• Abdul Aziz Tirab is living in Kansas City, after four years at the Manus Regional Processing Centre. (SBS Dateline)
Dateline meets the refugees swapped in a deal between Australia and the USA. What’s it like arriving in Trump’s America after 4 years on Manus Island?
Tuesday, February 20, 2018 - 21:30

Pawns in a political game? Australia and U.S.A agreed to make a refugee swap. This week Dateline meets two refugees from Manus Island and Nauru who are now living in America. We get to know these refugees who Australia rejected, as they try to build new lives in a new country.

It’s Saturday afternoon, and Aza Restaurant is crackling with energy.

On one day a week, a group of Sudanese men gather here to eat traditional food and catch up with the news from home. The machine-gun staccato of Sudanese Arabic fills the air, and dominoes are slammed with fervour onto a white polyester tablecloth.

It’s an unlikely scene for early winter in Kansas City, Missouri. But here - in America’s fourth most dangerous neighbourhood – these Sudanese refugees have found one another. Most have fled bloody conflict to arrive here after passing through various African nations, but the newest among them, Abdul Aziz Tirab, has taken a far more circuitous route.

I’m here to meet Tirab for a story I’m reporting for Dateline, on the humans involved in a refugee swap deal agreed to by Australia and the U.S. – a deal that resulted in him arriving here in the middle of the U.S., somewhere he never thought he’d be.

Tirab has only been in Missouri a couple of months. Since leaving one conflict in Darfur and another in South Sudan, he’s been to Egypt, Indonesia and Australia. But the longest time he spent in one place since leaving home was in Papua New Guinea – in the Manus Regional Processing Centre.

As the air fills with the fragrant smell of Ni'aimiya – a Sudanese spice mix –Tirab shares his story with his fellow refugees. They’re staggered to hear him describe the “prison island” where he was illegally detained for four years in dangerous conditions, and even more surprised to learn the Australian government put him there.

“I’m shocked,” says Agok Mon, a middle-aged man who has been in the United States for 21 years. “A lot of our community is in Australia, and I never heard of them running into this sort of trouble.

“If this was an American story I would understand it,” he adds.

Agok has a point. The current administration in the United States has shown itself to be unsympathetic to the plight of refugees. Recently President Trump demanded to know why the U.S. should accept refugees from “shithole” countries – by which he meant anywhere in Africa. Being African, Muslim and a refugee, it seems Abdul Aziz Tirab has danced across several laser beams to settle in Donald Trump’s America.

Despite the climate here, Tirab is glad that the United States is his final destination.

The feeling is echoed in Aziz Restaurant, where Australia’s nanny-state reputation precedes it. Australia has too many rules; while the rampant capitalist environment of the U.S. appeals to hardy survivors who know how to hustle. For Tirab, it’s simpler than that: his time and treatment on Manus has made him hate Australia. Not the people - many Aussies have supported him and the other Manus detainees and their plight – but the Australian government. Tirab’s demeanor changes when he talks about the politicians and ministers that have not just let him down, but told what he says are outright lies about him, his fellow detainees, and the conditions they’ve endured.

Settled 1,200 kilometres away in Texas, Mina Taherkhani is even luckier to be in the United States. She’s Iranian, and came here from the detention centre on Nauru, in between Trump-instigated travel bans on people from her nation. Her fate, like Tirab’s, was also wrapped up in a diplomatic deal between Australia and the U.S.

But unlike Tirab, Mina is sad she didn’t make it to Australia. During her time on Nauru she made friends with lots of Aussies, many who supported her on social media.

As we wind through the interminable concrete freeway interchanges of Houston, a sudden burst of heavy rain slams the windshield.

“This is how it was in Nauru,” Mina says, her face saddening. Even the weather brings bad memories.

Mina’s life as a victim of sexual and domestic abuse saw her flee Iran – but her life in a tent for three-and-a-half years in Nauru wasn’t much better, she says. Despite longing for Australia, Mina is determined to make a good life in the United States – but it’s a lonely start. She knows no-one, doesn’t drive, and is having difficulty finding a permanent job. Nothing is familiar, and there’s no one to show her the way. Freedom and isolation all at once – a void that bad thoughts quickly rush to fill.

