I’d been sitting in John Gulzari’s living room for more than an hour when he suddenly jumped up and rushed from the room. John is a Hazara man who fled Afghanistan in 1999, and I had been interviewing him for a book of oral histories about people’s experiences in Australia’s immigration detention centres. John’s house was sparsely furnished, in the Afghan style, with no chairs or tables – we’d been sitting on cushions on the carpeted floor while John told me about fleeing from the Taliban, alone, in his teens.

When John returned to the living room, he was holding an old cassette tape. It was, he said, one of the few things he’d brought with him on his journey to Australia. On the tape was a song by Hazara singer Dawood Sarkhosh. “A song,” in John’s words, “about the homeland. About the sorrow of our people; our people have been refugees our whole life, neglected in Afghanistan.”

It was this tape that John asked the driver to play as they made their way towards the small fishing boat in which he would make the dangerous crossing from Indonesia to Australia. The seas were rough, and John couldn’t swim. He said to the driver: “before I drown I would like to listen to this music for one last time.” And so they drove on towards the ocean, this Indonesian driver and his Hazara passengers, listening to a song about a lost homeland. “It was a very important moment,” said John. “It made me feel connected to my homeland, listening to his voice, his charming voice, I feel it to my heart, it was like my final wishes.”

When I’ve spoken to refugees and asylum seekers, I’ve always been interested in the objects they bring with them. After all, to be a refugee is to experience a series of profound losses. You lose your home, your country, perhaps your family. Many lose their careers or their language. So the things people choose – or don’t choose – to bring with them on their uncertain journeys can be telling.

What would you take if you had to seek refuge? There are the practical things, of course. Clothes and money, a passport if you have one. A phone, to get in touch with the smuggler who will get you across the border. And things for the future – or at least, for the future you imagine for yourself. An address written on a scrap of paper, a dictionary in your soon-to-be new language.

Another one of the people interviewed was Lina, whose family fled from Iran to Syria. They were still in Syria when the war broke out. “You walk around, you go shopping,” said Lina, “people are selling stuff, drinks, everything is okay, and suddenly you go back to the same places and they are totally different, all collapsed.” Lina and her family had to move around a lot – they spent years looking for somewhere safe to live.

When Lina found out that her family would try to flee Syria for Australia, she did her research. She watched videos online of the Australian accent. “It’s really difficult,” she said. “I told my family, ‘I like Melbourne’.” But that orientation towards the future left little space for the past. “Every time we left a place we had to leave out stuff. I had to throw out many things I loved, from my childhood, everything.” Lina said it was impossible to take things like photos and birthday gifts. Even her notebooks: “I love to write, I love to read poems in Arabic, so I had many things in my books.”

Still only a teenager, she had to enter into a terrible calculation: is holding on to the past worth endangering your future? “Cutting the photos from our life, the people we loved, it was emotional. But being safe was more important than photos. At that time, they were nothing for me, I want[ed] to be safe. But when we get here, safe, I thought, ‘Why did I do that? Why did I throw them away?’”

Back at John’s house in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, he showed me where he kept the tape. The room was full of past things: handwritten notes from men he’d met in detention, money from the countries he passed through on his way to safety.

He still listens to the song now. It takes him back, he said, to a time when his country was peaceful: “It takes me back to those places I used to live, it takes me back to my homeland where we had a peaceful life, my family, next of kin, tribesmen, relatives. And the time that I enjoyed with my mother and father and siblings. Some of them cannot come back.”