Home is where the broken heart is
April 16, 2005/the AGE
Some of Nauru's 54 asylum seekers.
Photo: Michael Gordon
Heading for breakdown on Ali's isle
There are 54 asylum seekers on the island of Nauru. While some are managing, many exist on a diet of sleeping pills and anxiety. Michael Gordon, the first journalist to be given complete access to the camp, listened to their stories.
Mohammad Ali Rehmati and family
Ilham Rehmati,14, pictured near left, is the only teenage girl in a camp that is overwhelmingly comprised of young men. She goes everywhere with her parents and says she is very depressed and lonely. "It's very hard for me. I cannot go outside (unaccompanied). I cannot go to the dining room. I cannot go shopping or swimming. I (only) go with my family."
When the family's most recent application for refugee status was rejected, Ilham's younger brother, Abbas Ali, was ill for 10 days, vomiting and complaining of headaches. His cousin, Hassan Ali, 21, says: "When his father took him to the doctor, he said, 'Your son is very lonely. There is no treatment."'
Hassan forces his younger brother, Hussain Ali, to go to the Nauru school, but says he has lost the will to learn.
"I feel very distressed every time I think about my life, about my family, especially about my younger brother. We accept that we came here illegal way, but request to John Howard Government . . . please accept us and give us shelter. It was not our fault that we came here illegal way."
Mohammed Zahir Dulat Shahi
"Mr Michael, I am wondering why you come now?" It was a reasonable enough question and the answer, that it has taken this long to receive a visa from the Nauru Government, seemed inadequate.
Zahir has been in offshore detention for more than three years and says he does not know whether his wife and five children are alive or dead.
His problem was not so much with the Taliban, as with the fundamentalists in his region who denied him the choice of how to live his life. "I wanted to do good. I am human, like you and others. I have a problem with those who make hell in my country for me."
Zahir says he has provided proof of his identity, but has heard nothing and now fears he will die on Nauru. When I leave the camp, he hands me a letter that includes the line: "If there is justice, earth is home for all of us."
Sagar, 29, is also waiting on his decision and is losing patience. It has been more than seven months and he says he is having trouble coping with the anxiety.
"I'm living in limbo. To think there is a possibility, even 1 per cent, to get a rejection, makes me feel very, very bad," he said.
Three days after our interview, Faisal and Sagar sent The Age an email saying they had been been accused of not being co-operative in interviews with an ASIO officer in January, a charge they emphatically denied. "I am wondering why those officers didn't mention earlier that I haven't been co-operative," wrote Sagar. "Why they waited four months to tell me this. I feel it is a psychological war. And they waited all this time just to put me under mental pressure."
Faisal, 25, is one of two Iraqis who are still waiting for decisions on their claims for refugee status. He has a problem with his eyes that makes it hard to read or watch TV, a problem he believes could be treated in Australia.
"I am enduring all this just to get freedom and be treated as a human being. If I didn't have a problem, I would go back (to Iraq) and would not endure this terrible situation here. I don't want human rights to be given to me. I want animal rights."
Qurban Ali Changizi
Ali Mullaie translates for Qurban Ali Changizi, 25, another who insists he has been wrongly deemed to be from Pakistan. "The Afghan embassy can prove he is from Afghanistan. All of his family is there: father, mother, sisters, brothers," says Mullaie.
"He left Afghanistan because his life (was) endangered. He needs help. He is young and he is tired of waiting here. It is too long in this detention centre. How is it that thousands of refugees from Afghanistan are living in Australia and 29 people from Afghanistan are left here and rejected? It's not fair."
Ask Qazikhil why he didn't take up the Howard Government's offer to return to Afghanistan with a little cash and he gives a compelling response: "Imagine, a father of six children and the husband of a beautiful wife? Of course you would go back if it was safe."
Qazikhil's is a different story to those of others who claim to be Afghans; he was a military officer in the pre-Taliban communist regime. He says he is not a criminal and never used a gun against anyone.
"I am asking the Australian Government to investigate my case," he says. "If I am not telling the truth, if I was liar, they can put me in a charter plane or anything and they can throw me in Afghanistan without any problem. But first I would like them to investigate whether I am right or wrong."
Ali Jan Jafari
"I was 21, but now I'm 24," says Jafari through Ali Mullaie. "He wants to tell the people of Australia that, day by day, he is losing his mind."
Jafari's parents are dead and his only brother also left Afghanistan, but he has no idea where he is. "He has a psychological problem and taking tablets and it is not helping him." Recently, Jafari stepped in front of a car during day leave from the camp and was pulled clear by one of his friends. "His mind is not working," says Mullaie.
In the time Jaber, 20, has been in offshore detention, his mother was murdered in Iraq. He was given this news by his brother, who is in Sydney, having been recognised as a refugee. "Some group, they wanted to find me or my brother. They don't find us, so they killed our mother," he says.