Mina’s getting help for post-traumatic stress, but I get the feeling that once she settles into the United States, very little will stop her. I leave my time with her wondering whether I’d rather have comradery in detention; or be solitary in liberty.

Meanwhile, a group of Salvadorian refugees recently arrived in Canberra.

They’re the other side of the ‘refugee swap,’ and must be experiencing a similar culture shock. Shrouded in secrecy, the arrival of these people – fleeing gang violence – are one part of the story that’s yet to properly surface. Australia will certainly be a lonelier place for them than most US cities, with their ready-made Latino communities and large Spanish-speaking populations.

For everyone caught up in the U.S./Australia refugee swap deal, 2018 will be a strange year. While they are being legally settled in places that are, in theory, better than those they came from – no-one’s ended up where they intended to be. Abdul Aziz Tirab and Mina Taherkhani are in a land with as many barriers as there are opportunities. They have the right to work, but very little support and no backstops if they fail in this unforgiving new land. But most importantly, for the first time, they are free. The United States has given them something Australia would not.

Watch the full story at the top of the page.


Video Journalist: Dean Cornish

Producer: Naima Brown, Ana Maria Quinn

Editor: Simon Phegan, Micah McGown


As the morning mist clears over the Missouri River, one of Kansas City's newest residents is getting ready to run. And for the first time in years he's running free.

ABDUL AZAZ TIRAB, MANUS REFUGEE:  My name is Abdul Aziz Tirab, my boat number is FRH21. I escaped from the war in Sudan and I lived in Australian detention centre and now I am living in the United States to start a new life.  I like running because running is the best exercise for the body fitness.

Tirab has come to America after four years on Manus Island. He's part of the controversial Australia-US refugee swap deal.

ABDUL AZAZ TIRAB: For someone to get freedom after a long time, I am happy to get my freedom. 

Forced to leave his family behind in Sudan's brutal civil war, he put his life in the hands of people smugglers and made a dash to Australia by boat.

KEVIN RUDD, FORMER PRIME MINISTER OF AUSTRALIA:  People who come by boat have no prospect of being resettled in Australia. The rules have changed.

ABDUL AZAZ TIRAB: Could I have a hot chocolate, please?


ABDUL AZAZ TIRAB:  Hot chocolate.  Manus Island is like hell, you know. We wasn’t have good health, we wasn’t have enough food.

SHOP KEEPER:  Oh, hot chocolate drink?

ABDUL AZAZ TIRAB:  Yeah. Thank you.

SHOP KEEPER: Have a nice day.

ABDUL AZAZ TIRAB:  Here I am free and I eat whatever I want.

His life here in America didn't come easily. Tirab underwent extreme vetting from both Australia and the US in order to secure his refugee status.

REPORTER:  Nice apartment block, man.

ABDUL AZAZ TIRAB:   Yeah, it’s a nice apartment..

His rent's being covered by the US Refugee Resettlement Agency for now but soon he's expected to get a job and pay his own way.

REPORTER:  Want to show me around? What have you got here?

ABDUL AZAZ TIRAB:  I have, ah, some books here. Okay… and here is my tissues and I have… this is my clock – alarm clock. When I come first time here, there is a lot of people that help us  to give us some clothes or something like that. But really, we have nothing.

REPORTER:  Do you have anything from Sudan that you have left?

ABDUL AZAZ TIRAB: No I have nothing really, I have nothing. I came just myself and the clothes that I wear, but I have nothing else.

But his life here is more than Australia would offer him.

REPORTER:  Did you know about the policy of turning people on boats away when you started out on the journey?

ABDUL AZAZ TIRAB: No, I didn’t hear about that decision. If I’d heard that I would never come to Australia.

Tirab may not want Australia anymore but does America want him? Trump is leading the country into turmoil over immigration and race. Luckily, Tirab has made some Sudanese friends, eager to prepare him for the challenges of being black and Muslim in America.

FRIEND (Translation): Did you arrive here directly?

ABDUL AZAZ TIRAB (Translation):  I came here directly.

