They came as refugees. Now they're giving back.
Escapees from Pakistan, Iran and Idi Amin’s Uganda share their stories
Ijaz Gill still gets choked up every time he speaks about the twin bomb blasts that killed 122 of his congregation, many of them children, and injured 168 of his friends.
The Pakistani Anglican minister was just about to remove his robe after morning service at All Souls Church in Peshawar when the first bomb hit on 22 September 2013.
The historic 19th-century church was crowded with about 500 people, including many families, who were celebrating traditional wedding announcements with a spread of food and sweets.
“When the first bomb blast hit I fell down; it hit my head and shoulder, I was injured. The second bomb blast hit many, many people,” he says, unable to detail the carnage any further.
Asked if there were many bodies, he murmurs in horror: “pieces”.
“My heart is broken,” he says.
“I miss my Christian friends, my Christian family.”
“I’m killed here but I’m killed in Pakistan, no problem.”
Rev Gill believes the suicide bombers targeted his church, located on the border with Afghanistan, because of his outspoken stand against the Taliban. The Muslim extremists also took exception to his ministry using stickers bearing mottos such as “I love Jesus”, “Jesus, Son of God” and “God is my shepherd.”
Though reluctant to leave Pakistan, where he had served in ministry for 30 years, he listened to the advice of friends and family to flee; he and his wife applied for temporary protection visas and arrived in Sydney in July 2014.
His first year in Sydney was a deeply unhappy time. Moving from Auburn to Campsie to Liverpool to Beaconsfield, he felt uprooted and lost.
“I spent a lot of time not using the cassock, so thank God …”
“Once upon a time I decided to go back to Pakistan – no problem, I’m killed here but I’m killed in Pakistan, no problem. But my son and my friends asked me not to come,” he says.
Then John Bales, an Anglican minister in Greenacre, who had been a missionary in Pakistan and speaks Urdu, visited him at his home. He asked the depressed minister to come to Revesby Anglican Church, where the minister John Bartik asked him to start an Urdu service.
After 18 months of being unable to work as a man of God, Rev Gill was finally able to put on his robes (also called the ‘cassock’) and start the Urdu service on 3 May 2015.
“My heart is open, my feelings,” he says, unable to put them into English.
“I spent a lot of time not using the cassock, so thank God … this is the first Pakistani Anglican service in the Sydney diocese.”
About 25 to 30 Pakistanis from the southwest of Sydney now attend the Urdu service each Sunday. Rev Gill still mourns for his lost life in Pakistan, where his status was so well established, but he is happy to have been able to start afresh in Sydney.
Perth-based Arastoo Yazdani, 32, came to Australia from Iran as a refugee when he was still a toddler.
Living under Islamic rule in Isfahan, Iran’s second city, his non-Muslims parents were treated as second-class citizens.
His mother, who follows the Baha’i faith, had lost her government position as a nurse and was unable to find another job. His father, who did not affiliate with any religion, decided to take his family to another country to protect his two young children.
“The country was falling apart,” says Yazdani, who is now senior pastor at Freedom City Church in Fremantle, Western Australia, with his wife Megan.
“One day my dad saw a girl aged about eight on the road, a van pulled up and a Revolutionary Guard abducted her in the middle of street, in broad daylight and drove off.
“The first time we got caught by Iranian soldiers; they were shooting at the car.”
“My sister was then four years old and he had a moment of thinking ‘I can’t raise my kids here.’ He went home and said ‘that it, we’re out of here.’”
As non-Muslims, they had had their passports revoked, so they had to pay a people-smuggler to take them across the border to Pakistan.
“They sold everything and said goodbye to everyone and we set off,” says Yazdani.
“The first time we got caught by Iranian soldiers; they were shooting at the car and stopped the driver.
“The second time we got through. We stayed in Pakistan six months and then Australia granted us visas and flew us over.”
“I felt there had to be more to life than making money and buying a nice house.”
As a teenager, Yazdani got into the party scene and got into a bit a trouble – “nothing too major”. At age 19, while studying accountancy at Curtin University in Perth, he began to wonder what life had to offer beyond studying hard, working hard, and dying “all for nothing”.
“I felt there had to be more to life than making money and buying a nice house,” he says.
“It seemed to answer all the questions I had inside: what is life all about and is there a God?”
“So I started a journey of exploration and went to the library and took out a couple of thick books on different religions. I thought if there’s a God, one of the religions has to be right. And it was on an intellectual basis of reading about religions that Christianity made the most sense,” he says.
“A friend’s mum was Christian, so one day at his house I saw she had an Our Daily Bread booklet and I asked to borrow it. I read through and it seemed to answer all the questions I had inside: what is life all about and is there a God and why are we here?
“From there, my friend and I went to find a church and we found Life City Church, which we were at for the next ten years.”
Yazdani says becoming a Christian transformed his outlook on life.
