Najeeba Wazefadost, 28, from Sydney
The definition of a refugee is not someone running away. It is a kneeling person - someone who kneels in front of authorities, someone who kneels in front of the captain of the ship, someone who kneels in front of medical staff.
I was 10 years old when we were smuggled out of Afghanistan to Indonesia and then by boat to Australia. In the eyes of so many people, a people smuggler could be seen as a criminal, but I still call that man a person who bought hope to my life.
We were forced to leave my homeland in 2000. The Taliban had invaded the country, persecution and killings were happening to the Hazaras.
Not only were we Shia Muslims and Hazar - so our Mongolian facial features made it very hard to hide - but being a woman put us at greater risk of being targetted. Every day you could hear the bombing, our neighbour’s girls were raped.
Me, my pregnant mum, my father, my two sisters and my brother had no choice but to seek refuge. I was illiterate. I had had no education, like my mother and siblings. We found ourselves in Pakistan - but the Taliban was in Quetta, where we were. That’s when my father met the man who became our smuggler. He told us that there was a country named Australia and that in order to get there, we needed to get to Indonesia first.
We had to hide where we were staying. I wish the fear ended when we left Afghanistan, but fear was all around us. The only time were allowed outside was when the smuggler was bringing news. Our fake passports arrived and we went to the airport, where they were identified by the authorities. We were put into prison overnight until the smuggler paid a bribe to have us released.
Bribing was something I continuously witnessed on our way to Australia.
We tried a second time. When we got to Indonesia, our passports were identified and another bribe was paid. Bribing was something I continuously witnessed on our way to Australia.
We left the airport and were rushed into a van, then driven to a small house in the middle of the bush. We had to stay there until the smuggler came back with the next news. We were worried about my mother as it was the month she was due to give birth. We asked him what to do if she goes into labour and he said that we should go to a certain shop in Jakarta and they would know what to do. Three weeks into our stay, my mother went into labour. We couldn’t contact the smuggler. We went to the shop and mimicked giving birth - we couldn’t speak the language - and he came and saw that mum was on the floor, screaming.
He took the risk of arranging a car to come and take her to hospital.
She had no identity papers and my father had to kneel down and beg the staff to support my mother. She had a caesarean and my baby brother was safe.
I remember the conversation my sister and I had at the time: another poor human being added to our family. We were in sorrow and pain, rather than celebrating.
My mother was advised she needed to be in hospital for 10 days, but after five days, my father received a call saying we had to leave by boat that night.
We had never seen an ocean, we had never been on a boat.
We were dropped off in front of the ocean. We had never seen an ocean, we had never been on a boat. We were looking for a big ship. The smuggler kept saying, ‘You need to get ready to run into the water,’ and we weren’t sure whether we were being asked to suicide or get into a boat.
Suddenly, we saw this leaky fishing boat; 150 people were already on the boat and we were the last ones to get on. We didn’t know that we had to take food, that we had to take a life jacket. My mother had fresh stitches and her newborn in her arm.
I call that boat crossing a death contract, because everybody was ready to die rather than live under the Taliban.
We were on board for ten nights. We made it to Australian waters and were intercepted a couple of times by the Australian Navy. They wanted us to turn around and go back. I call that boat crossing a death contract, because everybody was ready to die rather than live under the Taliban. Being drowned by that big ocean was a more peaceful death, to us. There was a storm and the boat was damaged and the Navy helped us to Darwin. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t have made it.
Now that I look back, I can say this: We were early boat arrivals.
Nobody else had tried it and knew of this process. There was no social media, no news, nothing. We left during the smugglers’ trial period - we paid what we had and promised to pay full amount when we got to Australia. They used as as their promotional material.
Our first impression of Australia was Curtin Immigration Detention Centre. It was similar to my own country - it was in the middle of the desert, it was hot, there were flies everywhere. We were met by Australian guards carrying guns. We were running away from guns. We were called by a number. It was nothing like what I’d been told. It was very disappointing.
We were one of the lucky families. After six weeks, we were given Temporary Protection Visas and we went to Tasmania - then we were on our own. And that’s when our real impression of Australia started: a woman walked towards us and said, ‘I’m here to help, how can I help you?’ That changed everything about our image of Australia. She helped us get a house, into a school, to trust people again, to smile.
Detaining a child was once considered to be a last resort.
Looking at the refugee experience in Australia since 2000, there have been some improvements, but a lot of disimprovements. Now, people are detained for years, some even indefinitely. The number of detention centres increased. Detaining a child was once considered to be a last resort. New bridging visas and Safe Haven Enterprise Visas mean that people live in limbo for years, which affects the mental health of many asylum seekers and refugees. The conversation is more about the numbers, rather than people’s real needs.
The only thing I can say with full confidence is that we are playing in a political world and we are changing the terminology rather than improving things.
We moved to Sydney for my father’s work and I now have a Bachelor of Medical Science and my own childcare centre and I work to help settle migrants. I established my own organisation, Hazara Women of Australia. I am surrounded by a network of amazing Australians and I consider them my close family. And Australia is my home.
I hoped that one day, I would see my country in peace. But unfortunately that hope is shrinking. The Hazaras are forgotten refugees.
I remember, my mum had a very small teapot to remind her of her mother. She carried it everywhere, even to the Indonesian hospital. But when we came to the Australian detention centre, my mother’s teapot was taken away and put into a rubbish bin. To the authorities, the teapot was nothing; to her, it was hope and courage. She kneeled down and begged the guards and was then taken and photographed with her detainee number. In that photo, she is crying.
Najeeba is an ambassador for the Refugee Council of Australia. Refugee Week is 17-23 June.
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