It’s been a longish flight already, and we’re about to start our descent into Dubai to refuel when the woman in the seat in front of me turns around and asks me to hold her hands. Quick, quick, she says, put your hand here. I instinctively obey, and place one hand on top of hers, and the other below. There are slivers of paper on her hands between ours – they’re intricately patterned henna tattoos, and she needs help getting them to stick! She moves around, plonks herself next to me, and tells me she’s on her way to Somalia to see her mother. Born there herself, Sehara has lived and worked for the last 27 years in East London, whilst bringing up four kids. But this lovely, friendly, hard working woman is on Donald Trump’s Muslim ban hit list, should she ever try to visit her brother in the States right now.
She waves and blows kisses at me as she disappears off to her connecting flight in Dubai, having first solicited a promise to call her when I’m back in the UK too. I watch her bright orange headscarf disappear into the crowd.
When I reboard the flight to Melbourne, there is a new couple in the seats next to me. Almost before I’ve settled down, they offer me a fun size Mars bar. I refrain from my normal instinct to tell them how we’ve been working with Mars to source Fairtrade cocoa in the UK & Germany. I’m off duty now. Instead I ask if they’re going on holiday, or returning home.
“We’re immigrating,” they reply. Having fled from Kirkuk in Iraq over a year ago they’ve been living in Jordan, waiting for the processing of their application. They already have a sister and an aunt living just outside Melbourne. Life had just become impossible, they told me. Australia has opened its doors and offered the refuge they seek, and they’re immensely grateful, despite never having even set foot there before. A new home. A whole new life.
As I wait in the passport queue in Melbourne, I think how easy it is for me to travel – I haven’t even had to apply for visas with the exception of the Australian free e-visitor permit. Yet I am an alien, just like my fellow travellers. They, unlike me, all come from one of the seven countries on Donald Trump’s newly signed #Muslimban executive order, which rightly triggered massive protests in cities across the UK and around the world the night before I left. How precious is our freedom of movement, when families are so dispersed – whether it is my sister in New Zealand or Sehara’s mum in Somalia – and when so many people’s lives are threatened.
I’m here now in a city that has seen huge migration flows in its history – from settlers to convicts to the 1850s Goldrush prospectors or the 1880s economic boom to modern migration. Today as you walk through the Central Business Distict lanes filled with food stalls & cafés with such a rich fusion of food flavours, and street art, and buskers with their didgeridoos, electric guitars, percussion and loop pedals, it is a swirling melting pot of European, Asian and Aboriginal culture, and all the richer and more vibrant for it. In stark contrast to the hatred and fear being perpetrated by the far-right, there is a massive banner on the Anglican Cathedral of St Paul that reads “Let’s fully welcome refugees.”
Outside the State Library here at 5.30pm, there’s going to be a demo to protest Trump’s ban on Muslims and refugees. I’m planning to be there too.