A true story written by a member of MASSG
Hashim* was born in Afghanistan in 1996 and lived with his family in a village in the southeast. Even after the American invasion in 2001, the Taliban remained in control of that part of the country. Hashim’s family was targetted by the Taliban because his father who was a truck driver had contracts with the government. One day in 2003, men wth guns invaded their home and took away Hashim’s father. His father was never seen again. His mother took her 4 children and fled across the border to Iran with other Afghans in similar situations.
It was August 2013, when I first met Hashim in the immigration detention centre in Broadmeadows (known as MITA). At that time, MITA housed teenage boys who had arrived unaccompanied in Australia seeking asylum. Hashim hardly spoke a word and I noticed he looked nervous and stressed, unlike the others around him who talked excitedly at the prospect of soon being released. They had all turned 18 and were soon to be moved into accommodation in the community.
Having no other place to go, Hashim moved in to live with us in our home in Montmorency. He came with little but a change of clothes and a card showing that he had been placed on a bridging visa. I had one day’s notice of his arrival- just enough time to prepare a room for him. Hashim knew very little English and seemed extremely shy and self-conscious. I soon found that he was sufferring chronic health problems. He needed urgent dental treatment, probably as a result of his poor diet. He really needed to regain his health, his fitness and his self-esteem.
By using his few words of English, a Farsi- English dictionary and lots of hand signals, Hashim was intent on telling me his story. In 2012, he had been arrested according to the Iranian government’s policy of expelling refugees and he was deported to Afghanistan. Here he saw damaged buses and buildings from recent bombings. With no family or means of support, he spent the next 11 months trying to get from Afghanistan to Melbourne. He endured many hardships on the way, including a lack of food, clean water, warm clothes, washing facilities and access to medical treatment. He described sleeping out in mosquito- infested swamps and a perilous 4 day boat trip in huge seas– but the worst time was the 5 months he spent locked up in an adult gaol in Indonesia. And what was the crime for which he was imprisoned? Getting on a boat to come to Australia! His boat was discovered by Indonesian police- and with the help of Australian officials, the occupants of the boat were taken to gaol in the city of Surabaja. 20 prisoners were kept in one large room without access to the open air. Hashim showed me the scars on his arms from this time, when only cutting yourself and bleeding would get you an appointment with a doctor.
After being released from that gaol he took a second boat to Christmas Island. Now Hashim had better luck- the boat he was on made a successful crossing and arrived at a time when asylum seekers were still being allowed into Australia, and just before the change in policy that came in late 2013. If he had arrived a few months later, he would have been sent to Manus Island or Nauru and he would still be there today.
Soon after his arrival in Montmorency, friends and contacts heard about the situation and came to our assistance. In the following days, I received many phone calls with offers of help- donations of money, offers to teach English, to help with transport and to help Hashim participate in sporting activities- so many offers I could not accept them all. Soon he had two English tutors and some new clothes and started exercising at the Eltham Leisure Centre. For the following year, the leisure centre became his favourite hang out. Nearly every day he did either lap swimming or a workout at the gym. Gradually he regained his strength and confidence and resumed his favourite sport of soccer.
Using his small government allowance, Hashim was able to pay for his food, household bills and phone. A fashionable new haircut helped to raise his spirits. But his happiest day was when he met up with 3 friends he had known in Iran, who were now living in Melbourne. Hashim gradually became familiar with his new surroundings. He enjoyed travelling by train and could soon find his way across Melbourne. He found people he met to be friendly and helpful and he was impressed by the multicultural environment and the much greater sense of freedom here than what he had experienced before.
Learning English was his number one priority, but for 18 months, his bridging visa did not allow Hashim to get a job or to attend school or training of any kind, without paying full fees. With some financial assistance from local churches, he was able to attend English classes. Although he did not find the language easy, he made steady progress with his English and can now read and write at a basic level and confidently hold a conversation.
Hashim has stayed with us for two years. He can now cook his own meals and has learned to drive. After 120 hours of driving practice with a volunteer from Banyule’s L to P programme, he recently gained his driver’s licence. He has learned some carpentry skills and changes to his visa have allowed him to start casual work in the building industry. His long term goal is to do tertiary studies and to become a nurse.
Since his arrival, the only benefits Hashim has received from the government have been the costs of basic medical treatment and his small weekly allowance. Everything else has been achieved by him with assistance from the community- from MASSG, schools, Banyule City Council, churches and individuals. We are very proud of his work ethic and what he has achieved in so short a time in the face of such challenges. Unfortunately, Hashim remains on a bridging visa and has been told by the Australian government that he can never have permanent residence in this country.
Many people are surprised to hear that I host asylum seekers in my home. Tony Abbott justified his brutal and callous policies towards refugees by calling them a “burden” on the country and a “problem” and probably a threat to national security. The same attitude continues today under a new PM.
Of course asylum seekers do need help settling in and recovering from trauma, but keeping people in detention centres only matters matters so much worse. Detention causes major and long lasting psychological and physical damage. Even in financial terms – the cost of keeping someone in offshore detention is over 10 times the cost if they lived in the community. In 2012, when a homestay agency asked people to offer accommodation in their homes to asylum seekers, thousands of people across Australia responded with offers. Under this scheme, 600 people were housed, before the scheme was closed down because the government would not support it.
As for national security, the ABC’s Fact Checker** has found no evidence that anyone who has been linked to terrorist offences in Australia was an asylum seekers arriving by boat. As far as is known, those charged with terrorism offences have all either been born in Australia, or arrived by plane on a valid visa. Moreover crime statistics show the crime rate of asylum seekers in Australia is a small fraction of the crime rate amongst Australians in general.
What have I gained from hosting asylum seekers in my home? I have enjoyed hearing about their life in Iran and learning about the language, culture, architecture and about Afghan cooking, music and dancing- and they are always happy to share – not to mention their sense of humour and fun. I have a greater understanding of what so many people have endured in search of a safe haven for themselves and their families. In practical terms, at my age (over 60) I always appreciate a young pair of hands helping around the house and garden. The role of a host is always rewarding and helping someone who has lost everything to re-build their lives is especially rewarding. This has not been a burden; it has been a pleasure.
* name has been changed for privacy reasons
** taken from a report by Nicola McGarrity in the journal The Conversation – FactCheck Q&A: have any refugees who came to Australia gone on to be terrorists?
November 30, 2015