When refugees are presented in the media throughout Australia, the adopted angles are those that present these people as hindrances and national security issues to this country. Seldom is the view taken that these people faced incredible hardship in their native countries to flee persecution, prosecution and death, with nothing more than the clothes on their back and a few dollars in their pockets.
Maria Fernandez* is a refugee from the tiny Central American country known as El Salvador and was born in neighbouring Nicaragua towards the end of the El Salvadorian civil war. Her parents were part of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), an alliance of five left-wing guerrilla groups fighting the insidiously corrupt government.
“El Salvador is a very small country, it’s about the size of the Gold Coast and it was invaded by the Spanish prior to it becoming independent, and after its independence it’s had a very torrid history,” Maria said.
“There were lots of coups and dictators and lots of revolutions,” she said.
“The most recent one was 1979 and that civil war went for twelve years so both my parents were a part of the Guerrilla.”
As a result of the conflict in her mother’s native El Salvador, Maria’s mother was moved to Nicaragua, almost losing Maria before she was born.
“My mum was pregnant and the war was still happening so they moved her from where she was to a camp, it was a refugee camp in El Salvador,” Maria said.
“When she was 8 months pregnant, she was trying to cross the border with fake papers, there were soldiers chasing her and as a result, she almost miscarried,” she said.
“When she got the safe house in Nicaragua, there were people there which kept her safe and shortly after, I was born in a hospital there.”
Shortly after Maria was born; her mother took her back to El Salvador in an attempt to find her father who had stayed behind.
“When I was seven months old, Mum went back to El Salvador to try and find my Dad,” she said.
“Later that year the war ended and the peace treaties were signed,” Maria said.
Despite the peace treaties being signed, the destruction, war and the bloodshed were far from over. In effect, the nightmare for Maria and her family was only beginning.
Maria’s voice dimmed as she recalled what was known as ‘the list’.
“My parents started hearing things that were happening to people that they’ve known, people that they’ve worked with,” she said.
“People started disappearing, people were being killed in strange circumstances,” Maria said.
“My Dad was a doctor and one of his close associates told him that there was a list.
“This was a list of people that were going to be “eliminated”.
“The people who wrote these lists are called death squads and so they were responsible throughout the war for really high profile disappearances and murders.”
Maria’s father was reticent to believe the death squad lists existed, insisting that the signing of the peace treaties had ended the war and the country could look forward to the end of the bloodshed and begin to embrace prosperity. His friend had warned him in a chilling final exchange between the two men.
“Both my parents had lots of information (both were previously employed by the Government) and because my Dad quit, and therefore my Mum, they were on this list,” Maria said.
“So Dad had heard of this list and he was like no, you’re crazy and his friend, the one who told him, was like, when I die you will know that I was telling the truth,” she said.
Maria peers down towards her feet and says:
“A week later he was shot at a public payphone, in a drive by shooting.”
Maria’s father was forced to act or he risked losing his life and those of his family. The threats were real. The list was real. The family had to escape.
“Following this shooting my Dad realised the list was legitimate and we fled to Costa Rica,” she said.
“We lived there for six months, I was 5,” Maria said.
Maria’s Dad had organised Australian humanitarian visas for Maria’s family in Costa Rica, as he knew if he took his family back to El Salvador for an extended period of time, they would be killed. They snuck back into El Salvador, packed their belongings and flew to Australia.
“We came to Australia in 1997, I was six and it was December 12 1997,” said Maria.
“I will never forget that date,” she said.
As Maria’s family began to settle in Australia, the young women battled for years with her identity and as a result suffered severe anxiety disorders as she grew into her formative teenage years. Being of a different race with an accent and olive skin, Maria was treated differently by people within her school and in society in general. Maria suffered, as did her mother and father.
Only knowing of war and conflict for the first six years of her life, Maria had heard the stories of war from El Salvador many times until one day, she just couldn’t take it anymore.
“I grew up hearing all the stories with very little censorship so I suppose I was desensitised to it,” said Maria.
“Then I hit 17 and that’s when it got to me,” she said.
“All of a sudden I couldn’t hear the stories anymore. It was too much and I couldn’t listen anymore. Even though I’d heard them a thousand times, I just couldn’t hear the stories anymore.
“I have had really bad anxiety in the past as a result of what happened in El Salvador during my childhood.
“Up until I came here, I couldn’t hear airplanes, I would cry and scream and run away.
“My Mum says that my personality changed when we came here, so before that I was really outgoing and happy and then when we moved here I was really quiet and painfully shy and I wouldn’t speak to anyone.”
Maria believes her parents also suffered the severe effects of mental illness as a result of the civil war they lived so close to in El Salvador.
“My Dad definitely had PTSD”, said Maria.
“Definitely when we first came Mum was very depressed, but she won’t tell you that,” she said.
“She’ll tell you it’s because she missed her family and that she wasn’t depressed because depression doesn’t exist in El Salvador and mental illness isn’t a thing because they don’t have time for that.
“But yeah I think she definitely struggled and she didn’t want to come.”
As Maria moved out of high school and into tertiary education, her condition became worse.
“I developed this terrible anxiety and throughout university it got worse and worse,” she said.
So when I finished university I couldn’t figure out what it was, I just thought I was really stressed out and it took me ages to really reconcile everything and work out why,” said Maria.
“Only in the last couple of years have I sort of reconciled where I’m from and for most of my life I felt Salvadorian.
“I never felt Australian, I’m not from here, I don’t feel like this is where I’m from, and so this is how I felt for a long time.
“But then we went back a couple of times and it was so weird, because I felt like I wasn’t from there either.”
“I wouldn’t have thought that the change of coming here had affected me.
“But looking back I used to cry every day at school and it was because I was different.
“I went to a very Australian school, it was a catholic school, it was me and one Asian girl and one Tongan and they were my two best friends, it was kind of like we were the three brown ones and everyone else was white.”
These days Maria embraces her heritage and says it helps her to understand her identity.
“These days I’m a lot more open about where I’m from but I still get the occasional, ‘Oh, you’re a refugee?’ ‘Yeah I am.’ ‘Oh but you’re alright,” Maria said.
“I get that kind of reaction and it used to make me really angry, whereas now, I able to really own it,” she said.
*Names have been changed to protect identity