‘The only thing keeping me going is hoping. I met some really nice people. I love them’.
He leans forward, his face serious, whispering.
‘The Australian people keep my heart warm, alive’.
I stare at him incredulously. At this stage, it’s likely the young man sitting across from me will be deported back to the country he fled from, a place where an inevitable death awaits him. I sit here, knowing that a government that does not represent me is doing everything in its power to prevent him from being granted asylum.
He gazes wearily into my eyes, filled with a small, slightly formidable shred of hope.
I am in pieces.
I interviewed Farid* six months ago on a balmy summer’s eve on my balcony. He leaned in close so the iPad could record his barely audible voice. I felt chills despite the warm weather and was a wreck in the aftermath of taking it all in. It took many failed attempts to finally sit down and write it and even more months to work up the courage to post this piece. Recently my journalist best friend called me to say she had also recorded his story. Afterwards she sat immobile on her floor, unable to move or even comprehend transcribing the interview. We both agreed to hold off on publishing or broadcasting until we had checked with lawyers and made certain that publicising his story would not put his delicate case for asylum in further jeopardy, or make life harder for him in his home country, should the cruellest outcome of sending him back ever occur.
I decided to tell his story either way.
He walks with a quiet gait, in an almost trance-like state, lost in thought, distracted and downcast. He won’t talk unless he is spoken to and at first, he responds with quiet, delicate, one-word answers, muffled slightly by his accent.
I fire question after question at him, as though I’m trying to break through some kind of invisible barrier. I don’t know what I’m trying to get out of him or this interview or why I’m even doing it. I haven’t even begun and I am already helpless, limp and lost in a sea of thoughts plagued by the media, by conversations I’m trying to mute in my head, as this young man sits bravely and stoically before me.
‘What makes you happy?’ I ask him later, after questions about the anguish of travelling by boat, of living in limbo and waiting for residency, of escaping his country and the problems he faced and just before he outlines his hopes and dreams of becoming a world champion in the sporting field he has excelled at (it’s because he is so successful in this field that I can’t name the sport, for it will almost certainly give him away), when he responds:
‘I don’t know what you mean?’ he responds humbly and unassuming, as though ‘happy’ is not an option for him.
I have to explain the word ‘happiness’ to him and eventually he answers, smiling for the first time that evening…
We start at the very beginning.
‘How did you get to Australia?’
‘Boat’, he says seriously. ‘I didn’t know it was going to be a boat like that’.
I try not to think about what kind of boat he had in mind. Political problems plagued his local neighbourhood only a few years ago. A powerful local Islamic group made life impossible for him and his family.
‘They have the power to kill and put people in jail. They’re with the government but they have their own rules’.
He had a prominent position in his community and in the city council, so he was often in their direct line of fire. When his life was threatened and he was in danger of being captured, tortured and imprisoned by the group, he made the decision to leave his home country. Farid made the trip by plane and arrived in Indonesia.
He spent two months there. He quickly discovered that people could be waiting up to one or two years for the UN to make a decision about their case and to send them somewhere safe. He stayed in a house with ten people living on top of each other. That’s when he started to hear that Australia was a good place to go, that it was safe for refugees.
You have no idea where you’re going but suddenly you’re travelling in a van squished together with ten people. You spend 25 hours in that van, with no end in sight.
‘You’re feeling shit and you don’t know where you’re going or how long it takes. You just go, no other option’.
This is only the prelude to the now infamous boat journey. Eventually he makes his way on to a small, rickety boat, where the worst experience of his life gently beckoned towards him. He recalls that there must have been 70 people in the boat.
Until that day he had never been on a boat in his life.
They were on the sea for two days before arriving in Christmas Island. In that time the experience was so harrowing, that his only thought was of throwing himself into the sea.
I ask him to tell me more about the boat. His face transforms now into a slightly crazed expression.
He tells me how you have hope before you get on the boat, but when you are on the sea, the wild crazy sea, squished in with desperate people you don’t know, you start to feel bad, you start to regret the decision to get on the boat in the first place. But you are here now, terrified as it rains and as you rock back and forth on choppy waters. You had no idea it would be like this and you don’t know where you’re going.
‘Did you know the boats can sink?’ I interject.
‘I hear about this when I am already on the boat!’ he cries out.
