Life on the breadline

It takes a massive amount of courage to share one’s journey into poverty with strangers. Debe did that, both with me, and with the SBS audience, for the network’s new documentary about living in poverty, Could You Survive on the Breadline? Here’s a little of her story, as written by me for SBS Voices, and I thank Debe for her honesty, drive and care at a time when she has so little left to give


“Carers are drowning. If we’re not drowning in debt, we’re drowning in lack of self-care”

Could you survive on less than $65.30 a day?

At $426.30 a week, the poverty line is something most of us have never had to face. But 3.24 million Australians, many of whom depend on government welfare payments, are living in poverty – a place of fear, stigma and powerlessness that is laid bare in new SBS series, Could You Survive on the Breadline?

For Debe, 62, in Sydney’s west, it was her husband’s illness that threw her into poverty. For 120 hours every week, she is on hand to nurse her husband, Ron, who is 74 and has advanced dementia. He is immobile, incontinent and can no longer talk.

Debe has chosen to provide home care for Ron rather than sending him to a nursing home. To give him the round-the-clock attention he needs, she left her job as a cleaner and has spent all of their superannuation and savings. She now relies on her local food bank to help put meals on the table.

“Carers are drowning. If we’re not drowning in debt, we’re drowning in lack of self-care,” Debe tells SBS Voices.

“My husband literally relies on me to move his body, keep him clean, keep him socially engaged and to help with pressure care and feeding. I’m his arms, his legs, his voice, I’m everything. And people don’t understand how consuming that is,” she says.

The government provides her with a carer’s payment and carer’s allowance totalling $861.20 a fortnight, or around $3.60 an hour. With that, she must first account for the consumables she buys for Ron’s care, including pads, sheets, wipes, medication, food supplements, gloves, sanitisers, creams and cleaning products that are critical to his wellbeing.

Debe is fortunate in that she and Ron have paid off their home, but her latest water bill was about $500 and her electricity over $1000.

Ron is supported by a home care package that does not cover the cost of his equipment and care worker, who is paid $42-$60 an hour, six hours a day.

After using her own support payments towards the care worker, Debe is left with almost nothing. Without the “life saving” charity of her church food bank, which provides her with fruit, vegetables and meat for just $8 a fortnight, even food would be a stretch.

There are no holidays, no meals out, no purchases for herself and even the hairdresser is beyond the budget.

“People need to know that carers are doing it tough financially. People think you’re at home, the government is throwing you money,” she says. “I’m grateful for that amount of money but it doesn’t even touch the surface.”  

Could You Survive on the Breadline? follows three prominent Australians as they attempt to survive on welfare budgets, along the way challenging preconceived ideas about those who rely on government support and the realities of the welfare system. Social security is often called a safety net – and yet, as the program shows, it so often leaves its recipients anything but protected.

Masterchef winner Julie Goodwin, who has first-hand experience of collecting welfare and understands its stigma, spends time with Debe and Ron in the series and says it is “criminal” that the welfare Debe receives is not enough to cover food, let alone a home care structure that allows her any respite.

“No self-care is a recipe for burnout and disaster,” Julie says, adding that there is “no way on earth” the budget she was given on the program – a combination of the JobSeeker payment and the Disability Support Pension – would cover food, rent, bills, a car and clothing. 

The load is taking its toll on Debe and she is now applying for the NDIS because of her own chronic ill-health. In rare moments of downtime, she paints rocks and gives herself a manicure – small acts that she says help “keep your sanity and keep your connection”. She also advocates for carers and studies support in aged care as ways to take positives from her situation.

But it is her community that really keeps her afloat, she says. Her six children, 14 grandchildren, church and carer network are part of the loving community that Ron stays at the heart of by staying at home.

Debe is sharing her story with the hope that it may help shift welfare policy, which must adapt to the needs of carers.

“With dementia, you grieve while they’re still here,” she tells Julie on camera. “Because I know that I’m losing my husband and the government’s not doing what it can and what it ought to do.”

Could You Survive on the Breadline? premieres at 8.30pm, Wednesday 17 November on SBS and SBS On Demand. The three-part series will also be available to stream at SBS On Demand with subtitles in Arabic, Korean, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese and Vietnamese.  See the Program Page for more articles and insights.


My country, Afghanistan

Four days after the Taliban took control of the city of her birth, Mahboba Rawi spoke with me about the work she is doing to help the children and women of Afghanistan. She kindly and gently told me her story having not slept or eaten properly since the collapse of Kabul, her hours now filled by the race to evacuate as many families as possible.

