Searching for a place to belong
October 24 2002
Faris Kadhem's life is full of tragedy, and as a temporary refugee, his future may offer him little solace. Michael Gordon reports.
Faris Fadhil Kadhem was 13 when his life as a non-citizen began. He can remember with clarity the moment in 1980, just after lunch, when the police arrived at his school in Iraq and demanded that he be taken from his sixth-grade class to join his family at the local police station.
He can remember the name of the headmaster, Mr Omran, who protested vigorously and promised to follow within 10 minutes and ensure that he was allowed back to the classroom.
He can recall almost every detail of the family's deportation to Iran: the removal of his father's military service book and family's identity papers, the interrogation, huddling around a lamp to keep warm in a grass-floored tent over the border, even the token cash payment dished out to the hundreds of Kurds simultaneously evicted from their homeland.
They called it "a gift from Mr President Saddam Hussein", who was still on trainer wheels as a tyrant and a dictator. Saddam's reign of unimaginable cruelty and oppression was barely two years old.
Kadhem is a survivor of last year's SIEV-X tragedy in which 354 asylum seekers died when their overcrowded boat sank en route to Australia. Last Saturday, one year after the tragedy, he was among the survivors and relatives of victims who gathered to remember the dead at a multi-faith memorial service in Reservoir.
All of those who spoke expressed their sorrow at the horror in Bali and prayed for the families of the victims. They also pleaded for understanding and an end to the temporary protection visa system that consigns those who come to Australia by boat to a refugee underclass.
Kadhem did not speak at the service, but he felt better for being there. Supported by Susie Strehlow, of the Victorian Foundation for the Survivors of Torture, he later told his story to The Age.
Her motivation for supporting him in this was simple: "It is an important part of validating the horror that he is forced to live with on a day-to-day basis, that he dreams about and thinks about and relives in all sorts of ways."
We meet at his rented home in Broadmeadows and he speaks through an interpreter in the loungeroom. In the kitchen, his mother, Fadilha, prepares a stew of lamb and broad beans, rice and bread for his guests. She smiles a great deal, but is too shy to join the conversation.
It takes the first 90 minutes to cover the 21 years in Iran and the life endured by a family that was excluded from the labour force, denied basic citizenship rights and forced to live for years at a time in camps with other displaced foreigners, mainly Iraqis.
He offers two main reasons for the extended family's decision to flee Iran: his fear that the man who employed him at his textile factory would be persecuted for his kindness, and the exclusion of his two young children, Ali and Zahra, from the education system.
When he pleaded with Iranian authorities for a passport to enable the family to seek entry to another country, Kadhem says he was told: "You came to Iran without documents. You've got to go without documents."
In mid-2001 the family approached a people smuggler and bought passports, using money saved over the years in Iran and sent by relatives who had access to his family's savings in Iraq. When one immigration official asked how much he paid for the passport, Kadhem says he told the truth: the equivalent of $100. "Very cheap," came the reply. The official knew it was bogus, but stamped it just the same.
The first phase of the journey seemed relatively straightforward and danger-free: the flight to Malaysia and boat trip to Indonesia. But Kadhem says he was a little unnerved when the adults had to wade out to the boat in Malaysia with their children and possessions perched on their shoulders.
Even in Jakarta, the early days were filled with hope. He met the first smuggler he dealt with at the markets at Cisarua, having been told to look for the man driving the Mercedes. "He looked like Saddam Hussein," Kadhem says.
He was told he could take only four members of the family and found the smuggler trustworthy and considerate. He agreed to accept payment once the boat arrived in Australia and to take Kadhem's son, Ali, without payment. The others who departed with Ali about mid-August last year were Fadilha, his brother, Mohamed, and sister, Mina.
Another sister travelled on a second boat with her husband and their children. Their smuggler was an Indonesian known as Ahmed and the boat took a more direct route, arriving at Christmas Island before the first boat made it to Ashmore Reef.
Kadhem then dealt with the Egyptian smuggler Abu Quassey (now in jail in Indonesia), promising to pay him in gold jewellery on the boat before departure. To travel with him were his wife, Leyla, and seven-year-old daughter, Zahra. If the father found Quassey a touch unnerving, Zahra called him uncle.
"When she saw him she used to run up and give him a kiss and say, 'Uncle, hurry up with our trip. I am missing Ali so much'."
They were taken to join more than 400 others in what looked like an old school building in Sumatra ("When I looked at it, I thought how much bigger the ship would be," he says). They departed from the southern end of the island in the early hours of October 18.
Zahra kissed the people smuggler before they left. "She said, 'thank you very much. Tomorrow we'll see Ali'." If the vessel seemed hopelessly ill-equipped for the voyage, Quassey exuded confidence. "Be like lions," he told them. "Don't fear anything. Leave the worry about Indonesian immigration to me."