‘You are thinking you might get lost at sea and you hear the screams of the children’.
‘I can say I died in that time. You want to die. You don’t have a choice to go back, Even if it capsizes, you have to finish the journey or you die’.
He describes how the boat nearly crashed on Christmas Island and I shudder at the thought. I grip the chair beneath me when he tells me how they were seen to be coming towards the island but no one helped them.
They try to call the Australian police and plead with them.
‘Why are you not coming to catch us?’ they cry into the phone, hearing indifference on the other end. I dwell on the incorrect use of the word ‘catch’ for some reason. It reminds me of fish.
The Australian personnel kept them on the water from 9pm to 9am.
‘Oh what, doesn’t anyone work the night shift?!’ I scoff, my sarcasm flying over his head. I am getting worked up but he doesn’t even notice. He is back there now on that boat.
Eventually the royalty emerge from their thrones to rescue the 70 odd, desperate people. They ‘catch’ them and take them straight to detention.
He spent 4.5 months in detention. After that he was moved around like cattle. One month on Christmas Island, six weeks in Darwin, two months in detention in Broome. He relays the numbers like clockwork, as though this isn’t valuable time in a young man’s life.
‘It’s like prison. It’s a waste of time’.
‘There are people who have been there for three or four years. They were suicidal, crazy. They see people get released, while they stay, not knowing why.’
Something miraculous happened along the way. He starts to talk about one of the detention centres being a more open and friendly place. His face lights up when he mentions his sudden turn and interest in Christianity during his time in Darwin. He joins a group who teach him about the Bible and charity work. He seems visibly uplifted when he talks about this class and how it allowed him to leave Detention in order to talk to other people. The cynic in me wonders if Christianity’s appeal was in the slight hint of freedom it afforded them, but I start to realise that its drawcard was bigger than that. It gave him a sense of purpose and belonging during a time that was deadening and devoid of life.
‘I have good feeling with Christianity and I like it. They are nice people, very helpful…and…why not?’
Farid converted to Christianity during his time in detention. The religious Islamic group that he had escaped from found out about this because in his words, ‘they hear everything’. The real reason is that Farid has a high profile back home. He was a national champion in his chosen sport. Thanks to social media, it’s easier than ever for extreme religious groups to find out things you don’t want them to know. They go to his family’s house and make a scene, swearing and threatening them.
It ends in them stabbing his brother. I ask how he felt about this and he shakes his head and stays silent.
Having converted to Christianity, it seems his life back home is in peril. If he goes back, he could be executed. Farid is eventually placed in Sydney, where he is embraced by a small Australian community who love and adore him, making it all the more devastating when his application for asylum is rejected after being handed to the new and, let’s face it, atrocious Liberal government (and handed from one case worker to the next, each time making it more and more difficult for Farid to plead his case).
They started to ask him about things he couldn’t possibly remember and drill him for details from two years ago – names, dates, the exact name of that guy and that small thing that happened on that street. They assume from the outset that you are lying and the onus is on the desperate, fleeing refugee, to have to prove that you’re not lying – you’re simply traumatised by the entire experience, obviously. After facing rejection time and time again, he sends a letter to Scott Morrison pleading his case but like all things to do with Scott Morrison, it is futile.
He whispers to me that if they send him back, he will end his own life. I believe him when he says this. Months later, news broke of Leo Seemanpillai’s tragic death. My hand flew to my heart. I know this story, I think, and it’s closer to home now than ever before – because this story has become our home, the home we have built for ourselves on our great and sprawling, hostile continent.
I am now so acutely aware of the agonising impact this ordeal has on the mental health of such resilient people and I am afraid for them and for the future of this country.
‘I didn’t know you were going to ask me about the bad boat’, Farid remarks as we walk to the car.
‘I thought I was going to talk about my sport. But I am happy to talk with you about these things. It is like talking to the psychiatrist – I feel better now!’
We laugh and I hug him goodbye, feeling more useless than ever.
My new friend watches on, helpless to the unfolding calamity, caught between worlds, unable to go back, unable to stay, unable to breathe freely without the impending sense that he is neither welcome nor safe.
All the while my heart is gradually breaking in one long calamitous slow take, like shards of crystal shattering across the island.
We are long overdue for our revolution.
*names have been changed