FRIEND (Translation):  If the police tell you to put your hands up and you don’t, he will shoot. He’s not supposed to do that, he is supposed to ask you questions. This is important, you have to be careful. It doesn’t matter if you are from Sudan, to him you are black – people just see a black man, so you have to look after yourself. You have to avoid trouble.

It's a tough system to navigate but the advice is get amongst it.

FRIEND 2 (Translation): The most important thing is work, they will look for a job for you. It’s important that you work so that you can pay your bills, you have to pay the bills. If you not working and you don’t pay your bills, it’s a problem in this country.

In many ways Tirab has swapped one kind of conflict for another but he's determined to succeed. It's been many years since Tirab last worked. Back in Sudan he owned a small electronics and furniture store. Today he's starting from scratch.

TEACHER:  Do you already have an email address?

ABDUL AZAZ TIRAB:  Yeah I have email address, yeah. 

TEACHER: Wonderful, so what we're gonna practice today is just sending an attachment with an email.

REPORTER:  Have you had a resume before?


REPORTER:  First resume?

ABDUL AZAZ TIRAB:   Yes. This is first resume.

REPORTER:  That's a good start.

TEACHER: Sometimes we do the job we need to do right now while we work towards our dream job, right? Are you working right?

REPORTER:   Are you confident about getting a job here?

ABDUL AZAZ TIRAB:  Yeah, absolutely, yes. This is David, he said that he has a great job for me and he wants to see me this afternoon. That’s crazy…

Yeah, I’m good David, how are you doing? You sent message that you have a great job for me and..

DAVID:  We want to get a little more information but you are gonna have a real good job very soon.

ABDUL AZAZ TIRAB:   Okay, that would be great, thank you David. That’s really good news. Yeah… I hope that… yeah, really… very good news. I hope I will success in the job.

As I leave Kansas City I'm relieved to hear he has a job on the horizon. I hope for Tirab it comes off. The refugee swap deal was negotiated between President Obama and Malcolm Turnbull but when Trump came to power he hated it.

SBS NEWS:  Fury over a deal to resettle about 1,200 refugees.

Genuine refugees from Manus Island and Nauru would be sent to the US and Australia will take refugees from Latin America.

TWITTER:  ‘I will study this dumb deal’ he tweeted.

Trump even tried to argue his way out of the deal on a testy phone call with Turnbull.

DONALD TRUMP, USA PRESIDENT:  Got a little bit testy but that's OK.

POLITICIAN:  Why is the President picking a fight with Australia?

In the end Trump honoured the deal and so did Australia. Dateline can confirm that 30 refugees from El Salvador are now living in Canberra, having allegedly fled gang violence.

REPORTER:  Donald Trump said to Malcolm Turnbull who are these people on Manus Island? Is one of them the next Boston bomber? Are you the next Boston bomber?

ABDUL AZAZ TIRAB:  No, I say to Donald Trump, I say to him, we are not what you think, okay? And we are different people, we are not terrorists and we are not criminals, we are just refugees.

In this deal, no-one ended up where they wanted to go. Iranian born Mina Taherkhani wanted to settle in Australia but after three years on Nauru ended up in Houston, Texas.

MINA TAHERKHANI, NAURU REFUGEE (Translation): When I was on Nauru, I was not able to imagine that one day I could get on a plane and leave that tiny island forever. I still have nightmares about being there and wanting to leave there badly, leave Nauru.

In Iran, Mina was badly abused at home from an early age and then found herself in a violent marriage. Like Tirab, she boarded a boat to Australia, where she thought she would be protected by our gender equality laws.

MINA TAHERKHANI (Translation):  In Australia, men and women have equal rights, women are not considered goods. A woman can live just like a man.

Instead of protection, however, she found punishment.

MINA TAHERKHANI (Translation): I was never able to sleep at night because I was scared. I wasn’t feeling secure. A lot of suicides and things like that around me.

The United Nations called conditions in Nauru cruel and inhuman. Detainees' reports of rape, assault, sexual abuse and self-harm shocked the world.

WOMAN:  Malcolm Turnbull, shame on you. Shame on you. Shame on you.