The first indication of trouble was the worried, even sick, look on the face of the captain before the vessel had made it to the orange buoy the asylum seekers were told signalled they were in international waters.
Then there was a call for those with mechanical skills to help fix the pump; then the decision to turn off the engine "to give it a little break"; the revelation that the back-up machinery was old, corroded and useless and, finally, the realisation that the boat was sinking.
When someone asked how far they were from Christmas Island, the response was six hours. "Zahra clapped. She was so happy, so joyful that we were nearly there," Kadhem says.
"Are we going to see Ali?" she asked her father.
"Yes, God willing," he replied.
Then, as the sea became rougher the boat started taking water prompting panic and the decision to throw the luggage overboard. "Zahra was upset, crying because the toys she was taking to Ali would be lost, even the batteries," says Kadhem.
Then came the decision to throw the food and water overboard to further lighten the load. It was then decided that the men should also jump into the sea.
When Zahra pleaded with Kadhem to stay, he tried to allay her concern by saying the others would think him lacking in courage if he stayed. "Don't worry what other people say about you. I need you," she replied.
When the boat sank another 20 centimetres, Kadhem suggested the three of them jump together, holding hands. While he was reassuring his daughter, who could not swim, a wave "like a mountain" hit from the right and the boat capsized, trapping the women and children below deck.
"In the water, everybody started to cling to me, and Zahra lost her grip on me and her mum lost her grip on me, and I had to free myself from all these women and children clinging on me and swim towards Leyla, my wife, about five metres away.
"But as I'm approaching her she hears Zahra scream and says, "Why come to me? Go to Zahra'."
It is the only dialogue Kadhem recounted from his wife during his account.
"Zahra was wearing a lifejacket, but the waves kept tossing her and I tried to follow her like a fish. Then it was like when butter melts. She disappeared. I don't know where."
He went back to the others and discovered the body of Leyla floating, dead. Hours later, with perhaps 50 survivors still clinging to debris and floating bodies, some wearing inferior lifejackets, Kadhem says they saw two ships and a smaller boat. Despite their calls, screams and whistles, they did not attract their attention. Was it the failing light, or an act of criminal negligence?
Then Kadhem slipped into unconsciousness. He woke the next morning and found himself alone. In a floating black plastic bag, he found some water, apples and biscuits. Then he saw a whale coming towards him. "I said (to myself) I didn't drown and this would finish me off." But it didn't.
Hours later, Kadhem was the first survivor to be spotted by Indonesian fishermen who came looking after seeing the floating luggage. When they said they would take him back to Jakarta, he says he screamed that they must look for the others. They found another 44.
Back in Jakarta, the survivors were processed quickly by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and all but nine were found to be refugees. Most were accepted by Scandinavian countries and offered permanent residency. Seven with relatives in Australia were told they had been accepted and given five-year temporary protection visas.
This class of visa was introduced in 1999 and toughened in 2001 to deter people from using people smugglers. Although accepted as refugees, TPV-holders have no permanency, no ability to leave the country to visit relatives, no right of reunion with immediate family members outside Australia, and less access to support services, including English-language training.
It was nine months before Kadhem was reunited with his son, Ali, who has a three-year TPV and is in grade four at a Broadmeadows primary school after spending six months in the Woomera detention centre with his grandmother.
Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock has signalled his willingness to align the time frames of TPVs for family members, but remains committed to the policy.
"Surely, the only rational system is one in which you can properly assess claims and, within your capacity, help as you can, rather than being put under duress by those who are prepared to pay people smugglers," he recently told The Age.
Labor's immigration spokeswoman, Julia Gillard, has already said TPV-holders should have access to services that are now denied to increase their prospects for successful settlement.
The bigger question of whether this class of visa should be abandoned is under review. Although Labor supported the system when it was introduced and strengthened, she now says she is "deeply sceptical" about whether it is working.
Paris Aristotle, director of the Victorian Foundation for the Survivors of Torture and a member of the Howard Government's Immigration Detention Advisory Group, understands the rationale of the policy, but says it does not resonate with those who hold TPVs, and that the ability of people to recover from severe trauma is substantially compromised by the temporary nature of their security.
"Where there is a young boy who has been through so much and lost so much, his ability to recover will principally be based on how well his father is able to cope. The more his father's sense of security is jeopardised, the harder it will be for Ali," Aristotle says.
His point is underscored by Kadhem, who seems unburdened by telling his story, but makes no attempt to camouflage his anxiety about the future. "I spent all my life without citizenship and now I am offered temporary residency," he says. "I have no hope, no future, because my situation is now similar to my past back in Iran. I am not settled. I belong nowhere."
Michael Gordon is The Age national editor