May Doncon – Fear, flight and freedom

In May’s words…

Who/what inspires me: Ordinary people who face great adversity in their lives every day with courage and determination. As a social worker, I have been very privileged to work with and get to know these ordinary Australians. They are the ones who care for sick or disabled family members, fight and overcome physical and mental health problems, and are generous with their time and resources when they don’t have much themselves.

Best advice/motto: I love any quote by Mahatma Gandhi.  My favourite is: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”  This is something I try to live my life by.

May Doncon was seven years old when she discovered her grandfather’s blood-encrusted clothes spread out on her grandmother’s bed. Recoiling she gasped and backed away, as a terrible realisation dawned. Snippets of adults’ hushed conversations swarmed through her head, whispers of torture, terrified tears, rumours of a possible execution. So it had finally happened, she realised looking at the dried-blood splattered clothes before her. Her granddad, imprisoned in an Iranian jail, had been executed by firing squad.

Fast forward 34 years and May reflects on her own kids’ lives in middle-class Geraldton, Western Australia. They are around the age she was when her family fled their home in Iran. And she smiles to herself as she jokes that the biggest tragedy they encounter is the banning of their iPad. It’s exactly the life her family barely dared hope for when they escaped through the mountains to Pakistan and began their lives in exile.

So how did someone who once feared for her life, lost her every possession and began life anew in a foreign land, build such a comfortable life for herself?

Snippets of adults’ hushed conversations swarmed through her head, whispers of torture, terrified tears, rumours of a possible execution.

May’s fifth birthday party in Iran, before her family’s peaceful existence was shattered.

Peace shattered

May and her family had enjoyed a comfortable life in Iran when the Iranian Revolution shattered their peaceful existence. Her father was a lawyer, her mother a teacher and life was fine when the first missiles fell in Tehran. Under the new regime, her family’s Baha’i faith was no long acceptable. Her grandfather, who’d converted from Islam to Baha’i, was the first to suffer. The decision to change religion from Islam had become a crime punishable by death.

Captured and imprisoned, he endured torture before his final execution. May remembers lining up for hour upon hour to visit him in prison, an excruciatingly boring wait for a child, only to see him for rushed 10 minute visits. She remembers her grandmother falling apart as rumours of an execution date mounted. She recalls learning that her dear grandfather’s body would not be released to his family, his lifeless form instead tossed into a mass grave.

In the meantime May’s parents lost their jobs, she was banned from attending school, their passports were confiscated. Panicked, her parents started selling possessions to survive. And then came the final blow: May’s dad had been summoned to court – a possible death sentence.

… his lifeless form … tossed into a mass grave.


Within three days of the summons May’s family had sold everything they could, bade rushed goodbyes, and enlisted the help of people smugglers. These people would smuggle in drugs from Afghanistan and smuggle out people on their return journey – hardly the type of characters with whom to entrust your family’s lives. But May’s family had no choice.

“I remember it was very heartbreaking. We didn’t know if we’d see [the rest of the family] again,” May says. “And we were absolutely terrified. We knew of people who hadn’t made it.”

May’s family huddled into the smugglers’ car, and they travelled through the freezing night, the car’s headlights off, over winding roads, through foreboding mountains. They hid by day. Their food ran out. Her parents began to panic. They’d paid their every cent to the smugglers. If this didn’t work, there’d be no second chances.

By the fourth day they emerged from the mountains’ clutches into Pakistan where they registered with the United Nations. They could finally breathe out. May’s family were now officially refugees. “It was all so surreal,” May remembers. “Two weeks before we had no plans to leave the country. But we felt hopeful.”

If this didn’t work, there’d be no second chances.

family reunion
May’s family bade rushed goodbyes to their loved ones and didn’t see them until more than 30 years later at this reunion in Hawaii.

Life in limbo

So began the long, tedious, drawn-out process of waiting for a new life. May’s family were assigned to a single room in a building jammed with refugees. Hygiene was poor and sickness rife. May’s mother had become pregnant with her third child with little access to medical help. But May remembers the worst thing as the lack of access to education and the boredom that entailed.

“Passing the time was really tedious,” she says. “We couldn’t really go outside because sex abuse was really high in Pakistan, and it was especially risky if you were a refugee because you’ve got no protection at all. But we’d just draw a lot and use our imagination and when mum had the baby that was really good – it was like I had a toy to play with.”

The boredom and the lack of knowing their future fate tested their psyche, yet they formed life-long friendships as they wiled away the days in limbo. Rather than dwell on the negatives, May’s family considered themselves lucky. If anything they suffered survivor guilt at having the chance of a new life. And finally that chance presented itself – Australia.

Rather than dwell on the negatives, May’s family considered themselves lucky.

A new life

“When we found out we were really joyful and hopeful,” May says. “We didn’t know much about Australia – you couldn’t Google it back then. And we’d never heard of Perth. It was exciting but scary too.”

The family arrived in Perth on a sunny spring day in 1985. Stunned by the bright skies, cleanliness and smiles, they were whisked away to a migrant centre in Claremont, assigned a cottage, given medical examinations, fed and taught English. ­­They were astounded by the level of support. But after two months it was time to go it alone. May’s dad determined that life would be easiest in the country so they moved to Harvey and May and her younger sister started school. Their poor English meant they were dumped into classes with disabled kids. But May was having none of that. She’d attend normal lessons, she announced, determined to catch up on the two years of schooling she’d missed in Pakistan, and learn the English language.

She doesn’t remember experiencing racism or discrimination, but she does recall the shame at realising they were poor. It was harder on May’s parents. Her mother descended into post-natal depression as she grappled to find a place in this new world. Her father too became depressed as the once lawyer battled to find work. Eventually they decided to shift back to Perth.

“It was exciting but scary too.”

A life calling

Life settled into its own rhythm. May’s mum started a curtain-making business, her dad got a job as a taxi driver, a position he retains today. May and her sisters finished school and embarked on university degrees. May moved to Sydney and here, unshackled from her past, she felt free. She also discovered social work, and found her life calling.

May’s job took her back to country Western Australia, to the small town of Katanning. And here she met Phil Doncon, an Aussie bloke from the bush who would become her husband. A few years later they moved to Geraldton in the Western Australian Mid West. They had two kids, they immersed themselves in the community. May soared through the ranks in her career to eventually become mental health clinical manager of Medicare Local. She oversees a staff of 27, and relishes the challenge of working in mental health.

May and her husband Phil, and their kids Matt and Liam.

Looking back on her life so far she feels incredibly lucky at the chances life presented. It could easily have been so different. And she feels a responsibility to give back to the country that welcomed her. She volunteers her time to chair Geraldton’s Women’s Health Centre to aid people in need. She’s a big supporter of her local tae kwon do club. And she wants to raise her kids as world citizens – moral beings who give to those in need.

“I feel really lucky to have had the opportunities I’ve had and feel the need to give back,” she says.

“We need to remember how lucky we are to live in Australia.  As a social worker I know very well that many people suffer hardships in Australia and there is a lot of room for improvement, but at the end of the day, we live in one of the most peaceful, tolerant and beautiful countries in the world.”

“… we live in one of the most peaceful, tolerant and beautiful countries in the world.”

People potential

May says she’s never encountered problems with racism, and regards Australians as the type to take people at face value. But she also urges Australians to remember that behind every refugee is a person with potential.

“Refugees are seen as such a burden,” she says. “When we first come we need a lot of tax payers’ money spent on us but it’s not for long and then were are contributing to the community. People need to look past these weird people who don’t speak English and see their potential. They need to see the human resources in refugees.”

 “People need to … see their potential.”


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