Murray Kamara was born in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, in 1989, two years before the coup which would overthrow the Joseph Momoh government and plunge the country into one of Africa’s bloodiest civil wars. The 11-year conflict would leave over 50,000 dead and displace approximately one million people.
One of the most terrifying practices during this time was the drafting of child soldiers. Thousands were abducted, threatened and sometimes forced to kill their own families as part of the recruitment process.
We had one of the most traumatic civil wars in African history and there was no way we could stay in Sierra Leone. From 1999-2006, I was in a camp.
By 2000, Murray’s family, along with almost half a million Sierra Leoneans had sought refuge in Guinea and Libera. But under the weight of such intense migration, these countries struggled to respond. The situation worsened in 2001, when Guinea’s President, Lansana Conte, publicly attacked refugees and incited violence against the Sierra Leoneans and Liberians. For weeks, refugees lived in fear as police, soldiers, and civilian militia broke into their homes, looted their belongings, raped, beat and arrested them.
Through this all, Murray survived.
In 2008, the U.N. High Commission for Refugees informed Sierra Leonean refugees that their refugee status was being withdrawn. Murray was 18 years old and had lived his entire life during war. After a gruelling application process, he was granted an Offshore Humanitarian Visa to Australia, where he arrived in Lismore, a city of strangers.
“During the war, my family separated. I was with my aunt and uncle, so not a lot of my family members are here. I was lucky enough to get in touch with some family members but I’m not in contact with most of them.”
Murray began to attend the local TAFE and work at a Macadamia farm to earn money. There, he soon encountered a new set of challenges.
This guy employed us in his Macadamia farm, paying us $10 an hour. It was below minimum wage, but his friend told me, ‘You guys are lucky, you’re the first black people he’s ever paid’.
“My cousin and I were the only non-English-speaking people in my TAFE class. This woman introduced us to a lot of other people, all of whom were Australian, and she asked us, ‘Are you guys from detention?’ Everyone in the class laughed.
"People in that part of the country, they’re not exposed to other cultures. They’re not exposed to other races.”
Murray ended up leaving Lismore and moving to Sydney’s Bankstown, home to a large Sierra Leonean community, and studied a Bachelor of Social Work at the University of Sydney.
“During my social work degree, we had a lot of debates about people coming to Australia by boat. Being a person that arrived here on-shore as a refugee, I could tell that most people didn’t have that understanding of refugees and asylum seekers.
"One of the first issues we discussed was the Tampa crisis and how people were kept in detention, and I remembered the TAFE woman who asked me if I was from detention. So I tried to imagine why young people would be laughing when asked about detention.
"For the past five years, I’ve worked with people from detention on a daily basis. I know how horrible their lives are. It’s not a laughing matter, it’s very, very serious.”
Today, Murray is studying a Juris Doctor at the University of Sydney, and continues to work as a Community Advocate after a placement at the Asylum Seekers Centre proved eye-opening.
I interviewed a politician from Georgia. Most of the time, people think about asylum seekers, they think of queue jumpers. Seeing a member of parliament escaping persecution was a turning point for me. I thought, ‘I was a refugee, now I’m interviewing a person who is affluent and seeking refuge in another country.’ There’s more to the dynamic and politics of asylum seekers. The stories are not always told and it’s not as simple as we think it is.
“It gives me a lot of hope to listen to other people’s stories and their resilience. It’s very hard to come to this country and their journeys are quite different from mine. My story is shocking but when I listen to people from Afghanistan and other countries, it gives me hope that people have the courage to flee persecution one way or the other.”
Although Murray speaks with optimism when discussing his experiences, he admits to struggling with the ongoing vilification of African communities that has continued to emerge in Australian media and politics over the last 18 months.
“A few years ago, with the rise of Barack Obama, we thought things were changing. Things are not changing, they’re getting worse. It’s about race, it’s about religion. It’s worrying."
If you are a young, black person, there are places you don’t have the freedom to visit because you’re scared of what others will say. You don’t have the freedom you should in a country that’s meant to uphold freedom and human rights and justice.
For Murray, it’s important we take the time to talk to each other and form our own opinions, rather than accepting the ones proffered by the media and politicians.
“I think we listen to our politicians too much. Refugees are humans. They can contribute to society. Get to know them and understand their culture, understand their way of life. We are all human so let’s forget about race or colour or religion.
"What’s the Australian value? I think the Australian value is to help each other out. Sometimes we forget that.”
Murray Kamara will share his insights and experiences during the Outside the Square discussion, Stories and Racism in Australia: What if you're not white? on 22 November 2017 at the Old Rum Store, Chippendale. Book tickets here.
Article by Theodora Chan (BA, MECO 2010; BA, HONS 2012), Co-Founder and Content Director at Pen and Pixel.