Four years ago I moved with no great enthusiasm and a troubled child to Logan City, one of Australia’s 10 poorest urban areas. It’s in the seat of Forde, where ex-premier Peter Beattie is mounting a political comeback. There’s plenty for him to do.
Divorce had cost me my farm in northern New South Wales, and housing in Woodridge was, and remains, some of the very cheapest within striking range of the Brisbane CBD — according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 96% of Australian postcodes have higher socio-economic status than we Woodridgeans. The shift over the Queensland border was unwelcome, but it wasn’t frightening. I had been poor before — I had the skill set, or at least the memory of it — and more or less agreed with George Orwell:
“It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs — and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.”
For me, Brisbane-born and partly Logan-raised, it was a case of returning to the dogs rather than meeting them for the first time. For my unwell teenager, though, it was a revelation to discover that that there are entire supermarkets that stock no bread other than sugary white pap; that smiling at strangers is often viewed here as a highly suspicious precursor to extortion; and that screams followed by sirens can become the unremarkable aural wallpaper of your urban existence.
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The poor are always with us, the Good Book says, and statistics agree: 9.5% of people in the greater Brisbane area officially live below the poverty line (Australian Council of Social Services, 2011). In 1984, as a 17-year-old caring for three small kids in Eagleby, I believed that nearly all Australians lived like we did, with far too many animals, dying cars and bugger all disposable income. In most such families, being rich is the stuff of pure fantasy, and the rare relative (usually distant) who is a business owner or a professional is seen as a beacon of jaw-dropping achievement. Ali G made everyone laugh in the 2000s by suggesting that Bill Gates was so amazingly wealthy, he could supersize his McDonald’s meal any time he wanted. Yet for Black Belt kids, that is exactly what being rich means: not having to worry about your next feed, and not needing the preface Please Sir for the ever-present question: Is there any more?
How do my Black Belt peers manage? How do single mums, in particular, get by on current levels of welfare? And what dreams are possible for the Brisbane underclass in 2013? To answer these questions I interviewed three women who are doing it tough in the greater Brisbane area. This is the story of one of them. Names and some identifying details have been altered.
Selma is 27 years old, dark-haired, doe-eyed and slender. Her pale left arm bears a saga of old razor scarring, but when I speak to her in March Selma is bursting with toughness and intelligence — “I hate pity, and I don’t want handouts.” A full-time student, Selma works intermittently as her TAFE course and four children under 10 allow. Their father, whom she still refers to as her partner, has spent the past decade in and out of jail and is in long-term residential rehab for his amphetamine addiction. After many years in the Black Belt, Selma has recently moved with her four small boys to a Housing Commission house near Cleveland.
Selma’s family fled the war in Yugoslavia when she was 11. They escaped to a primitive Croatian shack without running water and ate “UNHCR food, like they have in Africa or whatever. It tasted worse than f-cking dog food. We had nothing, bombed house, jack shit, but still Mum was trying to do little tiny jobs and send money back home, would you believe?”
“I was in that situation for nine years. They say you make a choice, but I don’t ever remember choosing to be beaten up!”
Selma’s Croatian father’s family wouldn’t accept her Serbian mother, and her Serb mother would rather die than deny her identity. Selma gives a small dry laugh. “She’s like, ‘kill me as I am, this is me’.” Severe domestic violence between her parents was a problem. “He’d be off doing his crazy things, you know, trying to join the army, falling asleep in the snow, drinking, whatever. He’s a heavy drinker and he has a mental illness. I 100% believe it’s PTSD.”
When Selma’s family came to temporary refugee flats in Brisbane they were shown how to shop, how to catch trains, what Centrelink was for. “We didn’t know anything. I went to school in year 5 speaking no English. It was pretty embarrassing, and I had no friends. They accept you to a certain extent, but not fully. Like you’re white but you aren’t white ‘enough’ I was an outcast all over again.” As a young teenager, Selma ran wild. Working two pink-collar jobs — factory by day and cleaning by night — her mother somehow found the money for Catholic school. It was there that Selma made her deepest friendship, with a Murri woman who would become her sister-in-law.
“Our families sent us both there to ‘fix’ us. We were best friends from the day we met. She left in year 9, and a year later she had her son. I left school in year 11, and had my son in 2004. She wasn’t my best friend, I call her my sister.”
Selma’s troubled friend had drug issues. This, along with poorly managed gestational diabetes, led to her losing her second pregnancy at seven months. The father is in jail, as is the father of her older, living son. A third man (“really violent, on everything, heroin, downers, speed”) was her boyfriend at the time the baby died. Selma has deep reservations about what her friend experienced. “She’d been r-ped before, you know, and also r-ped as a young teenager. And at the hospital there was bruising on the inside of her thighs, here and here. I told the hospital, ‘what are you going to do about this?’ and they said, ‘oh, we don’t know how that got there …'”
Selma’s friend survived the diabetic coma that led to her baby’s death, but she lost the use of her legs. The addict boyfriend quickly vanished, and in 2012 she became isolated and lonely in her West End flat. She had “friends” once a fortnight, when her dole arrived. “They just found her there, dead, one day. They said it was the diabetes. But when she died, she had a big sore on her head; she’d had it for months. I heard someone chucked battery acid on her. Who knows what really happened? The cops went down to Musgrave Park after she was found and they told people there about it before her family even knew. Just like you’d go, ‘oh, we found a dead dog, anyone missing a dog?’ That’s what it felt like.”Selma, who has been immersed in the Murri community for a decade and speaks with an impeccable Cherbourg accent, has very clear views on what befell her friend last year: “If she was a white girl and had money, or her family had money, she’d be alive today. Absolutely no doubt. Probably still have her legs. Instead she’s dead at the age of 27, of diabetes, for god’s sake! Who dies of diabetes at 27?”
