WHEN Hassan Nur has to write down his nationality, nobody recognises it. The community worker is from Ogaden, a dagger-shaped eastern province of Ethiopia subject not only to civil war but a total media and aid blockade.
”I write Ogaden and then in brackets, Ethiopia,” said Mr Nur, who came to Australia as a refugee 20 years ago. ”I will not say I am Ethiopian.”
There are about 300 Ogaden families in Melbourne, and 800 across Australia, yet Marta Kreiser, who co-ordinates the Refugee Action Program for the Brotherhood of St Laurence, had never heard of them until she began working with them a year ago.
”Even the multicultural associations didn’t know about them,” Ms Kreiser said. Aid agencies Medecins Sans Frontieres, the Red Cross and Save the Children were expelled from the region in 2007 after filing reports on famine. Journalists from The New York Times who travelled to Ogaden in June 2007 were arrested, their records seized, and deported.
Tomorrow, the Brotherhood of St Laurence hosts Australia’s first conference on the Ogaden province in an attempt to highlight the plight of Australia’s most invisible refugee community. They share the same needs of many migrants from the Horn of Africa, who have seen war and famine and terror up close. But to this must be added the tyranny of silence, as they are all cut off from communicating with anyone back in Ogaden, and the only news is passed on by other refugees.
In a meeting room in the Ecumenical Migration Centre in Fitzroy, two Ogaden women tell their stories, one in rapid, whispered Somali, the other in cautious English. Fartun Abdi arrived in Melbourne 18 months ago with her two children, a girl now 10 and a boy now six. Mr Nur translated as she told The Age she had not heard from her husband, a truck driver, since he was imprisoned six years ago. She says that after his arrest, she was beaten and raped by Ethiopian soldiers, even though she was heavily pregnant. ”Every woman from the Ogaden has gone through it,” Ms Abdi said. ”Pregnant, girl or old woman, they don’t care.”
Nimo Abdirizak was only 11 when she fled alone on foot to Kenya. ”I was fleeing the war, the raping, all this stuff,” she said. Her father and uncle dead, her mother missing, Ms Abdirizak grew up an orphan in a sprawling refugee camp before moving to Australia in 2009 on a humanitarian visa. She now works in Perth as a factory hand.
The Ogaden Annual International Conference 2011 is at Rydges Bell City Hotel, Preston, from tomorrow.