Ledya Khamou

Ledya Khamou is currently an undergraduate at the University of Melbourne where she is studying English and Creative Writing.



Houses and Homes


I grew up in a house I do not remember.

In Iraq I recall an indoor balcony, overlooking what I now perceive as a courtyard. I recall an instance (or maybe a dream, though something grounded in reality) of waking up, a nervous child, and, smiling coyly, following my aunt with her washing, up the stairs. Finding my uncle with my sister and brother throwing mattresses from the balcony onto the main hall.

Outside: cracked asphalt, dusty roads, fields yellow and dry. In photographs there is always somebody’s son in a white shirt, squinting against the sun, arms spread against silver-glinted gates.

When I remember the house, I feel an urge to relate it to Iraq as a whole, perhaps my entire upbringing, or rather how childhood felt. An ornate, dusty structure, beautiful architecture worn and shaved by inheritance and time. Family everywhere, huddled into rooms with no dining table, no chairs, eating from pots on the floor, fingers greasy with dolma and shorba. There was an inflatable swimming pool, and a gate opening. Stairs all the time. And within that gorgeous, great emptiness, a sense of the closeness of relation—of my cousins in the cornershop, of arms soaked with bubblegum faux-tattoos, and aunties pinching cheeks with their tobacco-stained fingers. 

Then, when family left, and we were left without direct relation, it must have been Syria, or Jordan, or somewhere in-between: 

The one bedroom we all slept in, tucked between my brother and sister on thin mattresses on the floor, tiptoeing to the bathroom, waking dad to open the tall door. A single green bulb on the ceiling. Mum above us, her hands clasped together, and us clumsily repeating her assured words to a night-time prayer we did not understand, and didn’t need to, really.

God was a crinkled, velvet-cornered photograph; Jesus a suffering accessory on my grandpa’s rosary, brushing his thumb as he counted the wooden beads; and Mary a weeping canvas print before blue backgrounds. I often wonder whether there was ever a part of me that genuinely believed in their existence, but that doesn’t seem like a fair question to ask of my past self. God and Jesus and Mary were as real as distant relatives, the nameless, indistinguishable faces of aunties and uncles who proclaimed with lipsticked mouths or bearded beer-breath, “I remember when you were this little!” Mum and dad pointed them out in photo albums (“you know, she used to change your nappy”) and I nodded obediently, distantly awed.

 The green-lit room in Syria (or somewhere in between) is the only part of the house I tangentially remember, and in my memory it is both sparse and overcrowded. Mine and my sister’s Barbie-themed runners scuffed in the corner next to our school backpacks. Thick blankets kicked to the foot of the mattress, spilling over and slipping under our feet in the morning, scurrying out of the house, always late, always meaning to leave.

Later, in stuffy high school classrooms smelling of sharpened pencils, squinting at the crusty print of a Gatsby passage about the green light, I’d think initially of Syria’s single green bulb, of that desperate, uncomfortable room—then, immediately, without particularly meaning to, I would dismiss the memory. It became a habit: leaping toward Australia, methodically replacing the Assyrian with the English until ABCs became natural, became the first tongue. English was a means of practical survival, then a means of distance, until eventually, it became mine.

It’s hard to describe losing Assyrian without making it sound like some sort of escape. Struggling against the hot, rough-voweled breath of Assyrian on my neck, shedding its dampened hold, and splashing into the cold green-chlorine of English, with its tall-cut letters, its sardonic, suit-and-tied consonants. It reminds me, distantly, of thirty-degree school days, panting red-cheeked from a game of tag back into an AC-ed classroom after lunch. The smell of the teacher’s staff room lasagne and glossy picture book pages and a bruised, warm apple snatched out of somebody’s backpack. Something close to hope, like the breathless, cruel beauty of a glinting city skyscraper—though something I can never really reach.



Still in Syria, though hardly at home: we attended some sort of educational institute for to-be migrants. We spent every day there, as if we were cramming Western-isms before the official test of immigration.