Here’s her story, as told to me, for SBS:

Mahboba Rawi was born and raised in Kabul, fleeing when Russia invaded Afghanistan in 1979. She now lives in NSW and founded a charity to support Afghan women and children, Mahboba’s Promise, 26 years ago after a family tragedy that changed her life.

“There are no words to describe the amount of suffering in Afghanistan. What has happened is shocking and it has affected us badly emotionally – our community has a proud history of fighting and being brave but they have fought for 40 years.

Everybody in Kabul has gone into deep silence and nobody wants to leave the house. Imagine the last day of the world and absolute panic – that is what happened to my people. People tried to run away, if there was one road open they just went for it, risking their lives. Now, they are silent.

They feel betrayed, they feel abandoned, they don’t know what to do. The economy is down, the shops are closed, there is coronavirus. It’s like the whole country dropped from the sky and is in pieces and now the people have to put Afghanistan back together.

We have an orphanage in Kabul and there are about 900 displaced families in a camp close by. Each family has five to 10 children. This is only one camp, there are many more. There was war everywhere during the peace negotiations and these people fled to Kabul.

They don’t have anything, their houses have been demolished or burnt, they are homeless. One lady gave birth to a tiny little girl there, she is 10 days’ old now. The devastation, that level of poverty, my God. You go to the camp and they jump on you, they are desperate for food and water. I saw this when Russia left, it’s heartbreaking. Yesterday we gave baby milk to 100 children in the camp. Today we are cooking for 900 people. 

We have around 80 workers at Mahboba’s Promise and all of them were once in the orphanage. They are well educated and open-minded – and they look like Aussies because we take them clothes and shoes from here. What are they going to do? I told them, ‘Go ahead and help, we are not doing anything wrong, why should we be scared of the Taliban? We are Muslim, we all pray five times, we are doing the holy work of helping support people.’ I said to them, ‘If anybody is stopping you, put me on the loudspeaker and I will speak to them.’

I grew up in Kabul, but after Russia invaded Afghanistan, I fled to Pakistan and came to Australia in 1984. But in 1992 I lost a son. He drowned in Kiama. We went for a picnic and a wave came and washed him away. When I was beside his coffin I realised that I’d rather have died. After that tragedy, I became a different person. I took the sorrow and turned it into strength and I promised to dedicate my life to children in Afghanistan. I didn’t care about material things any more, my mission in life had changed and there was so much to do.

I learnt how to raise money and, 26 years later, we have built orphanages, schools, a maternity clinic and programs to educate widows and to help them stand on their feet and to heal. It’s a nightmare for any mother to lose a child, I did it and I know they did it. I became a mother and father to the widows’ children.

All of the children who were tiny little babies at the beginning have now become adults. They have finished university and they are doctors, they have law degrees and are fighting for women’s justice. My work is like a tree – and my tree has just started fruiting. But the Taliban have come to take all of the fruit. 

Afghanistan is a country with no prime minister. The Taliban have thrown out the flag. Is this democracy? Nobody wants to stay, it’s going to be a dead country. But please, Australia, don’t give up on Afghan women – they need us more than ever before.”

Find out more about Mahboba’s Promise here


Finally, first in family

As I interviewed Katelyn Mills for this story to mark NAIDOC 2021 at SBS, I kept thinking about the book I’m reading, Who Gets to be Smart by Bri Lee. To me, Katelyn represents so much of the good fight when it comes to injecting the educational system with some horribly overdue balance – and perhaps even helping to dismantle the pervasive, oft-poisonous reach of the kyriarchy.

As she says, ‘I’ll come back here and show you all how to do it!’

Sovereignty was never ceded. This is, and always will be, Aboriginal land.

Read Katelyn’s story in full at SBS.

Here’s a little taster:

Katelyn Mills, 24, is a Gamilaraay woman studying a Master’s of Research in Education. She is from Moree, NSW, and lives in Sydney. She spoke to Daisy Dumas about being First in Family having graduated from Macquarie University in 2020 with a Bachelor of Education, majoring in Biology and Chemistry.

University felt in reach and out of reach. Growing up in Moree, my family didn’t put too much value towards education – if we weren’t up for going to school my parents didn’t really mind. I think that’s what motivated me to go to school, it gave me a sense of independence and structure I didn’t have at home. I’ve always looked up to my teachers and they inspired me to become a teacher.

As I got older, those dreams seemed more and more unattainable. As I learned more about the education system, the discrepancies between metropolitan and rural schools, and the public and private sectors, I lost a bit of hope for my future.


