ me, and that it would be better for this family for me to pull back.

It’s hard to explain this to a 12 year old. It bothers me, a lot, that he felt abandoned. My sister the primary teacher assures me it’s likely he barely remembers me, but I feel guilt. Over the years I’ve thought of him very often, googled to try to find out how he’s doing, without finding much; have hoped he’s safe and thriving.

I do know where his family now live, in suburban Melbourne, and I’ve had Facebook updates from his dad.

This week especially I’m thinking of Ahmo, who is now 22. I want him to know I love him and have always loved him and I care about his future.

It’s time for me to pick up the phone.

Author: Elly McDonald

Worked in the Australian rock music industry as a journalist and published widely as a poet before moving to London and spending the better part of a decade in advertising agencies. Returned to Australia and tried teaching, primarily teaching English to non-English speaking, newly-arrived refugees but also briefly as a high school classroom teacher. Has travelled Western Europe, North Africa, Russia, Northern India, East Asia, coastal USA, some Pacific Islands, and Australia.

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