Locked in and locked out

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I am a refugee from Afghanistan, and I belong to a minority ethnic group, the Hazaras. We have been persecuted for a long time because of our ethnicity, religion, and values. In 2012, I was forced to leave Afghanistan. I was 17. Back home, my father was a medical doctor. The Taliban accused him of working with international armed forces in the country at the time. One day the Taliban took him away, and nobody has seen him since.  

Asylum Seekers Transported To Christmas Island After Interception (Scott Fisher/Getty Images)

The accusations against my father meant that the whole family was ‘criminal’ in the Taliban’s eyes. We had to repay them in blood. They kept contacting us and saying that I had to report to them. My mother knew that if I did report to them, they would kill me. She did what any mother would do and decided to send me to a safe country.

We learned quickly that safe countries were not issuing visas to Afghan citizens. I had no choice but to attempt a much more dangerous and uncertain journey, crossing many borders, travelling by plane, train, car, boat, and by foot, often for days in the middle of the night. I knew the chance of survival was rare and that I would end up detained or even dead. But I had no choice.

At the time, I was very young. I had never travelled by myself. I did not know where I was going, how long the journey would be, who I was going to meet on the way, and how to trust those we were paying to get me to safety.

I can never forget the day that I left my family, home, country, and my community. On that day, I felt that I would never see them again. Even today I feel that part of my life is missing.

My journey to safety was full of profoundly scary moments, moments I thought my life would end. I remember being on a fishing boat to Australia. The boat had the capacity to carry 30 people but was carrying 90. Hours after we departed, the engine broke down. We were lost in the middle of the sea, at the mercy of the waves. The people on board felt much tension, anger, despair.

 

'I remember thinking: these are the last moments of my life. My life is ending here in the middle of the sea. I will not be able to see my family again.'

 

I remember thinking: these are the last moments of my life. My life is ending here in the middle of the sea. I will not be able to see my family again. Sharks will eat me. I was just thinking about my family, the time we had together. I felt my hopes, and those of my family, draining away.

But we were very lucky. We were rescued by the Australian Navy. They took us to Christmas Island, and I called my mother the next day after two months. She couldn’t believe that I was alive and made it all the way to Australia. Neither could I. I had been detained in India, Malaysia, and Indonesia. I was then detained in Australia, on Christmas Island. Then, after a few months, I was lucky to be released into the community in mainland Australia on a bridging visa.

But living in limbo here in Australia poses its own set of challenges. I was on bridging visa for over three years. The visas were only for six months and at the end of each visa, I would panic. Every six months, I would worry about whether I would be granted a new visa or whether I would be sent back to a detention centre.

For those three years, I could not apply for asylum. I also did not have the right to work or access to formal education, to improve my English, or go to school. I felt that the Australian Government was not recognising my human right to education.

My dream was to go to school and eventually to university to make my father proud. With the limitations on my visa and no money, I could not go to school or TAFE.

For these three years, I did not feel like a normal human being in society. 

However, I was lucky to get a scholarship to go to a private college to learn English and study for two Diplomas. I am forever grateful to my Australian community for that opportunity. This gave me hope and kept me going.

Today, I work with Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Australia. In my work, I meet so many other people seeking safety, and many of them face similar challenges. Their bridging visas expire every few months, limiting them from finding long-term or permanent jobs. Many employers are under the impression that once bridging visas expire, the employee may be deported, or their work rights will be taken away. So many employers don’t invest their time and resources to hire people who are seeking asylum.

After three years on short-term bridging visas, I was allowed to lodge an application to seek asylum and when my case was processed, I was found to be a  refugee. I was granted a Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV). This is a 5-year visa, designed specifically for people arriving by boat and seeking safety in Australia. The Australian Government does not allow refugees like me to apply for and claim permanent protection.

People who hold this visa are promised that if they live and work in a designated regional area for 3.5 years, they will be eligible for other skilled visas. I have lived and worked full-time at a university in a designated regional area (Canberra). I have done everything that has been asked of SHEV-holders. Yet currently, I am not eligible for any other visa. Despite the fact that Australia has already found me to be a refugee, I have to reapply for my SHEV this year and prove to the same authorities that I am a refugee, just so that I can remain in Australia for another five years.

I cannot go back to Afghanistan and expect to live. I know what awaits me there. But in the meantime, I cannot sponsor my mother and siblings to come to Australia. I cannot see them either. I need to apply to Home Affairs to see my family in a third country, which of course, is not possible during COVID-19, and is, in any case, very costly.

Unlike Australian citizens or permanent residents, I cannot access Fee-Help or government supports such as JobKeeper or JobSeeker. Thankfully I have been able to work continuously for the last few years.

These last eight years led me to think everything is temporary. I have never felt safe and secure over the last eight years because everything that I have can be taken away. This existence stops me from planning my future or even thinking that I have a future. I live day-by-day, not knowing that when everything will end!

People like me left their families in Afghanistan, a war-torn country, hoping that one day they can rescue them. But with Australia’s current refugee policies it seems that it will never happen, and it will just remain a dream. Afghanistan’s security situation is getting worse, and the chance of our families surviving is diminishing. It is scary to think that their lives could be taken away before we can live together again.

There are so many things that make me feel a sense of belonging in a multicultural society such as Australia, over the last eight years. I feel like I have a community in Australia who I can call my sisters and brothers. They will do anything to protect me and stand up for me too. I don’t have a piece of paper to show that I am Australian. But I am a proud Australian nonetheless. Nothing can take this away from me. Not even the fact that I don’t have the rights and supports that recognised citizens do.