Living in limbo, unable to leave

It is exactly six months and one week since my mother died on a raining November evening in England. The country had just been thrown into another lockdown, this time with schools open and pubs shut. The sun shone once that day, a curtain of silver that poured from a split in the deep grey and dissolved as quickly as it appeared.

Read my latest for The Guardian here.

Or my version in full here:

It is exactly six months and one week since my mother died on a raining November evening in England. The country had just been thrown into another lockdown, this time with schools open and pubs shut. The sun shone once that day, a curtain of silver that poured from a split in the deep grey and dissolved as quickly as it appeared.

I know, because I was there, under the West Country sky. And I was there because I had, in a haze of panic and sick with fear five days earlier, somehow mustered enough clarity to fill in an exemption to leave application and satisfy the Australian government’s unique and harsh border restrictions. I had scrambled for letters from doctors, submitted images of my dying mother, bought flights I knew wouldn’t fly, flung winter clothes together for myself and my two toddlers and kissed my husband goodbye, not knowing when we’d get back to him. I doused my children in sanitiser as we made our way through darkened, hushed airports, bus terminals and train stations in three countries. By the time I reached my mother in her care home, I knew only to strip away my regulation top-to-toe PPE and climb into her bed, resting my head on her shoulder and stroking her soft, cool hand.

Tonight, here I am, half a year on, listening to the news of another Australian man and his Indian mother dying from Covid in India. In Sydney, her remaining son is pleading to allow his grieving 83-year-old father, who survived Covid, to join him in Australia. He would have heard, of course, that borders will most likely stay tightly shut until June 2022 – and that, as a non-citizen, even as a parent of an Australian, his chances of gaining an exemption to enter the country are next to impossible.

Last winter, I wrote about my fears of being unable to get to my sick mother in the UK and how, for better or worse, my life in Australia depended on the air traffic that blights the skies but delivers so many of us to our loved ones. It turned out that the very worst did eventuate – but, in a perversity of norms that could only be wrought by a deeply human crisis, it also turned out that I’m very fortunate, given this moment, in this place, in this pandemic.

I’m Australian and I got to her in time. For every story like mine, there are hundreds, if not thousands, that end with a computer-says-no thud.

I have heard of babies who haven’t met their fathers and wives who haven’t seen their husbands in 18 months. There’s a friend whose father passed away from Covid and couldn’t get to him in time. And another, whose Czech father hid the extent of his stage four cancer from her so that she wouldn’t have to confront the risk of no exemption and dumbfounding costs of flights, given all he had heard about our isolationist way. Then there’s my British father, who’d very much appreciate coming to scatter his Australian wife-of-nearly-50-years’ ashes, sort out her affairs and spend time with his Australian daughters and grandchildren. Yet, parents don’t count as close family and so, the answer, once again, is a no.

Like so many here without family overseas and those looking on from abroad, he doesn’t get it. They can’t get their heads around our border closure. Is that even allowed? they ask.

I completed hotel quarantine with a two- and a three-year-old while grieving. It wasn’t hard compared to the haze of uncertainty that came before it on Australian soil – not being able to freely visit my unwell mother, the fears over how I’d secure an exemption and afford flights, the predicted (and extremely pricey) battles to get seats home to Sydney. No, quarantine was fine. Quarantine makes sense. It’s the lack of a plan that really wears a soul down.

November feels like a bad dream, but the perversity continues, because, now, after my mother’s death has come a sense of grim relief. The limbo of watching from afar, helpless and desperate, is over. I will never have to submit another exemption to travel request to the heavy machinery of the federal government moments after seeing her, supine and hollow-cheeked, as a nurse held an iPad over her deathbed. And with that knowing, that immensely sad knowing, the stories of the missed deaths and illness and human moments strike me with the force of a body blow. I got out and came back when so many couldn’t and won’t – and their limbo stretches on. For now, they must wait for the too-slow vaccine rollout to unfurl and for confidence to nudge away fear on one hand and easy, gilded disconnection on the other.

The virus will reach us, no matter how long we are kept apart from family and loved ones, no matter how long we are prevented from finishing university courses and starting jobs and maintaining businesses and giving safe harbour to refugees. Keep us locked in and the world locked out until Doomsday and the virus will still find us, smug hermits, suntanned but alone.

When I was a little girl, my school motto was ut sibi sic alteri. Treat others how you’d like to be treated. Nowadays, I’d add: even, and especially, when fearful. It’s what makes us human.