“I realised I had a purpose and there was a God who loved me, so instead of living a selfish life, I was living for other people because God loves people and everyone’s special and unique and it really changed everything.”
“Our motto is that we want to have a church for everyone.”
After finishing university he attended Bible College and gained a diploma of theology. He and his wife Megan were heavily involved in serving at church serving and one day the senior minister asked them if they would become youth pastors of church.
“So I quit my job and we led the youth and young adults; after three years the minister asked me if we would consider starting our own church, so a year later we launched Freedom City Church with a team of 35.”
Three and a half years later, about 140 people attend the church, which is focused on mission and community involvement.
“Our motto is that we want to have a church for everyone, so our style caters for people who haven’t been to church before.
“We really want it to be focused on those outside the four walls, so we’re very much involved in the community.
“Our church is in Fremantle, which has a lot of homelessness, so we work with the mayor on helping the homeless.”
Esther Lukabyo fled the murderous regime of Ugandan despot Idi Amin with her family in 1974. She was just eight years old.
Esther’s mother Sheila was the daughter of a famous British theologian, F.F. Bruce. While lecturing at a teacher training college in Uganda, she met and married a Ugandan, Christopher James Lukabyo. Esther was the second of their six children. One of her younger brothers, Alan Lukabyo is rector of St James Anglican Church in Croydon, Sydney.
“He said ‘What are you doing here, you’re on the top of the [death] list!’”
Esther, who works as a hospital chaplain for Anglicare, says her mother told them they were going on holiday when she bundled her six children into a car and escaped across the border into Kenya.
“My father had been arrested a couple of times. He wasn’t sure why; he was working at the university. Someone who worked in the prisons office ran into him in the post office and said ‘What are you doing here, you’re on the top of the [death] list!’”
The children realised something was up when they had to sleep in the car outside a police station until first light.
“Dad went separately so he wouldn’t hopefully endanger us,” says Esther.
But when he arrived in Sydney in March 1974, he had six kids and $5.
“We were to stay with some people we knew but Mum’s money had been stolen from her purse and it had the address of the people. She remembered their post box number, so she went into the post office and said, ‘We’ve escaped from Uganda and I’ve lost the address, I only know the post box number.’ And the guy said, ‘Well, we’ll lock the post box and they’ll come in and complain.’
“Meanwhile, he took us to the home of a woman from his church and she ran Mum a bath and fed us breakfast because mum didn’t have any money.”
After meeting up with their father and finding sanctuary with their friends, the Lukabyos applied for humanitarian visas to Canada, Australia, the US and Britain.
Australia accepted them within a matter of days – possibly, she speculates, because the then Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Marcus Loane knew Esther’s grandfather, and sponsored them.
James Lukabyo is recognised as the first indigenous Ugandan to arrive in Australia. He played a crucial role in establishing a Ugandan consulate in Australia and became the first Ugandan High Commissioner in Canberra. But when he arrived in Sydney in March 1974, he had six kids and $5.
“Dad said to a taxi driver, ‘How much will it cost us to get into the city?’ Anyway, the $5 took us into town.”
The family first found accommodation in a migrant hostel “which was great because we had nothing – no furniture, no home, no food, nothing.”
“If you’re in your own country your parents just know how things work and they take care of things.”
“We started off at Hammondville Public School and I remember doing something and there was a map of Australia and I had no idea at all!” Esther says.
“Dad got work welding shopping trollies to begin with, and then got casual relief teaching at Picnic Point Boys and then he got a steady job teaching at James Ruse, which is at Carlingford, so we then moved to Carlingford.”
“Even at school there are things you don’t get, social stuff you don’t get. I had friends but there were so many uncertainties.”
Esther says the local church was wonderful in helping them, giving them furniture, stocking their pantry and taking them to church.
“I don’t know if you used seatbelts back then, you just used to cram as many kids in as you could,” she recalls, laughing.
Esther says the hardest thing about growing up in Australia was that her parents didn’t know how things worked in this culture.
“If you’re in your own country your parents just know how things work and they take care of things but if you’ve come with nothing, at least my parents spoke English, and your parents are trying to work out how things work in this country, and so there’s that uncertainty – is this the right way for this country?
“Even at school there are things you don’t get, social stuff you don’t get. I had friends but there were so many uncertainties and someone once asked me ‘When did you feel OK about being in Australia?’ and I said ‘I think in high school I finally got the hang of things.’”
Esther believes these challenges gave her cross cultural skills which have helped her in ministry to international students and in teaching English as a second language.
Now working as locum chaplain to hospitals and nursing homes, she says she loves people and hearing their stories.
“And there is an opportunity to introduce people to Christ if they don’t know him; and for Christians it’s a difficult time when you’re in hospital and you can be an encouragement and support,” she says.
“There was a lady who was in palliative care and I spent some time with her and read the Bible with her and prayed with her and I said ‘Is there anything more I can do for you?’ and she said ‘I’d like some more Scripture’ – I thought ‘I can help you with that.’”