Sharing the grief

By Kelly Burke
The Age
March 22 2002

Clutching a cheap bunch of wilting roses and a wealth of dreams for a better future, Ahmed Alzalimi waited nervously for his wife at Sydney Airport yesterday.

"It will be the beginning of a new life together, but to restart life on a temporary visa is not really the best way to start, I know," the former Iraqi history teacher said through an interpreter.

"But I have told her the Australian people are humane people, that she is coming here to a welcoming nation, which understands what she went through, and understands her loss . . . she is not expecting her life in Australia to be like another prison," he added, reluctant to be distracted from his vigil at arrivals gate A.

Mr Alzalimi, 38, had not seen his wife Sondos Ismael, 27, for three years. He bade farewell his three young daughters and their mother in Iran in 1998, assuring them that with the will of God, the family would soon be reunited.

But on October 21 last year, Mr Alzalimi, living in Sydney on a temporary protection visa after spending eight months in Western Australia's Curtin detention centre, received the telephone call from Jakarta that devastated his hopes. His three daughters Eman, 8, Zahra, 6, and Fatimah, 5, were presumed dead after the over-crowded Indonesian fishing vessel the family had boarded in a desperate effort to reach Australia sank off the Java coast.

After spending 19 hours in the ocean, Mrs Ismael was one of only 44 asylum seekers to survive the ordeal, which also claimed the life of her sister Khadija and 350 other Iraqi, Iranian and Afghan nationals.

Yesterday, grief and joy merged into uncontrollable sobbing when Mr Alzalimi finally embraced his wife. Through her tears, Mrs Ismael prayed that the flight from Jakarta to Sydney would be the final leg of a harrowing life journey, which began with the loss of her father, executed by Saddam Hussein's regime, when she was five.

In 1994, her only son died three days after birth, but at least then her husband was by her side to console her. For the past five months, Mrs Ismael, stranded in a strange land, has been forced to grieve alone for her lost daughters, as Australian immigration officials sifted through the details of her visa application.

Resentment is still palpable among the couple's supporters towards Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock, who declined to waive the conditions of Mr Alzalimi's temporary protection visa. If he had flown to Jakarta to care for his wife, he would have been refused re-entry to Australia.

A spokesman for Mr Ruddock said yesterday that Mrs Ismael's five-month wait has not been unreasonable. If anything, the case had been expedited due to the tragic circumstances, he said.

Mrs Ismael will be able to apply for permanent residency after three years because she has been granted refugee status by the UNHCR and is considered to have entered Australia legally. Mr Alzalimi may also be granted permanent residency because he applied before stricter rules were introduced last September.

While it is believed at least another six survivors of last year's tragedy are waiting for Australian visas, the spokesman for Mr Ruddock said there were possibly as many as 40 other asylum seekers in Jakarta further ahead in the queue.

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