Amir gave this keynote address about his experiences as an Iraqi refugee at the Dulwich Centre Publications’ Narrative Therapy and Community Work Conference in Adelaide in February 2001. This paper was first published in ‘Talking about families’ (Dulwich Centre Journal #1 2001). We are including it here because of the ways in which the Australian government continues to treat current asylum seekers in this country. Amir currently lives in Adelaide and can be contacted via Dulwich Centre Publications.
My name is Amir. Three years ago in Iraq I decided I must try to find a better life for my family. We knew that this meant I must leave our home and our country. My wife and my three young children – a seven year old, a six year old and a one year old – are still in Iraq, a country that has collapsed under the weight of two wars, a dictatorship and the ongoing sanctions which affect the people not the regime itself. There is no longer an education system or a health system in Iraq. It is a place where you cannot speak, you cannot complain, you cannot express your ideas. It is a place of fear as we fear another war. It is a place where many people feel there is no future. And for me, I faced a problem with the regime because of my eldest brother. I wanted my family to feel safe and so I decided to leave Iraq looking for a better life.
There are about three million Iraqi refugees around the world. I am one of these people. It is very difficult to leave your relatives, your family and your friends. But if you were in my position, I am confident that you would do the same. You would seek out a better life for your family. You would go out looking.
I travelled first to Jordan where there are many people who will smuggle you to other countries. They brought me to Indonesia where we moved from island to island until one night we reached the boat that would bring us to Australia. There were about 130 of us, men women and children, and it was dark as we climbed on board. We were very quiet fearing the police might come and we didn’t know what would happen to us on this journey.
When the sun came up we discovered we were on a small fishing boat, 30 meters long and six meters wide. It was very small for so many people and we had barely enough food for the journey which took five days. One night there was a very big storm and we thought it was our end. Everyone on the boat was praying.
When we reached Ashmore Reef just off the Australian coast, we thought we had reached heaven. The Navy took us to Darwin on the open deck of one of their boats. The trip took a day. We were encircled by a fence and there were no toilets. The treatment of the Navy was very bad.
When we arrived in Darwin it was different. The people were kind. They fed us well and allowed us to shower and there were nurses for those of us who were ill. It was in Darwin that they issued us an ID number which consisted of the name of the boat on which we came and a number. This was to be what we were called for many months. We no longer had our own names.
It was then we were flown to Woomera Detention Centre. It was dark when we arrived but I knew from the moment I saw the place that it was a prison. I knew because of the fences, the razor wire and the tough security guards. We were issued with blankets and sent to tiny rooms in which four of us slept. I was there for 10 months and there are many stories I could tell of my time there. We were made to feel in Woomera just as we felt back under the regime in Iraq. It was hard for me to be treated as criminals are treated, but it must have been so much harder for the children and the families, many of whom are still there. Woomera is in the middle of the desert. It is hot and there is nothing to do except think of your family and what you have lost. Many people became hopeless.
Many Iraqis at Woomera could not believe that they were in Australia and they would tell this to the guards. Back home, we had been told stories of how Australia used to welcome refugees and used to be kind to them. So when we were in Woomera detention centre many people did not believe this could be the same country. Five months into my time at Woomera they raised an Australian flag. Only then did people believe the guards. Many were truly shocked. Many were in despair.
In Woomera, there were many people who showed sympathy to us, especially the nurses. But because of their work contracts they were not allowed to help us or to speak out about what was happening. We realised that nobody outside really knew what it was like inside. There were no visitors, and at first the media wasn’t allowed to look. That was why we broke through the fence that night and walked to the town of Woomera. It was a peaceful demonstration. We just wanted people to know what was happening. And from that day on I think attitudes have started to slowly change. Many Australians want to know what is happening in their country.
The nurses in Woomera kept telling us that what we were seeing, and how we were being treated was not the real Australia. And they were right. Since I have been released I have met many Australians who have tried to understand what we have been through. They have understood that it is hard to leave your family, your land, your friends and your memories. They have understood that we have come for a reason, that we have come in search of a safe place to live. They have understood our tragedy.
But still refugees are being detained in Woomera. The situation there is still terrible. And many people are desperate. I would ask Australians to imagine themselves in our place.
I am a civil engineer and I have now been granted a temporary visa. That means I’m not allowed to travel, I can’t find work and I have limited access to education. I can’t even find work as a labourer. My family is still in Iraq and government regulations mean it will be another four or five years before they can come here. I do not know if I can wait that long and I cannot even go and meet them in a third country, like Jordan, because then I will not be allowed to return to Australia.
My children need me. I have a seven year old, a six year old and a one year old. In five years they will have missed so much and so will I. The government, I think, is hoping that fathers will choose to return home because they know they will not be able to bear to be away from their families. I think this is what will happen for many fathers. But then what do we do? We have travelled so far, we have spent 10 months in a desert prison and if we go back now we will still be looking for a safe place for our families to live. We will still be looking for a better life.
Many of us feel afraid to speak to the media or to the public as we are worried that if we do speak out this might damage our chances of achieving permanent residency. So many people are too frightened to speak. But I am not frightened any more. Everything I have faced, and all I have suffered is to try to find a better life for my family. They are not here and so I must speak.
I left my home in search of a better life for my family. I am still searching.