Rafeif Ismail captures the cross-cultural experience through fiction
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Rafeif Ismail captures the cross-cultural experience through fiction

Issues/Arts & Culture , Stories/336 , Issues/Multiculturalism
Perth WA, Australia
11th Jul 2018
Rafeif Ismail captures the cross-cultural experience through fiction
This Greens Senate candidate and accomplished writer unpacks the complexities of her identity as an Australian of Sudanese descent.

"In this nation, people assume they can write your story from beginning to end, and wait for you to fall into place on the stage that has been set. It is why every conversation scans like a hostage negotiation, with your humanity being the item that's up for deliberation," says Rafeif Ismail. In her short story "Almitra Amongst The Ghosts", her characters find themselves in this very situation. 

Rafeif Ismail arrived in at Australia aged eight. Her family left Sudan in the late 1990s because they had been persecuted by the government and their lives had been in danger.

They had lived in Egypt as asylum seekers for 3 years before they finally obtained the chance to move to Australia. She credits her family's arrival to "lucky chance". Through her experience, she learned that families do not risk their and their children's lives by fleeing their countries of origin, unless they have no other option. 

Rafeif harboured dreams of a 'White Christmas' upon coming to Australia with her famiily,  but was surprised by the hot summers of Perth. Her family had made it to Australia, but their struggles did not end there. They constantly navigated spaces that racialised and othered them. Perth did not have Melbourne or Sydney's booming population and, at the time, was relatively lacking in racial diversity. 

"Being black, you are visible and hyper vulnerable and therefore you see a lot of stuff and experience a lot of stuff," Rafeif says. "I see acts of violence, aggressions and micro-aggressions". 

Throughout the years though, Perth has changed. Increased immigration and greater exposure to various cultures has helped Perth become more inclusive of people of colour. 

Through their collective actions, Rafeif and her family have managed to make Perth feel like home. Sudan could not be easily replaced but her family has put together a home, piece by piece, with time's passing. 

The presence of other Sudanese people certainly helped. She recalled a story of two Sudanese families speaking to each other from their cars even as the lights changed from red to green. 

"It is a people of colour thing to find each other and start talking," Rafeif says. 

She and her family had been caught in the midst of two disparate cultures that continue to co-exist inside of them. Their identities are cross-cultural, if anything. 

In 2017, Rafeif ran as a candidate for the Senate as part of the Greens in Western Australia. She remembered the Election Day posters of the "You Can't Call Australia Home" campaign in her school and the deep hurt she experienced because of it.

"I remember being super traumatized and I got home and cried" Rafeif said.

She joined the Greens because she aligned broadly with their policy on asylum seekers and refugees. She really hoped to end the bullying that asylum seekers and refugees and people from CALD (culturally and linguistically diverse) communities experienced on a daily basis. Through her campaign, she hoped to initiate a chain of change. 

 "I put my hand up hoping it would make it easier for people," Rafeif says. 

Despite her honourable intentions and fair campaign, Rafeif did not win the seat. Still, her decision to stand for election is a progressive push for greater representation in Australian politics.

Currently, Rafeif is a student at the University of Western Australia and is majoring in Neuroscience and Linguistics. She hopes to be a psychiatrist and focus on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in young people from migrant and refugee backgrounds. This is especially important to her because mental health is still a taboo in many coloured communities. 

On top of all her achievements, Rafeif is also a novelist and a poet and concentrates on topics such as race, racism and discrimination. 

"Writing is a way for me to see the world around and explore these different parts of society that makes life so interesting," says Rafeif. "I wanted to see stories that represented people like me". 

 "Almitra Amongst Ghosts" is a beautiful short story that Melbourne's Wheeler Centre chose as the Deborah Cass Prize Winner for 2017. It transports the reader into the heart of a Sudanese Australian family. The language is rich and evocative of the magical feeling of immersion and synaesthesia. 

One of the story's standout elements is the constant mention of a vegetable that is constantly misunderstood: okra. Okra is a staple vegetable in Sudanese cooking because, as Rafeif says, it just "turns up in everything". 

Rafeif's prose mimics her day-to-day use of language and incorporates both English and Arabic.

There is a phrase she takes care to describe: "al dul al wareef."

"Imagine your perfect summer day, you are sitting under a tree, there's a cool breeze, not a cloud in the sky, the leaves are moving - that shadow in that moments. That's what it means." 

Rafeif explores survivor's guilt through the unnamed mother and father figures in her short story. Her characters feel the need to represent their country and culture because other people do not have the same opportunities. 

Apart from human relationships, Rafeif also examines the inhumanity of reporting deaths, violence and tragedy on social media - she talks about "people becoming hashtags, becoming tombstones" during the Orlando Massacre 2016. She described these events to be "exhausting", particularly because she is bombarded by them on social media. 

"We live in a world where people are desensitized to violence experienced by people of colour and no one feels anything" Rafeif said. "It is a real tragedy because it is when we stop caring that the injustice continues. We have to actively keep re-sensitizing ourselves". 

Apart from being an accomplished writer of short stories, Rafeif also has an eponymous novel planned about 3 character's journey to Australia and their subsequent "coming-of-age". 

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