After escaping war, my son drowned at Kiama Blowhole

Mahboba Rawi: "Many Australians don't understand. This country means the world to refugees. We don't take it for granted." Picture: TAMARA DEAN

Mahboba Rawi: "Many Australians don't understand. This country means the world to refugees. We don't take it for granted." Picture: TAMARA DEAN

In 1992 my son, Arash, drowned with six other family and friends at the Kiama Blowhole. He was just six.

When I came from Afghanistan to this peaceful country, I never thought I'd see bodies laying together again, like I saw in Afghanistan and later Pakistan. But it happened to me here and it was like a slap. No pain compares to it. I knew then how mothers feel when they lose their child, and that changed me forever. It put me on a new course in my life.

In 1998, after learning English and then doing community welfare courses, I started a charity, Mahboba's Promise. I did so because after the death of my son, I made a promise to dedicate my life to suffering women and children in the country where I grew up, a country that has had so much invasion and war. I now have schools, refuges and health clinics in Afghanistan's capital, Kabul. Women and children are given help because of the sponsorships and donations Mahboba's Promise collects. It has become bigger than my life.

I was born in Afghanistan in 1965, and grew up in Kabul, one of nine children. I had 40 cousins close by. Life was fantastic. But in 1979 we all became victims of the Russian invasion. This changed my country. At 13 I went into the front line of protests. I organised a rally against the Russians, and had about 3000 girls following me.

I wasn't a political person before that, just a young girl, but sometimes situations come where people need to stand up, no matter whether they are brave or not. At this time many people, even young girls, were put in prison, and I was given electric shocks and hit by soldiers.

I was coming home one day when my uncle told me to get into his car. He'd been sent by my father. He told me the Russians had come to my home looking for me, but my father told them I had died. That still makes me cry. You are alive, but in your country you are dead. They searched the house and dug the ground, and I couldn't go home again.

I hid in my uncle's cellar for 20 days, then we paid people smugglers to get me and many others out of Afghanistan.

It took us 10 days and nights to get to Pakistan. I was a 13-year-old girl, hungry, thirsty, scared, with no idea where we were going, or if I'd ever be back in Afghanistan or see my family again. Around me were little children, pregnant women, old people. It felt like I didn't know who I was any more, what I was doing, where I was going. But one thing I did know, I wanted to survive. I was going to fight.

I spent two years in a refugee camp in Pakistan. There were no schools; I saw people suffering, and I saw the corruption in many aid agencies. Then I made contact with one of my brothers, who sold his business, everything, to get us into India. We had nothing, but some Afghan people helped us and we got transport to New Delhi and another brother was able to send us some money so we could get a tiny home.

We registered with the United Nations as refugees and once a month they gave us some money. That's how we survived. Then, in 1984, when I was still a teenager, I married an Afghan man who was a permanent resident in Australia. I didn't know anything about Australia. All I knew was that it was at the end of the world and that I was going there to live.

I remember the day I arrived in Australia. It was the most beautiful day, like a wedding day. It felt like my home, even though I spoke no English.

Many Australians don't understand that this country means the world to refugees. This country, maybe we love Australia more and appreciate it more, because we don't take it for granted. Even now, when I have a shower with warm and cold water, when I drive, when I can buy fresh food, I say, "Thank you, God." And there is no fighting here, no bombs.

My life in Australia changed forever when my son died, and I later split from my husband. But I also had two other beautiful children to care for. My daughter, Tamana, is now 25, with a wonderful son, Ali, 3. My son, Nawid, who is 18, is studying law and international relations and helping boys in the Muslim community become good leaders. I am so proud of them both.

After many years, I was able to find my brothers, sisters and my mother in Afghanistan. They came to Australia, too. My mother loves planting flowers. Like me, she loves this country. It is our life. Where would we go without Australia?

I get back to Kabul often to work and spend time with the people we help, including a young orphan boy, Abdul. We tried to help Abdul marry his neighbour, Fatemeh, for love, despite her father's objections.

Every time I return I see the amazing Afghan spirit. They just keep going. It's in their blood. They are used to suffering and moving on, but they need help. That is what I promise to do.

Mahboba's efforts to facilitate the wedding of Abdul and Fatemeh features in the documentary film Love Marriage in Kabul, which premieres at the Sydney Film Festival on Saturday, June 14. For more information on Mahboba's Promise, visit mahbobaspromise.org.

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