Raised in a refugee camp, missing an education and having lost a parent, it was five years until Danijel Malbasa could begin to rebuild his life. Two decades on, Danijel reflects on life as a child forced to flee and his journey to Australia.


I found this grainy photo stuck between the yellowing pages of my mother's old photo album. It was taken on 23 April 1999 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia in the dying days of a broken country. The photo says so much but it does not encompass the life of a refugee child.

My family and I were about to board a UNHCR chartered bus to take us to Budapest for a flight to South Korea, and then on to Adelaide, our new home. I was 12 and it was my first plane ride.

We couldn’t speak English. We knew no one in Australia. The entire contents of our lives were stuffed into one duffle bag between the four of us: a mother and three sons.

We should have been rejoicing. We’d just won the refugee lottery, a chance at resettlement. But everyone looks solemn and tired after so much loss: of a home, of possessions, of a childhood, of a father, of a husband and of a country.

Our sister could not come with us because immigration laws can separate families with a stroke of a pen. We left her in a war zone – heavily pregnant. I pressed my face against the back window of the bus and watched as she disappeared.

Danijel (second from right) with his brother and mother in Belgrade about to board a UNHCR chartered bus to Budapest for a flight to Australia, April 1999. © Supplied

It was difficult for my mother to be separated from her daughter – she thought she would never see her again. All my mother ever wanted was to keep her family together, but it would take another six years for us all to be reunited. 

It was a long journey for my mother to get us onto that bus.

A war widow, she fled from Croatia with us under the cover of darkness five years prior, leaving everything behind. When you're a refugee, the only thing you carry with you is your blood. She walked with us for days and nights in search of safety before finding shelter at a refugee camp. 

My mother got a job milking 300 cows every morning at a nearby dairy. It was my job to herd the cows into bays and carry heavy buckets twice my body weight in the freezing cold. I was unpaid. I was out of school. I was eight years old.

But it was familiar work. At home in Croatia in our beautiful remote village, my family had goats and I was responsible for the herding, milking and feeding.

Back at the refugee camp, UNHCR provided us with life-saving items like shelter, food, clothing and medicine. I know first-hand that donations made to Australia for UNHCR really do reach those in need.

From goat herding refugee boy to an Australian lawyer – nothing is impossible © Supplied

UNHCR made sure we were not invisible. In a country with so much conflict, it was easy to not be seen or heard. UNHCR staff visited us often and made us feel like someone cared.

Five years later, at the airport in Budapest we were met by a woman who worked for the United Nations. She spoke to us kindly in English and was all winks and bright smiles. I couldn't understand English, but I understood smiles.

I am still so moved by the words used in my mother’s refugee visa. It says she is regarded as “a person of concern to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees”.

After all she had endured, after always looking out for others and especially us, finally someone showed concern for her.

UNHCR and Australia offered me resettlement but most importantly a new life.

Danijel Malbasa is a Melbourne based industrial lawyer and a refugee from the 1990s war in the Balkans. He volunteers his legal skills helping asylum seeker applicants and writes to humanise the refugee experience.


Danijel (right) with his brother and his mother on the floor of a refugee camp, somewhere between Serbia and Kosovo © Supplied

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