My parents sat in a lecture room learning elementary English phrases. Us, the children—either shoved on a table in the corner, or in an entirely different kids’ room—drew crayoned monsters on every white surface available. Fluorescent lights, early morning toothpaste mouth, awkward air. On the projector screen, there was a slide of example sentences located on the beach, or maybe about beach etiquette (“Hello, is this your towel?”), and I remember the ripple of low laughter in the room, occupied mostly by middle-aged, conservative Assyrians. Chaste women who covered their hair in church, and respectable, God-fearing men who lined the front church pews, bowed their heads before a mightier patriarch. No, we would not be wearing bikinis and shorts on the beach. Though, in retrospect, their chuckles could have been an excited, incredulous sort of laughter—an “imagine us, out of our stuffy one-bedroom apartments, laying on the beach.”

Everything in me hesitates to admit any excitement in relation to arriving in Australia. Writing this as the person I am now, after being fed on white media about people gratefully ‘escaping’ third-world countries for a so-called ‘better’ future in Western countries, I desperately want to divert any trope tinged with white supremacy. My memories are so transparent, so flimsy and fragile, that I can easily twist them into a transgressive story debunking popular myths about refugees.

Though, truthfully, I think I recall the exact moment that we received our visas. I remember distinctly that it was a moment caught off-guard, across the street from the education institute, or maybe the post-office—across somewhere from where everybody else was, lining up. A white envelope, an ineligible, thick document, my dad’s quietly gleeful grin. My dad must have called out to his classmates across the street, and there must have been a celebratory cheer from them, all lining up, waiting for the exact same letter. Walking home, there was an explanation from mum about what a visa was, and what it meant for us, and a sense of the ground shifting, a breathless air opening before us.



My dad is the youngest of his two brothers, but older than his sisters. He is a shabby young man posing in a bomber jacket in one photo, then my mustached, serious father in the next. I know that he went to university, or pursued a higher education than my mum, because there is a photo of jean-clad young adults wearing familiar faces in front of a large, smart building. But other than that…

Once, on a video call with my aunt, he reminisced about a camping trip wherein his brothers shot stray dogs for sport, and teased him when he, scared and hesitant, refused. Or maybe I misheard (or my brain mistranslated the words when I was eavesdropping, or I’ve forgotten the exact turn of phrase he used) and my dad meant that he missed the shot, rather than refused. Still, in my imagination: coarse, dried grass, brown jackets and muddied boots, a brutal green-blue sun, sweaty palms on a rifle (not the more practical shotgun, my mind decides, for some reason) foam-mouthed dogs jumping in the dimmed distance. I’d like to think that my dad refused, instead of attempted, and missed.

My mum was a farm girl. She dropped out of high school as soon as she could, professing to enjoy home life more than education. In childhood, she was protected by a throng of older brothers and a gentle, gravel-voiced father, his dark face wrinkled like a date. At least that’s how I see my grandfather now, in his old age: his voice a sweet, weathered cloud of cigarette smoke, his skin tough leather. My mum fondly reminisces about her family’s backyard full of chickens, who peck-kissed her when she fed them. Now, watching the pigeons and crows eat the rice she made for lunch outside our front door, her eyes grow watery and distant—when I crack a joke, she glances up blankly, as if she didn’t expect me there, this Australian stranger who will never know her childhood.

In one photo she is unsmiling and doe-eyed, ringlets in her hair, in an 80s shoulder-padded suit. In another, she is my mother, rounded and red-cheeked. There is an Arabic turn of phrase, a compliment for a kind person, that roughly translates to “(their) blood is sweet”, “sweet” pronounced in the pitched, sickly warmth of “sugar”. Though I do not know how to say the phrase, its shadow passes my mind in every photo I see of my mother. We share a birthplace—Iraq lives in my mum, a nestled, golden nostalgia sugaring her veins. But it eludes me.



So: Australia. A ‘better’ future. In Australia, there are calendar dates, and places I can point to in Google Maps, and names on my phone that I can text.

Our first Australian house was our cousins’ house. A brief holiday, a dreamy lapse into the before-days, close relation again. Play-Station days and barbecue picnic days and ice-cream days and TV marathon days. Big couches, too intimidating to sit on, glass-surface coffee tables, and high, plush mattresses against headboards decorated with baby pictures. In the backyard, unruly grass overlapped concrete (always planning on adding more concrete, my uncle with his hands behind his back, sucking a toothpick, discussing construction with my dad), and half-deflated soccer balls shot cruelly to paunchy, well-fed stomachs. The garage door gaped open and faulty water-guns were fished out of the cluttered cardboard boxes, teams arranged for a battle of boys vs girls—screaming bloody murder until we were ordered back indoors.

