When my family was reunited in Australia, I had to learn to be a dad to a son I’d never met | Sadam Abdusalam

My wife and I were apart so long we forgot how to be a couple – and for weeks my three-year-old boy called me uncle

In December 2020, I finally got what I fought so hard for: my family back.

I was over the moon when I was reunited with my wife Nadila and son Lutfi after being forced apart for three and a half years. I could finally hold my baby boy in my arms – every father’s dream. I was able to go on dates with my love; watch TV and eat dinner together as a family. They may sound like simple things, but not for us. Like many Uyghurs, we had been brutally separated, unable to do even the most ordinary things together.

As you may know, Nadila and Lutfi were under house arrest in Xinjiang, China from 2017 to 2020, banned from coming to live with me in Australia. Many Uyghur people who have fled China as political refugees are still missing loved ones who are prevented from leaving Xinjiang. Some of them are separated from their kids, their wife, their husband, or their parents. I feel sorry for them, and at the same time I feel grateful that I could finally take my wife and son away from that place.

But starting again as a family hasn’t always been easy.

The first couple of months of being together were the hardest part. I would call myself husband, but the reality was that Nadila and I were separated for so long we forgot how to be a normal couple. We were like strangers to each other, trying to hide our pain and weaknesses. It took a couple of months to feel like we were husband and wife; that we didn’t have to be shy around each other and could talk about anything.

But the hardest part was reconnecting with Lutfi and learning how to be his dad.

I was not there when he was born and did not meet him until we were united on that day at Sydney airport in December 2020. He was already three and a half. For the first couple of weeks he called me shu shu in Chinese, which means uncle. I don’t blame him – I was a total stranger to him.

At the start, I couldn’t understand what he wanted. Nadila acted as translator between us for the first couple of months. Slowly I began to understand his needs. But I know this will be a lifelong lesson.

Sadam Abdusalam and family
“It wasn’t easy for me either, living alone for so long and suddenly becoming part of a family of four.” Photograph: Supplied

For Lutfi, Australia was a completely new place to him with a new language and a completely different environment. He couldn’t speak any English, and only knew a few Chinese words. But my son is one of the happiest, friendliest kids, with a lot of energy. I was worried that when he went to preschool he would be bullied or wouldn’t make any friends. I guess I forgot he is a kid, and kids haven’t yet learned how to discriminate against each other over their skin colour, or language, or religion. The other kids at school welcome him with open arms. He now speaks English and has settled in.

Joining the family is Lutfi’s little brother Latif. He is 10 months old and a cute troublemaker. Days pass so quickly with two kids. It’s already been two years since we were reunited as a family. But some things remain very hard.

Nadila misses her parents a lot. She is an only child, and leaving her parents behind – not knowing if she will ever be able to see them again, or if they are safe – is hard for her. If her parents don’t send her a message each day, she gets worried. She is still affected by the trauma she experienced in Xinjiang. Seeing police officers in uniform or hearing police sirens makes her feel scared. I am still trying to explain to her: she is in Australia now, safe and sound.

It wasn’t easy for me either, living alone for so long and suddenly becoming part of a family of four. I wasn’t working much before Nadila came to Australia and didn’t have any savings, so I suddenly needed to work extra hard to take care of my family’s needs.

Sometimes I don’t feel like working at all, but every time I come home and see my kids smiling and hear Lutfi screaming “Daddy home!” all the pain goes away. So I keep pushing myself. For my kids and my wife.

Sadam Abdusalam with family in Sydney
Sometimes I don’t feel like working at all, but every time I come home and see my kids smiling and hear Lutfi screaming “Daddy home!” makes all the pain goes away. Photograph: Supplied

Sometimes Nadila and I talk about how lonely we feel. We miss our friends in Xinjiang, our relatives. It’s not easy being the first generation to live abroad, but we know we are making that sacrifice for our kids. As a parent, it doesn’t matter what we have been through – it matters that our kids have a future.

Like all Australians, we want our kids to grow up happy, safe and free. Nadila and I believe everything will get better as long as our love stays strong.

  • Sadam Abdusalam is the author of a new book, Freeing my Family, published by Allen & Unwin and co-authored by Michael Bradley

Sadam Abdusalam

The GuardianTramp

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