Friendship with an Hazara Afghan Australian family changed my life

I’m up late, and it’s not because of the two research articles I’ve been working on madly for weeks and which I’d hoped to finish today but haven’t. Every day for weeks, actually, I’ve thought I might be about to finish these papers on lactation-related breast inflammation, but then I realise something else needs to be included. This makes it hard to get to my email.

Tonight, I’m up late writing because Kabul has fallen. Yet one more city somewhere on this planet conquered in a paroxysm of violence. You’d think if I wanted to stay up writing about an international crisis there would be plenty to choose from right now. (It was only last week that the IPCC declared Code Red for Humanity, for example.)

But I’m up late writing about the tragic fall of Kabul because of friendship. For the past twenty years an Hazara Afghan Australian family has been amongst the people I’ve felt closest to in my life. The fall of Kabul rends my heart because I know what this means to that family, and to those they love.

When my son turned eight, he decided to invite the new boy in his class to his birthday party at the BMX park. This wasn’t easy, because Arif’s mother didn’t speak English. (Actually, it turned out that she was his aunt, who happened to be standing nearest him and who grabbed him and fled with her husband when the Taliban came, guns firing.) I went through consent processes with the principal, located their tidy rented home near the school, and knocked on the door. She and Arif's uncle served us tea spiced with cardoman under the mango tree out the back. From that day on, we were friends.

I could tell you twenty years of stories. From this family, my children learnt about another culture and another religion. They learnt how to reflect upon their own casual privilege. I could tell you about the many evenings of teasing and laughter over aromatic Afghan cuisine as we sat on the floor around a cloth crammed with national dishes, maybe a Qormah and Qabeli palaw and home-made yoghurt and salads and flatbread - I can’t name all the dishes but I can tell you they tasted delicious. From this family, my children learnt about being a generous host. I could tell you how close I became to one of Arif’s sisters, once his parents and siblings were able to come to Australia, about her courageous determination to succeed with education though she was starting out so late. About his parents’ dignity. About the joy of the very first conversation in English, just a few years ago, between his mother and me, just the two of us. (I’m sorry, my English is not very good, she would often say through the kids over the years. Your English is a lot better than my Dari, I’d protest.) I could tell lots of stories about Arif and my son and how they were mates together, how I worried about Tom’s brash loudness alongside Arif’s quiet thoughtfulness. About Arif’s lively younger brother, and the many jokes the boys played on us when translating. I could tell you about how Arif’s mother asked me, tears falling, for any photographs I might have of her little boy growing into a man safe here in Australia during ten years she was apart from him.

Tonight I watched Arif on the ABC’s The Drum, now an experienced human rights lawyer calling for the Australian Government to exercise compassion in a situation where we, the international community, have so profoundly failed the Afghan people. I can’t tell you how proud I am of him. I am also incredibly proud of his sisters and brother (and making a new life in Australia has been hardest of all for his sisters), but this is tonight’s story, when I watched Arif make his case with such competence and integrity, every word values-driven.

I have loved this family. My life and my children’s lives would be so much poorer if they had not been our friends. I wonder whether you might click here, and consider signing this open letter from the Afghan Australian community which Arif forwarded to me afterwards, asking for support? If you are interested to read more, click here for an article in The Sydney Morning Herald that Arif wrote with his friend Zaki about what Australians might do to help their people.

And then when I wake up tomorrow, I’ll get back to finishing my articles on inflammation of the lactating breast – surely I'll finish them soon. I'll keep working on them. It's what I know how to do, my own way of trying to offer something to help make a better world. That's all any of us can do – try to find our own unique way, however small in this moment, of giving something back to this astonishing, terrifying, breathtakingly beautiful world. How grateful I am to have shared my life with my Afghan Australian friends along the way.

Dr Pamela Douglas

17 August 2021

(Yes, I confess it's 2.30 am)