I Was A Salvadoran Refugee: Amalia’s Story - Hope 103.2

I Was A Salvadoran Refugee: Amalia’s Story

As Australia prepares to welcome 12,000 new refugees, Amalia shares her story of fleeing war in El Salvador, and arriving in Australia as a refugee at age 5.

By Clare BruceThursday 10 Sep 2015Hope BreakfastNewsReading Time: 5 minutes

Listen: Amalia tells her story to Dan Widdowson

As Australia prepares for the arrival of 12,000 asylum seekers fleeing the Middle East, there’s one group of Aussies who will understand what they’re going through.

They are the 800,000 people who’ve have settled here as refugees and displaced persons since 1945.

One of them is Amalia, a friend of Hope Media’s Dan Widdowson, who came with her family to Australia as a refugee from El Salvador in 1983.

They were fleeing the long-running civil Salvadoran Civil War. Amalia was just five years old.

Caught In The Crossfire

Watch: Amalia shares her story with Dan Widdowson

Now a mother herself and living on the NSW Central Coast, Amalia chatted to Dan about her childhood experiences, describing it as “a very difficult time to live”.

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“We left in the middle of the civil war that lasted from the 80s to 1992 — a 12 year war,” she said.

“And I suppose with all wars, regardless of who’s right or who’s wrong, what government it is, or who’s trying to fight oppression, innocent people – men, women and children – get caught in the crossfire.

“And that was the case in El Salvador.”

Targetted By An Oppressive Regime

Salvadoran Soldier

Amalia’s father was a university student, which made him – and his wife – a target of the oppressive military government.

They were at risk of joining the many thousands who disappeared or were killed during the 12-year conflict.

“My dad was a university student and he also had a bakery to help provide for the family and his studies,” Amalia said.

“The government didn’t like the university students because they promoted freedom of speech, and they felt that they were instigators of a lot of anti-government views.

“My dad was captured and then the situation went from bad to worse. Mum couldn’t provide for the family.”

Dead Bodies, Hunger And Homelessness

San Salvador pinned on Map

Hunger was a regular part of Amalia’s childhood.

“During the time when my dad was captured we were living between family members,” she said. “We didn’t have a house, we didn’t have much and it was a real struggle.

“I remember going hungry a lot, and mum trying to find family members who she could leave us with, so she could go and sell something at the market place and come back with some sort of income to buy some food.

“I was five, so I didn’t know any different. It was every day: gunshots, dead bodies on the side of the road, people starving. “

Hiding From Gunfire And Death Threats

While Amalia’s father was in captivity, her mother became a target, too.

“She was a person of interest given the fact that she was connected to my father,” Amalia explained.

“There were several death threats made to her and people were watching her. It’s only by the grace of God that we survived El Salvador, and I truly believe that God intervened many times.

“I have vivid memories of gun fire, running to the floor, hiding and seeing the gunshots fly through the walls.

“There was another incident when my mum got tipped off about a bus and was told not to go on it. And later that bus was all over the news, it was lit up on fire and all the people that were on that bus were killed.”

“Everyone Thought We Were Dead…”

Amalia came to Australia from El Salvador as a refugee in 1983

Haunting memories: Amalia spent her first five years caught in a civil war.

More than 30 years have now passed, but Amalia’s memories of fleeing her country and the long journey to Australia are still clear.

“When my dad was released (from captivity) he and mum had a lot of death threats,” she said. “They put in the paperwork and the next day we left. They didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to their family. Everyone thought we were dead.

“We were fortunate enough that the Australian Government gave the ok to allow asylum seekers into the country,” she said.

“The paperwork was processed in El Salvador. We were then transported to Los Angeles where they did a medical assessment and quarantined us.

“We got all our health checks and our vaccinations. I literally had a tummy filled with worms. I had all these medical problems because of lack of nutrition. I had bent legs, was lacking calcium, I was lacking a lot of things.”

“We Arrived On A Beautiful Winter’s Day…”

Sydney Harbour Skyline and Opera House

“And then from there we flew over to Australia. So we had already had our visas and our refugee status when we landed in Sydney.

“We arrived on a beautiful winter’s day and it was just beautiful flying in and seeing the beach, the Australian iconic views, the Opera House, everything was just amazing for us.

“But I do remember walking into the city and looking at all the buildings and the first thing I said to mum – and this is a five-year-old in survival mode – “Where are we going to run if there’s an earthquake or a bomb?”

“Because to me those buildings would crumble in an instant.”

A Loving Welcome By The Church

Adult holding a child's hand

For Amalia and her family, it was the Christian community that welcomed them into Australia and introduced them to a new way of living.

“The church community really embraced us, providing practical things like clothes, furniture and information, just so that we could get up set up,” she said.

“And that’s what led my mum to her journey in Christ. She found the church community really helpful and it led her to her faith in Christ, which has also allowed her to have a lot of healing from the past, from the tragedies of El Salvador.”

“This Is The Promised Land”

If she hadn’t had a chance to come to Australia, Amalia believes her life would have been very different, if she survived at all.

“I think I would’ve been another statistic,” she said.

“I don’t think I would’ve got any of the opportunities I got here in Australia. I was blessed to get an education, to go to university, to give back to the Australian community so much of what they’ve given me.

“To me, this is the Promised Land.

“We don’t go without. My children have never had to have witness what I witnessed. I think it’s really foreign when I tell them about my story. It’s really hard for them to get their head around how a child can see the things that I’ve seen and experience what I experienced as a child.”

First World Problems Are A Breeze

Amalia with her father on her wedding day

Celebration: Amalia with her father on her wedding day.

Today, Amalia says she and her children have little to worry about by comparison.

“I’m definitely thankful that my children don’t have to witness that, and that their problems are only as bad as sibling rivalry, or sharing a toy, or an ipad.”

As if on cue, her daughter chimed in and complained, “Mummy, I can’t unlock the iphone!”