I used to distance myself from my refugee identity. Now I own it | Danijel Malbasa

Each day I switch on the news, I see newer versions of past me, and I feel their shadow is my shadow too

I used to wish I could advocate for refugees anonymously, from the shadows – like an advocate version of Sia. With my back to the audience. A mask concealing my face.

I didn’t want to disclose something profoundly personal to a room full of blank-faced strangers who could never truly understand the experience. And carry all the stereotypical baggage that comes with declaring oneself a refugee.

You’re never just a student, a law graduate, a lawyer. The word refugee stalks you through life prefixed to any other subsequent identity you develop in post-refugee life.

A “refugee” felt like a prior identity, a political status once ascribed to me that suggested vulnerability, inferiority, alienness, pity – everything I wanted to remove from my idea of myself.

Growing up in Adelaide and Melbourne, I was too immersed in Anglo-Australia to focus on anything but the need to look and act like those around me. And, even though I felt like an interloper, I worked hard to scrub out my strong Slavic accent, develop an Aussie drawl, take out the letter “j” from my name, even better anglicise it to “Dan”, get out of the ESL class, finish high school, move out, go to university, get a degree, get a job, take holidays and post selfies finished perfectly with a filtered smile belying the past.

To distance myself from my homeland – the antebellum Yugoslavia, a once peaceful and prosperous nation, but now synonymous with war crimes, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and deprivation.

Throw away my refugee hand-me-downs, slip into new clothes and accessories, morph into new habits and methods of behaviour that hewed to the various setting of my new life.

Danijel Malbasa in his first week in Australia, April 1999.
Danijel Malbasa in his first week in Australia, April 1999. Photograph: Danijel Malbasa

I was too insulated in safety to recognise how far I had come from my prior state of that traumatised 12-year-old boy lifted out of a refugee camp who landed on Australian soil gaunt and malnourished, wearing a Unicef donated tracksuit three times my size sporting a jagged fringe, the work of my mother’s kitchen shears.

By this stage, I had lost more family members to war than there were years in my life.

Better to call myself an immigrant, I decided.

To regard myself as belonging to a category of migratory humanity that is for the most part uncontroversial, less needy, less “frightening” than a refugee. The kind who came to Australia because they wanted to better themselves and their families, not because they had to in order to escape violence, war and persecution. Better to shed my old skin, to give up my former identity, every aspect that made me, me. To ensconce myself in my invisibility, in the safety of my new-found citizenship.

I didn’t want to be seen as some talisman. An exhibit. A token.

Invited to share a survivor’s story for two minutes to “warm up” the audience then take a seat at the back vacating the stage for the main event dedicated to someone who made a film about us, an author who wrote a book about us, an opportunistic politician who got elected on the back of us, or founder of some advocacy group purporting to advocate for us as though we are a homogenous block, but where refugees are never given the platform to narrate their own stories.

One could be forgiven for thinking we are some amorphous beings without agency, stripped off personality, colour, gender and character.

But anonymity would be anathema to the concept of “humanising” refugees. How can you humanise something unseen?

So, recently I’ve decided to come out of the refugee closet. To “own” my refugee identity.

Because no amount of assimilation will make that identity dissipate. With maturity, I realised I don’t want it to. And each day I switch on the news, I see newer versions of past me land onto these shores, and I feel their shadow is my shadow too. This identity – it sticks with you.

We belong to an age-old chain of survivors from Virgin Mary and Joseph to Irish famine, the second world war exodus, Holocaust survivors, Indochinese, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Koreans, Afghans, Iraqis, Darfuris, Rwandans, Syrians, Rohingya, Somalis, Central Americans, climate refugees, to others not mentioned here and those yet to come (unfortunately) whose stories we carry within us and will pass on to our progeny.

We will tune our voices, polish our stories – because this space is dull and stifling without us.

As refugees, we have been here for a long time, hidden in plain sight: in our workplaces, schools, factories, boardrooms, hospitals, unions, universities, sporting fields (indeed there are refugees representing Australia at this year’s World Cup) and even in unemployment queues, because human fallibility and mediocrity is not a privilege reserved only for the native born – you just never noticed or cared enough to notice us.

In the words of Vietnamese-American novelist and former refugee Viet Thanh Nguyen: “To become a refugee is to know, inevitably, that the past is not only marked by the passage of time, but by loss – the loss of loved ones, of countries, of identities, of selves. We want to give voice to all those losses that would otherwise remain unheard except by us and those near and dear to us.”

• Danijel Malbasa is a Melbourne based industrial relations lawyer, a refugee of the Yugoslav wars and a refugees’ rights advocate

• Comments on this article have been premoderated to ensure the discussion is on the topics that have been written about.


Danijel Malbasa

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Refugee children want a future in Australia. So why are they excluded from universities? | Saba Vasefi
Lack of visas mean even those who finish high school and win scholarships can find themselves barred from further studies

Saba Vasefi

22, Apr, 2022 @8:00 PM

Article image
A new cage: Coming to Australia from Nauru has failed to free refugee women | Saba Vasefi
The containment on Nauru was a form of state violence but the daily hostility continues in Australia

Saba Vasefi

31, May, 2019 @1:37 AM

Article image
Refugee children's story turned into a heartwarming claymation video
Ali and the Long Journey to Australia draws on the experiences of 13 classmates from seven countries

Steph Harmon

19, Jun, 2018 @5:20 AM

Article image
The UK’s response to refugee children in 1945 and now | Letters
Letters: Prof Tony Kushner says Britain was also reluctant to take refugees in 1945 while Tony Watts says xenophobia was cynically exploited by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to win the Brexit referendum. Plus Robin Fletcher and Bridget Elton on boarding schools’ efforts to help refugee children


28, Jan, 2020 @6:43 PM

Article image
If you want to support refugee women on Nauru, let us speak | Mina Taherkhani
I escaped a violent husband and father in Iran to come to a country which claims to uphold women’s rights. All I have experienced is terror and panic

Mina Taherkhani

07, Nov, 2016 @12:17 AM

Article image
Australia's offshore refugee processing is no inspiration. It deserves condemnation | Johanne Schmidt-Nielsen
I was denied access to Nauru because of my criticism of Australia’s offshore detention centres there. The secrecy around the camps calls for international attention

Johanne Schmidt-Nielsen

06, Sep, 2016 @8:30 PM

Article image
The waiting game of refugee claims: the policy doesn't reflect community values | Ai-lene Chan
The philanthropic strength of the community fills the gap that the government has created and offers the safety net to those at their lowest ebb

Ai-Lene Chan

14, Mar, 2017 @7:00 PM

Article image
Ambiguity over refugee deal is tough for people who have little resilience left | Judith Reen
Will families be separated? Can children recover? The deal to resettle refugees from Manus Island and Nauru in the US raises more questions than it answers

Judith Reen

15, Nov, 2016 @2:43 AM

Article image
If Australia had its current refugee policy in 1939, we wouldn't be alive today | Alyx Gorman and Rick Kuhn
My grandfather’s family came to Australia to survive, make a life, get work and make significant contributions to society. The refugees on Manus and Nauru want to do the same

Alyx Gorman and Rick Kuhn

19, Sep, 2016 @1:23 AM

Article image
'Kill me, I can't cope': Refugee women on Nauru robbed of their dignity speak out | Saba Vasefi
Women who have escaped oppression in Iran face similar intimidation in Australia, often by advocates claiming to help them

Saba Vasefi

18, Sep, 2018 @2:54 AM