This week I had the privilege of meeting an extraordinary man. And I met him during one of the most extraordinary periods of his life.
Saeed Massarwe intended to visit Australia later this year. He and daughter Ruba wanted to see the country that Ruba’s sister, Aiia, would call home for the next twelve months. Massarwe won’t, however, spend time in Melbourne’s iconic laneway cafes, in the sunshine-filled parks of the inner north, nor walking along the pier at St Kilda beach. He has not come to Australia for a holiday. He has come to accompany his daughter’s coffin home.
When we meet, Saeed has arrived directly from seeing Aiia’s body for the first time since arriving in Australia. He is fragile and tired. He is also, quite rightly, carefully guarded by family and community members. Saeed has requested a single one-on-one interview with someone from the Australian media, so that he can thank the Australian people for their support. I am proud to be delivering his message but anxious that I might do anything to make this man’s impossible burden even harder to bear.
Saeed is kind and softly-spoken when he enters the small room next to a mosque in Dandenong, where prayers will be held later in the day, and Aiia’s body washed and prepared for burial. Saeed apologises for his English multiple times over. His English is excellent. I describe how the interview will work, stressing that if he wants a break or to stop talking at any time, he just needs to say the word. Saeed nods and nods again.
To look “right” on screen our chairs have to be placed about two metres apart. It feels unnatural and impersonal. During our interview my instinct at several points is to reach out a hand for Saeed to hold but I am too far away. I have to settle for a regular refrain of, “It’s okay, please do not apologise, would you like to stop for a moment?” His determination to continue is rigid, however. Saeed is a man with a job to do. He is resolute that he will deliver words of peace, as his daughter would have wanted him to.
Aiia Massarwe was in Melbourne exchange at La Trobe University, her father explains. A brilliant young scholar, 21-year-old Aiia spoke four languages, having also been educated in China. She had invitations to study abroad in the United States too but chose Australia because it was a safe place, her father tells me. The day she was killed had been spent with other international students practicing English in the park, before going to see a comedy show in town. Aiia caught the number 86 tram home from the city, calling her sister on FaceTime to chat along the way.
We all know what happened after Aiia got off the tram in Bundoora. Saeed’s eyes fill with tears as he describes the phone call telling him that Aiia was missing and then again, that her body had been found. “I pray it’s not true. I pray it’s [a] dream. I pray it’s not Aiia”, he tells me. His brown eyes are large and scared, as he replays the moment in his mind. Unable to put him through this much longer, I ask Saeed why he agreed to speak with me and what he wants to say to Australians.
His message is one of gratitude. Saeed has nothing but praise for those who organised and attended vigils in his daughter’s name. He speaks lovingly of strangers who embraced him and were kind to he and his family at the makeshift memorial to Aiia. Saeed tells me he is grateful to Victoria Police, to the Prime Minister, to the Premier, to everyone in the Palestinian community here in Melbourne. His family have received nothing but love during this cruel and unimaginable time. He loves Australia. I shake my head a little in disbelief.
It was, of course, only a matter of the time before race and religion reared their divisive heads in the coverage of Aiia Massarwe’s death. Less than a week after her murder and everyone on social media is pointing fingers. Not at the accused but at one another and at the press. Initially described in newspaper reports as Israeli, others are now claiming that Aiia is Arab, that she’s Palestinian and that her heritage is being deliberately erased. I ask Saeed off camera to clarify how he would like his daughter’s nationality described. I do not want to get this wrong.
“She is a person,” he tells me. “Report [that] she is a person. That is all [you] need to know”. In a moment when this man could be forgiven for feelings of deep hate and anger, his message consistently remains one of peace. Rather than being pulled into the politics of his homeland, Saeed wishes only for his daughter to be remembered for who she was. I hope that through this interview we’re able to communicate that as best we can.
Aiia is described by her father as someone who was always happy and smiling, funny and cheeky. Saeed’s stories of Aiia’s childhood are playful and joyous, of her wanting to be part of everything and always talking to everyone. In the telling, these stories reveal a man who gives his children every opportunity to be themselves and follow whatever path they chose. Regardless of custom or cultural pressure, he wanted his daughter to have the life she desired. Even if that meant travelling halfway across the world to study somewhere strange and unfamiliar to him.
Caroline Overington, who has interviewed some of the world’s biggest celebrities, wrote for the Women’s Weekly once that: “The most impressive people on earth – in my opinion, anyway – are those ordinary folk who suddenly and inexplicably and unfairly find themselves caught in a tragedy of near-unfathomable proportions”. Those words ring especially true to me now. I feel privileged to have met and spent some time with Saeed Massarwe. And after hearing his loving and vivid descriptions of Aiia, the horror of her death weighs heavier on me still. She sounds like an extraordinary young woman. I wish I could have met her too.
Main image credit: James D. Morgan/Getty Images
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