Jaber, who was 16 when he left Iraq, is skinny and withdrawn. He says he has three other brothers in Iraq and another brother has left, but he does not know where he is. "My situation in the camp is very difficult. The detention camp is a small jail and the island is a big jail. All of the island, same jail. I want to get freedom."
Salem was 19 when he attempted to come to Australia after fleeing Iraq. He is now 23. His brother, Fares, is an Australian citizen who lives with his wife and four children in country Victoria. Fares, who fled Iraq after the first Gulf War, offered to take responsibility for his younger brother but the request was denied.
Abuozar says he was not believed when he said during his first interview that he had a brother in Australia. He does not know why his second application was rejected. He expresses his thanks to Australians who have written to him with support, but says: "This is not detention. This is hell." While the asylum seekers are now free to leave the camp during the day, he adds: "This is not freedom. This is half-freedom."
Mohammed al-Shammari has one plastic-covered picture of his children. It is water-damaged from the time his boat sank, when the Howard Government wrongly asserted asylum seekers had thrown their children overboard.
His oldest child would be 15 now, but Shammari fears he would not recognise any of the children if he saw them in the street. (He says his children are in Iraq). "It has been too long," he says. His claim that he would face persecution if he returned to Iraq is supported by the London-based Iraq Human Rights Group, but he says this was not probed during his last interview, more than seven months ago.
"It is not really an interview. When we talked to the case officer, just he listened to us. He didn't ask any questions. They accept some people; they reject some people. I don't know why."
Ali Hussaini and family
When Ali Hussaini was interviewed about his claim for refugee status, he opted to speak in English, believing this would help convince the case officer he had not been wasting the years he had been detained on Nauru with his wife and two children.
The decision backfired. Hussaini says he was told he spoke like an Australian and must be from Pakistan. "I learned my English here, working in the kitchen," he says. "I always asked the cooks, 'How you say this?"'
Hussaini says he was also tutored by a friend, whose claim for asylum was accepted by New Zealand last year. He says several refugees now living in Australia and New Zealand could verify his status as an Afghan national.
His daughter, Zahra, was three when the family arrived at the camp. Now she is nearly seven and she also speaks English like an Australian. "She is also Pakistani?" he asks.
Hussaini and his wife, Batool, try to keep busy but he says their children are lonely. Zahra says her friends have gone "and I want to go with them".
"After such a long time, it is a bit surprising for me that I am talking with you," says Azlam Kazimi, 23. "Everybody has the same story here. Everybody has been living in the same conditions, in the same situation, more than three years. When I came I was 20. Now it's three years and six months."
As a teenage member of the Hazara minority, Kazimi says he faced the choice of joining one of the fundamentalist organisations in Afghanistan and killing others, or fleeing. He chose the latter.
Now he says he cannot express his feelings because there is "too much tension in my mind".
Like so many others, he is taking tablets to help him sleep and despairs about his future.
"I forgot everything. There is nothing left for me."
Ansari has dark circles under his eyes and says he suffers nightmares, usually involving scenes on a boat or in the water. "We are so exhausted," he says. "Everybody in here. We don't know how long in here. We are very tired of this situation."
Razak and Wahida Timimi
Wahida Timimi is the only Iraqi woman on the island (the other is in Melbourne for medical treatment). She greets me with an impassioned monologue: "I come in 2001. Now 2005. I very, very tired. No can sleep, no can think, no can eat. Three years and six months in here. Why? Our suffering here is too much."
Timimi spends her days in a small room in the camp and relies on sleeping tablets at night. She has been flown to Australia for one operation and says she needs another. Her husband, Razak, has a blood pressure monitor and is taking several medications. Showing three packets of pills, he says: "I take this for sleeping at night. This for blood pressure. This for heart." Recently he says he discovered his wife unconscious with her eyes open and thought she was dead. He slapped her to revive her and they spent two hours in the camp medical centre.
Wahida says she is also suffering psychological problems. "Sometimes my mind doesn't work. I cannot do anything."
"It is nearly four years I have been away from my family. I don't know about them and they don't know about me," says 20-year-old Rezaee. "Sometimes I become very sad, go in the corner of the camp, just sitting crying and see at the sky.
"Where are my family? What are they feeling now? They might think that I am dead, and sometimes I'm thinking the same way because I've been away from them. They think that they have lost me."
Like so many others in the camp, Rezaee relies on sleeping tablets and says he has been prone to sleepwalking. "Sometimes during the night I come out talking to myself and crying and sometimes my friends are saying, 'What are you doing? To whom are you talking?' I say I do not talk."
Ruhani is another who believes his claim for refugee status was rejected because he was thought to be from Pakistan. He says his cousin and others in Australia have written letters to back his claim, but he has heard nothing.
"My worst time in Nauru was when my friends were accepted into Australia. It was the darkest hours of my life. My Australian friends were encouraging me, supporting me, sending letters and faxes to me to be patient," he says. "Now, whenever my friends need me, I show them how to use the computer. Those who cannot write letters for their friends, I write letters for them."