Women and children left in flimsy tents and Mina says one of the guards taunted and exposed himself to her.

MINA TAHERKHANI (Translation): The torture and trauma inflicted on us… was much worse than the situation, the torture inflicted by the Iranian government. Even if it was not worse, it was just as bad.

Her safety has been hard won. But today Mina can lock her very own door.

REPORTER:  How is it having a door that locks after almost five years?

MINA TAHERKHANI:   I really have safety now. I can lock the door and not let people come into my room. They ask me to come in or not, if they're allowed. This is my bedroom, I have windows, I have a kitchen and I have everything you need in a home.

Mina has connections in Australia who could have eased her transition if she had settled there, but instead she finds America lonely.

MINA TAHERKHANI (Translation): When I heard that a group of refugees was supposed to be transferred to the US I felt very bad, because I… I had a feeling that I am like a slave, like a person, who is being sold, being sold in return to something else and I wasn’t given a right to choose.

MATTHEW O’BRIEN, DIRECTOR OF RESEARCH, FAIR:  My name is Matthew O'Brien. I'm the director of research at the Federation of American Immigration Reform.

Matthew O'Brien doesn't believe people like Mina and Tirab should get to choose where they end up and thinks the swap deal serves a purpose.

MATTHEW O’BRIEN:   I think it sends a message that if you're genuinely fleeing persecution and you really believe that you're in fear for your life that fine you should be comfortable with being in any place where your life is protected. And if they're really afraid of political persecution then they are not going to be concerned about the destination country.

At the same time he has security concerns.

MATTHEW O’BRIEN:  Refugee and asyli programs are the important part of America's overall immigration program but we also think that there are some problems. It frequently serves as a way for terrorist groups to get people into the United State.

REPORTER:  We know of a couple of people that have been settled as a result of this deal, one from Sudan and one from Iran, what faith do you have that people from these countries have been properly vetted?

MATTHEW O’BRIEN:  Well, I would say it's probably a benefit that these individuals have been vetted by both Australia and the US. On the other hand, I'm not sure why the President of the US thought it was appropriate when we have been having so much trouble with terrorist groups from Sudan, direct hostility from the government of Iran, why the President thought it was a good idea to accept individuals from those countries.

REPORTER:  President Trump referred to it as a dumb deal. Is it?

MATTHEW O’BRIEN:  It appears to be a dumb deal. I think, to most casual observers, if Australia doesn't want these folks, why do we?

I'm going back to Kansas City to see Tirab. A lot has happened for him in the last few months. He had a job on the horizon which turned out a false alarm. He didn't even get an interview. But today he says he has good news. Tirab and nearly 1,700 other Manus Island detainees have won an important battle. An Australian court approved a $70 million compensation payout, part of a class action against the Australian Government alleging physical and psychological injury as a result of detention and false imprisonment. It is the largest human rights class action settlement in Australian history. For Tirab, it's a victory after so much suffering and now he's got something to show me.

REPORTER:  Nice wheels.


REPORTER:  New car. Nice.

A few months ago all he owned was an alarm clock and a box of tissues. No wonder he's excited.

REPORTER:  So you have come into a bit of money?


REPORTER:  Why did you decide to buy a car with your compensation money?

ABDUL AZAZ TIRAB: You know, I decided to buy a car to help me in my movement and it’s hard to use the transfer or the bus to move from place to place. It takes you a lot of time, that’s why I decide to buy a car.

What Tirab didn't spend on the car he sent home to his family and put the rest in savings.

REPORTER:  For 4.5 years of your life, does the compensation seem right?

ABDUL AZAZ TIRAB:   No. It's not right. They give us just small number of money because we are in an illegal detention centre and if you look to the time we spent in the detention centre and you look to the amount of the money they give us, it’s really very small money, small number.

REPORTER:  So what does the compensation payout mean for you? Does it mean you don't need a job anymore?

ABDUL AZAZ TIRAB:  No, that never happen, I need job, I need to work hard, I need to have a car, you know.  If I just sleep and relax, that means my money will be finished and what should I do after that? I have to work.

REPORTER:   Are you still angry about how you've been treated?