And where was Selma as this tragic story unfolded? For most of the past decade her life, like that of her dead friend, has been one of intractable poverty, marijuana addiction and extreme domestic violence. Mothering four boys while negotiating her partner’s speed-fuelled rage has left her exhausted. Ashamed of what she was enduring until recently, she stayed away from her mother for long stretches. She was deeply humiliated at finding herself a victim, and very fearful also that her mentally ill brother would intervene and get badly beaten. She thought it better that only she get bashed.
“What I don’t like in society, and in TAFE in particular, is the judgements put on indigenous and refugee and domestic violence people. I was in that situation for nine years. They say you make a choice, but I don’t ever remember choosing to be beaten up! From the age of 17 ’til about two years ago, domestic violence was part of my everyday life.”
She lays the blame for the violence squarely on poverty: “Poverty breeds hate to the other side; it breeds hate in your own little life. You are ‘free’, but you’re not really free. You have no options.”
Like many battered women, Selma was raised in a violent home. Yet the abuse she once accepted as inevitable had roots also in the trauma and racism of the refugee experience, of always feeling like an alien in Australia, “feeling like a nothing piece of shit. When I was pregnant with my first son I got flogged every day. I remember I went to see my mum and I’d forgotten that he’d flogged me with a stick of bunya pine the day before. I had big black welts across the back of my legs and two black eyes. I was at least eight months pregnant — I protected the belly — and I’d forgotten the bruises were there. It was like, that was yesterday and this is today. And I remember the look on my mum’s face. I felt huge shame, like I was piss weak. Because I always felt like I had nobody and was nobody since I came here.”
By 2007 though, raising three young sons, Selma had drawn strength from her experience of mothering. She had also, incredibly, after many years of abuse, decided to fight back physically against her partner. “In the end I just had no more fear, because what else could he do to me that he hadn’t already done? I thought if I don’t at least try to fight back I’ll eat myself. He was chasing me with an axe this day, you know, in the zone, and I didn’t want to scream in case the coppers came. And then I just had enough. I said to him, just do it c-nt, ya dead dog. If ya gonna be a big man, just do it and put me outta my misery.”
“They know our lives aren’t some uptown, white picket fence, daddy-loves-mummy lives.”
Shocked, her partner backed off. Selma went on to gradually conquer her marijuana addiction, began studying at TAFE, and was no longer imprisoned in a brick house at Annerley. She was, however, still being beaten regularly. She would fight back silently, trying to shield her sons from what was happening. Then one day school reported that her oldest boy, then seven, had wished aloud that he was dead. Selma realised the impact the violence was having.
“It was three days of frantically doing assignments before I could leave. I jumped in the car and f-cked off with nothing. No money, car on its last legs, no house, nothing. And you know, I missed the bastard. At the same time I thought, ‘oh he’s gonna be fed and be right in jail, and I want to go to jail and have a rest’. I was locked in a house for two years. I always say, ‘you want to put me in jail? Just shut me in a room for two, three months — no problem. No f-cking problem at all!’”
I asked Selma what poverty means to her now. She told me she has basic food in her house, but she regularly goes hungry because there isn’t enough to go around — “Bread in the cupboard, but you can’t eat that bread ’cause it’s for school lunches tomorrow.” Terrified of having her Aboriginal children removed by authorities, she feeds the four growing boys chicken and rice — “you get two chicken breasts and that makes two stews, pad it out with potato and pumpkin” — but eats bread and butter for her own dinner, if she has any. Her cupboard is literally bare on payday. Toilet paper is rationed. Her car has multiple water bottles in the back; the trip in to TAFE requires at least one stop halfway to refill the boiling radiator. Selma still has a car only because her father (“the only one in my entire family who has a credit card that’s not maxed out”) lent her the money for brakes until tax time.
“People think, ‘oh, you drink your money’. Or it’s a ‘budgeting issue’. But you use your cash card once a week, on payday, and then you don’t use it again, ’cause it’s empty. I don’t think people realise how hard it is, not being able to provide. If I have to put my phone into hock so the kids can go on excursions then I will. Nobody rings you anyway, there’s no petrol to go anywhere and no money to do anything, so you just sit home.
“I don’t have deadly shit in my house. My kids know not to ask for stuff, no tuckshop or anything. They know when it’s small week and when it’s big week, my nine-year-old knows when payday is. They know our lives aren’t some uptown, white picket fence, daddy-loves-mummy lives. I just bought my son a new mattress and now that’s the talk of the f-cking town, an actual mattress, instead of a blanket on the springs.”
When I asked Selma if she had any dreams for the future, she surprised me by quoting Martin Luther King Jr: If you can’t fly, run. If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl. She spoke of expecting to finish TAFE soon and of desperately hoping to go to QUT to get a degree in human services. With two work placements behind her, one of them paid, she is beginning to faintly see options that never existed before. She talked of working in domestic violence services to help other women. She hopes her Aboriginal sons will finish high school. But her voice lacked certainty, and was almost wistful, in sharp contrast to when she speaks of what she has survived. “If I’ve learned one thing in life it’s that you never know where you’re gonna end up. Anyone can end up on drugs, in domestic violence, on the streets selling themselves. I just thank God these days it’s not me.”
*This is an edited extract from “Sinking below sight: Down and out in Brisbane and Logan” by Melissa Lucashenko from Griffith REVIEW41. Available in all good bookshops or online at www.griffithreview.com.