Our second and third and fourth homes—houses—were rented. Here, memories scurry from me yet again. In the second house: an unusually wide hall as soon as you walked in, empty like Iraq, except for a computer on a desk in the corner. In the third house, there is nothing. The fourth house was directly across the street from our high school—the school bell blaring, the rapid, chattering silhouettes of after-school kids filtering in through the windows. Summer was inescapable walls and a living room with one couch and suitcases still unpacked, sparse cutlery in the drawers. Looking back, the fourth house could have been a brief stint before:

The fifth house—home—was bought. This home is still lived in. I find that it’s hard to write about places that I have not yet left.

The belly of my life, the spine of who I am, was formed in Australia. Dusty libraries and humming computers and blistering summers. Now, I resist the urge to contrast Melbourne to Mosul.

Instead of the closeness within the wideness in Iraq, Melbourne is a compact, familiar closeness that is cooled with an innate distance. A detachment which gnaws, and haunts, and, in its clinginess, forces a friendship. I form myself from Melbourne’s indifference. Empty, carpeted school corridors make me teary. I befriend buses and trams and train routes, and form a mix-and-match friend group composed of strays from previous friend groups. I can joke about my past selves, because I created them—in photos I can laugh at my bulging under-eye circles in primary school (when I had nothing to be tired about) and my disgruntled, angsty disposition in high school (when I had invented a lot of things to be mad about).

Occasionally, I think: this is me, living in the ‘better’ future.

My dad tells me about racist encounters he faces as a casual UberEats driver. I have learned about race and xenophobia and class and sexuality and gender. I know how to write research essays about genocide and white supremacy and classism. I know how to trace everyday exhibitions of prejudice to their root, historical cause. If academically necessary (say, for a creative writing assignment) I could throw my ‘immigrant experience’ under a microscope, dissect the points of injury, all the ruptured cells, and bleed them into a narrative, into cause and effect. But when my dad says, “That Woolies employee would not have spoken to me like that if I were Aussie,” I cannot think of a succinct response. Unspoken, it simmers inside me.

Here I am in my ‘better’ future: adequately educated and entirely helpless.



In my bedroom, above my mattress: blu-tacked poems printed out from the local library. They are not my poems, but they are something of me. Books tabbed and annotated and highlighted and underlined, a desperate library of anything that makes me feel. Desk of knick-knack stationery, cheap pastel plastic, acrylic crochet tid-bits. Burnt matchsticks. Half-filled notebooks. Sludgy coffee grounds in cooled mugs. Hollow energy drink cans. A solitary dinner after work with the yellow lamp for company, awake and alone in the exhausted creaks of a begrudgingly loved home.

Mum hangs a wooden-beaded rosary off my headboard, though it barely clings on. In the mornings, scrambling out of bed, I accidentally knock Jesus to the floor and curse at him for being in the way. Coming back home, he is a pitiful, betrayed father on my bedroom floor, and I am a bad daughter, a faithless Christian, hanging him back on a headboard that does not want to hold him.

Cousins now behind phone glass, pixelated social media presences. I wonder if her parents know that she’s dating a white boy or dating at all. I would never ask her.

Now, I spend my days walking up and down stairs and elevators, and arriving nowhere. I am the same age as my mother was when she married my father, and in the same age bracket as my parents when they left their beloved homelands for foreign territory. I cannot imagine marrying anybody; and I lack any maternal ambitions or instincts; and though I profess that I hate Melbourne, I cannot imagine living anywhere else. I have lived in Australia for longer than I was in Iraq, or Syria, or the general Middle East. What does this mean? Overseas, my home, my emergency touchdown, would be the Australian embassy. Here, I would never call myself an Aussie.

Now, at a birthday party, somebody shines a lighter over a green Sprite bottle, and I am back in Syria, repeating my mother’s prayers. Then I am mute in the backseat of an Uber heading home, tired of myself and my friends, wanting my bed with its annoying rosary, with its dead poets.

Or not my bed but a mattress, flung off a balcony, bouncing off the concrete, or shoulder-to-shoulder on the floor, locked in. Wanting a home I can only remember in inflatable swimming pools, in out-stretched, tongued runners, stomping up the stairs all petty with childish arguments, to that room with its flickering green light.