ABDUL AZAZ TIRAB:  Yeah, I am still angry forever because you don’t know how they were treating us, like animals, you know and I will never forget that.

DAVE MEDLEY:  We close this now. Now the next thing we do is what? There you go. Now we're ready to go. We have our first tank of gas.

Today he's meeting Dave Medley. He's offered to give Tirab a one on one lesson to help him get his forklift driver's licence.

DAVE MEDLEY:  And now we're going to have fun and drive the truck, drive right in now.

Tirab's meeting new people in America but he knows the scars from Manus will stay with him for some time to come.

DAVE MEDLEY:  OK. Turn down this aisle right here. Very good. See how that works?

ABDUL AZAZ TIRAB: While we were in the detention centre in Manus Island we have been beaten, been killed, we have been tortured and really that is the most bad period, surviving Manus Island.

DAVE MEDLEY:  How long did you have to stay in New Guinea?

ABDUL AZAZ TIRAB:  I stayed there…almost… about… approximately four years, four years and a half.

As Dave takes him out to try another new experience, Tirab knows nearly 2,000 people remain on Manus and Nauru, their lives in limbo. In recent weeks dozens more of Australia's unwanted refugees were resettled in America.

DAVE MEDLEY:  I'm buying so whatever you think you want, get two.

ABDUL AZAZ TIRAB: Excuse me, one chicken, I want fries, yeah.

DAVE MEDLEY:  Have you had any jobs here in Kansas City yet?

ABDUL AZAZ TIRAB:  No, not yet.

DAVE MEDLEY:  Not yet? Do you feel comfortable driving a forklift? That's an enjoyable job.


DAVE MEDLEY:  And you speak good enough English. As long as you understand what they're telling you and you can understand me and I can understand you.

ABDUL AZAZ TIRAB:    Yeah, that’s right.

DAVE MEDLEY:  What you are going to have to do is spend more time on the forklift. We'll be able to do that and perfect that.


It looks like things are falling into place for Tirab. He's made some friends. He's closer to a job. And he's got his new car. But one part of his life is still missing.

ABDUL AZAZ TIRAB:  I left my, you know, my family and my daughter. I feel that… it was really sad, you know. Because when I left her she was just 6 now she is 13 and I haven’t seen her for almost 7 years.

REPORTER:  Half her life.

ABDUL AZAZ TIRAB:   Yeah, really that is sad.

Soon, he hopes he can start the process of bringing his family over to America from Sudan but he doesn't know how that will be possible under Trump's tough immigration stance. Tirab still has a lot to figure out and a difficult past to digest.

REPORTER:   Okay, there’s a first time for everything, okay.

ABDUL AZAZ TIRAB:  Yeah, very scary but I will try.

But he's getting braver and more adventurous in his new home.

ABDUL AZAZ TIRAB:  Sorry, this is my first time.

REPORTER:   You’re nailing it.

WOMAN:  We have some cookies. Would you like to join us for some cookies?

ABDUL AZAZ TIRAB: Thank you, thank you so much.

MAN:  What did you think of the ice?

ABDUL AZAZ TIRAB:  Very scary.

MAN:  Where are you from?

ABDUL AZAZ TIRAB:  I am from Sudan.

MAN:  Sudan, okay.

WOMAN:   Nice to meet you. I'm glad we crossed your path tonight. This is his first time.

REPORTER:  What did you think about that?

WOMAN 2:  I think it's really amazing. I'm really excited for you. You might need to wear the hat, though.

ABDUL AZAZ TIRAB:  Thank you. Thank you.

Tirab will never forget Manus Island. But being in America has helped him forget Australia.

ABDUL AZAZ TIRAB: I am very happy that I didn’t go to Australia because of the treatment for us while we were in the detention centre, and really that makes me hate Australia. You know I am very happy to come to the United States.

REPORTER: Is this fun?

ABDUL AZAZ TIRAB: Yeah, really it is amazing, I have never… since I came here…since I came to the United States I have never been in this fun.



video journalist

dean Cornish


story producer

naima brown

ana maria quinn


story editor

simon phegan

micah mcgown


20th February 2018