‘What Was the Point?’: Freed After 9 Years, Refugees Learn to Live Again

MELBOURNE, Australia – The men rummage around the front of the weathered motel, blinking in the sunlight, unsure of what to do with themselves. At their feet are suitcases and large plastic bags containing everything they own.

For nearly nine years these seven men had been prisoners of Australia’s unyielding approach to refugees, for much of that time held in miserable offshore camps. Now they had been released without warning, given half an hour to pack, the worst of their ordeal behind them, but their future was as uncertain as ever.

As they waited to be taken to their new home in a motel on the outskirts of Melbourne, a jumble of emotions rippled through them, the words “nine years” repeated in notes of relief, wonder and annoyance.

One man, a refugee named Mohammad, said he felt nothing. “I’m not happy,” he said, standing in the doorway of his room.

For Mohammad, the abrupt and arbitrary conclusion of his detention heightened the futility of what he had endured – the trauma of finding a friend hanging lifeless in the offshore camp; the nightmare of digging wells in the jungle and searching for coconuts after the Australian government closed the camp and tried to evict the men with no better alternative.

“It’s been nine years,” he said. “Why? What was the point?”

In March and April, Australia’s Conservative government, trailing in the polls in an election it would eventually lose, released a number of asylum seekers once detained in offshore camps and now locked up in hotels and detention centers across the country. . The releases, which the government made in quick succession without public comment, followed some sporadic releases of asylum seekers over the past year and a half.

The migrants had been detained under a policy, instituted in 2013, prohibiting resettlement by those attempting to enter the country by sea. The government has long maintained that the policy is key to preventing both a runaway immigration flow to Australia and deaths at sea. The International Criminal Court prosecutor’s office said in 2020 that the program was cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and a “violation of fundamental rules of international law”.

The released asylum seekers were given a six-month visa but were told to make preparations to leave Australia. With this limbo, it is a daunting task to return to normal life after years of psychological and physical damage.

Mohammad, who is in his thirties and asked to remember his last name to protect his family from further persecution in Iran, had been released from an immigration detention hotel in Melbourne. That place, the Park Hotel, became infamous this year when tennis superstar Novak Djokovic was briefly detained there for violating Australia’s Covid vaccination rules.

He and the other men had been transferred to the mainland from Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, or from the small island of Nauru, as part of a short-term medical treatment program. After they left detention, they each received $340 from the government, a few weeks of lodging, and some groceries — though their new motel homes didn’t have kitchens. They were also assigned caseworkers to guide them through the bureaucratic labyrinth of freedom.

The men identify each other by the point at which they met during their long journeys as asylum seekers, and by the scars they have accumulated: we were in this together; I know him from the Park Hotel; he swallowed razor blades on Manus.

In his room, Mohammad tries to wash away some of those scars. He takes two or three showers a day and, convinced that some of his medical problems were caused by dirty detention facilities, meticulously cleans his room every few days, wiping the bathroom with wet wipes and picking dirt from the carpet.

Mohammad, a member of an Arab minority in Iran, has clots in his lungs and in one leg, and he is bleeding from his stomach. Like many of the men, he says his brain grew sluggish as he languished in detention.

He is impatient for a better future. He scours Facebook Marketplace for homes and used cars and asks every advocate for job opportunities. His plan: a place to live, a job, a wife, children.

Even in the face of uncertainty, his optimism is indelible. If not, he says, he would not have survived his detention.

But if his mind isn’t focused on something else, he admits, he’s always thinking about those long years.

One night, after Mohammad spent five hours in a hospital undergoing tests, a conversation about the sports he had played as a child degenerated into melancholy.

“Australia destroyed me,” he said, bending his head back and looking up at the night sky. “My education. My body.”

A friend, another Iranian refugee, corrected him. “It didn’t destroy you,” he said. “It made you hard.”

The statement, shocking in its sobriety, came abruptly, he said in a low tone at a celebration for the men a few weeks after their release.