I hope that one day I can become a permanent resident, call Australia my permanent home, and start planning my future. I also want to study at university, rescue my siblings and bring them to freedom, and live in peace with my family here.

My hopes for refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia are many. We are in this together and better days are coming sooner or later. To those I meet, I say: ‘Never give up on your dreams and hopes.’

Many amazing people in the community stand up for our rights and stand up to make Australia a place we can call home. Thank you to all of you, who are tirelessly advocating for the rights of refugees and people seeking asylum for many years now. We appreciate every single moment that you spend to advocate and give us hope to move forward.

Zaki Haidari will be speaking on a panel called ‘Displaced’ at the Sydney Writers Festival. Book tickets here.

To learn more about the lives of refugees stuck in indefinite limbo by listening to Temporary.

 

 

Zaki HaidariZaki Haidari is a 2020 Australian Human Rights Commission Human Rights Hero, an Ambassador for the Refugee Advice and Casework Service (RACS), and works at the Jesuit Refugee Service as an Employment Support Worker, assisting people seeking asylum and refugees to find work. Zaki fled Afghanistan aged 17, after his father was ‘disappeared’ by the Taliban and they murdered his brother. His mum and six siblings are still living in fear in Afghanistan. Zaki is a community leader and advocate.

Main image: Asylum Seekers Transported To Christmas Island After Interception (Scott Fisher/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Zaki Haidari, disability, Christmas Island, asylum seeker, Hazara, Afghanistan

 

 

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Zaki, thanks for sharing your story. You have shown an indomitable spirit and extraordinary courage in your young life. Australia needs your leadership qualities and you most certainly do not need a piece of paper to show you are Australian. My hope is for you to be reunited with your family and for you to continue to make your vital contribution to our society. Where would we be without Zaki? Impoverished.
Pam | 23 March 2021


Zaki, many Australians - including me - are praying that our leaders will repent of their cruel and heartless behaviour towards refugees and asylum seekers. Do not give up hope of gathering your mother and siblings around you in peace. God be with you.
Pirrial Clift | 23 March 2021


The way things are currently panning out in Afghanistan, it is highly possible the Taliban will manoeuvre their way back into control of the country via the ongoing 'peace process' with the current government. The minority Hazara, who are mostly Shi'ite, will then be even more in danger from the mainly Pashtun and extremist Deobandi Sunni Taliban. The Hazara may well become the new Rohingya. In many ways, they already are, as your story so graphically tells, Mr Haidari. Your family story is tragic enough, but, I fear, it may soon be dwarfed by tragedy on an international scale, if that has not already happened.
Edward Fido | 24 March 2021


Zaki, we are lucky to have you in Australia and you certainly deserve to live here without the tension and anxiety that you and similar people are experiencing. In the seventies I met an Indian in Norway who expressed his opposition to the White Australia Policy. I was proud to inform him that the Whitlam Government had cancelled it I was wrong. It still exists!
Grahame Forrest | 25 March 2021


Thank you for sharing this story Zaki. I know so well what this means, for I lived in Afghanistan myself for several years and witnessed the generosity of people putting their lives on the line to help aid workers and others. It is by chance that you have been caught up in a bureaucratic decision made here on the 'spur' of the moment, at a time of elections when Parties were doing whatever they could to be re-elected. What a great heart it would be for our government to revisit that quick decision, one that has not really considered that so many refugees and migrants have, and continue to build our society into a nobler and better place to live. THIS would have Australia's happiness index improve, at least. Best wishes and good luck Zaki.
Adele Jones | 26 March 2021


Zaki, Congratulations on your Human Rights Commission Hero's Award. Your story brought back many memories . in 2011-2012 I worked at various Darwin Detention Centers visiting detainees and training volunteers for humanitarian visits through a contract Catholic Charities had with the Federal Government. It was my privilege to visit these men from all over Asia and later women and children from Vietnam. I have very fond memories of visiting with my partner, Mirella Green(Phd), one yard (S 2) that was majority Hazara men. We were both touched by the warm and delicate hospitality offered us both. While I played table tennis and visited a man's little garden, a group of 8 Hazara men drew up chairs around Mirella to talk. One prepared and brought her favorite tea as she sat and responded to their questions and concerns. More than any other memory of my time visiting those camps those men offered the most exquisite expression of the humanity in an inhospitable situation. I thank you and I thank them for choosing my country as a refuge for their dreams. I apologize that my country has not recognized the gift you and your fellow asylum seekers are to us. David Folkes now in Chicago
David Folkes | 27 March 2021


Zaki,it is good to know how committed you are to Australia and sharing your hard word and talents with us all.I hope you will soon be an Australian citizen and able to bring your family members here to join you.
Mary Samara-Wickrama | 28 March 2021


You also had an interesting story to tell, David Folkes. One of the problem migrants and refugees from a Muslim background have, even if many are quite secular, is that they are all perceived as potential members of Isis, even if they are Shia, who Isis and the Taliban have sworn to eliminate, as well as anyone else who does not follow their hepped up version of Wahhabism, which, ironically, many mainstream Sunni ulema have labelled a perversion of true Islam. COVID-19 has helped turn the world into an inward looking and insecure place. Muslims are often the target of hatred, even genocide, in countries like China and Myanmar. In Australia we are much better, but we often have a bad attitude to all Muslims, which affects the majority who are really no danger to anyone.
Edward Fido | 28 March 2021


Zaki, Can I add my gratitude to you for sharing your story.As a citizen of this 'lucky country' , it saddens me immensely that Governments of both colors continue to treat you and fellow refugees as aliens in our country. One lives in hope that somewhere humanitarian sanity will return to our leaders . God bless you and your family.
Gavin O'Brien | 29 March 2021


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