Born into a Shiite Muslim family in Iraq, Rhadia is in Year 8 at a secondary school in Melbourne.

Until she was aged nine, Rhadia lived in Baghdad with her mother, father, younger sister, grandmother and two uncles. Rhadia worked hard at school and had numerous friends. Her father was a journalist and her mother, a trained science teacher, stayed at home with Rhadia and her sister.

The Socialist Ba’ath Party ruled Iraq and quashed any political opposition. One morning her journalist father left for work and didn’t return. The family never heard from him again. Everyone was so upset about his absence that talking about her father became taboo in Rhadia’s household. Still, Rhadia once heard her cousin whisper that her father had been imprisoned, tortured and murdered, which devastated her. She missed him and worried about him desperately.

After Rhadia’s father disappeared, police often came to her house to interrogate her uncles. She once witnessed police beating her favourite uncle, and eventually both uncles were arrested. After this, Rhadia fled to Iran with her mother and sister.

Over the next couple of years, they lived in crowded, dirty conditions in an Iranian refugee centre with 5,000 other people. There was limited schooling for Rhadia and her sister, and rapes and fights were common. In desperation, Rhadia’s mother wrote to one of her husband’s former colleagues who had fled to Australia years earlier. He agreed to sponsor the family to come to Australia.

On the bus from Melbourne Airport, Rhadia thought Australia was strange. The colours and smells were so different, and people were dressed differently to those in Iraq and Iran. School in Australia initially surprised Rhadia too. In Iraq, children sit in rows quietly and are obedient to the teacher, who is respected as the source of knowledge. In Australia, classrooms seemed noisy and chaotic, and there was a different style of teaching and learning. Students were encouraged to ask questions and challenge what the teacher said. Worst of all for Rhadia, she couldn’t speak or write English, so she couldn’t write stories to share with her teacher – something she’d loved doing in Iraq.

Her mother wanted to help Rhadia and her sister with their homework, but found it difficult due to her own lack of English and knowledge of Australian schooling. Rhadia often had stomach pains and was absent from school, but the doctor couldn’t find anything wrong with her.

Rhadia deeply misses her extended family. Although she and her mother and sister are safe in Australia, they remain fearful police will knock on the door and threaten them. They often stay home because Rhadia’s mother is afraid of walking the streets, where she might see a policeman.

Rhadia’s mother is learning English and has found casual work at a factory. But she still often lies on her bed crying with loneliness. This has meant Rhadia has taken on responsibility for a lot of housework and care of her younger sister. Rhadia is now very withdrawn and her teachers worry about her capacity to study.