“On Manus Island, I pour petrol and set myself on fire,” said Sirazul Islam, 37, who came to Australia by boat in 2013, fleeing political persecution in Bangladesh.

Seated at dinner with cheerful Australians and decidedly more awkward-looking refugees in a brightly lit church hall, Mr. Islam how he still suffered from the severe mental problems that had led him to commit suicide – an attempt that left a scar on his side.

He didn’t actually want to be at the party, he admitted, but there would be “problems” if he refused. That wasn’t true. But Mr Islam, a wiry man with a cynical sense of humor and a boyish grin, has developed an instinctive reaction to go after years of being stripped of his autonomy and his freedom now hanging on a precarious visa.

The experience of Mr. Islam has been particularly difficult. He has trouble processing information and is overwhelmed by the text messages, phone calls and emails it takes to build a new life. He suffers from memory problems and struggles with English. Lawyers fill out forms – to get identification documents, to register for medical services – for him.

As the only Bangladeshi refugee in the motel, he spends most of his time alone. Sometimes, when the loneliness becomes overwhelming, he summons lawyers to visit him and has stilted, awkward interactions.

The motel is dull, but the world beyond is big and unknown. Three weeks after his release, he had barely left the motel other than going to a supermarket for groceries. “I’m afraid to continue,” he said through an interpreter.

Some refugees feel that the government should do more to support them. But Mr. Islam has been told to get a job and support himself, so that’s what he will do, even though he’s not quite sure how.

“If I don’t obey, they might put me back in the detention center,” he said.

He does not see the troubled life he now leads as freedom.

“Freedom can only come if they give me a permanent visa or if I become a citizen,” he said. “Only then will I be free – I can go anywhere, I can meet everyone, I can do everything.”

Salah Mustafa, 51, is always on the move, always looking for the next thing to do. Pausing can mean he’s faltering, and the last thing he wants is for his son to see him tired or scared.

His son, Mustafa Salah, was 14 when they were held in Manus and is now 23. Nearly three weeks after their release, they moved into a small house in a quiet neighborhood, cared for by a Church charity. Mr. Mustafa was content that first night, busy in the kitchen cooking a stew.

But he hardly spares a moment to take it all in before moving on — making plans to buy a car and, most importantly, worrying about an upcoming resettlement interview in Canada.

“I’m very tired,” he admits one afternoon, out of earshot of his son, as it all seems to be catching up with him.

Mr Mustafa has made many friends with Australian lawyers and supporters. But Canada offers a chance at an impossible life in Australia: a chance to reunite with his wife and youngest son, who remain in the Middle East.

“I need stability. I need papers,” he said. “I need a place to stay forever. I need to see my family.”

His son doesn’t think about the future in the same way.

“I always tell my father, don’t talk about Canada,” he said, adding that he didn’t even think about resettlement.

“Why should I dream of something that hasn’t happened yet?” he says. “I have to do something now.”

There is hope among refugees that the Labor Party’s victory in last month’s federal election could improve their prospects – a hope that may be disproportionate to what the party has promised.

Labor has signaled step-changes in Australia’s approach to refugees, but it has been largely silent about what will happen to people like Mr Mustafa and his son who arrived after policies were tightened in 2013.

Meanwhile, the newly free refugees have a life to deal with. A month after their release, Mustafa’s son walked into their kitchen at lunchtime on a Saturday, having just woken up after a rare night out with friends.

He told the details: a full club, dancing, no alcohol but plenty of Red Bull. He wondered what had happened to a friend who had left with a young woman and hadn’t heard from him since.

It was all wonderfully normal, a moment in the life of a 23-year-old.

Outside, on the front lawn, his father was smoking a cigarette, looking out at the quiet street in front of them. Once their resettlement interview is done, he said, he could plant some okra, or maybe some tomatoes.

“The freedom is very beautiful,” he said.

SOURCE – www.nytimes.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.