Ships, Degrees and Separation: Elaheh's story
When she had to flee, Elaheh didn’t realise she might never see her family again – or that she would bear a son, who might never know them.
This is an extract from Temporary, a series featuring the stories of people who survive in an asylum system designed to keep them out. Temporary was created by UNSW's Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, in collaboration with the UNSW Centre for Ideas and Guardian Australia.
She's a bright child – booksmart, but savvy to the unspoken rules, too. Her parents can see it. So, at age five, little Elaheh goes from their home to live with her beloved grandmother near the capital, where the schools are better. Her doting mother can stay there, too, and her father can come and go from his work back home. At the end of primary school, the bright girl aces entrance exams for a selective school.
‘We always knew, even from a young age, not to talk at school about things like having a satellite at home. Certain things are only to be spoken of to friends and family, and not to people you don't know well.
‘But you don't always have a feeling of it being dangerous,’ she says, thinking back. She has a ready, musical laugh, and a wicked awareness of life’s absurdities.
‘Look, it’s tricky, because in Iran basically everything you do is dangerous. Like, the way I went out in the street was dangerous, because I didn't have a proper hijab…. We drank. We played games that were considered gambling. All sorts of life that's considered normal [in the West], we did it there too. But it was only inside our own houses, and, like, everybody knew, but no one knew.’
After university, she has all the energy, idealism and potential that define the brightest young graduates. Returning from Tehran to the family home in the oil-rich southwest, it’s all new to her, but what she sees is the well-documented discrimination against Iran’s Ahwazi Arabs. ‘They're basically living on top of some of the world's biggest oil resources, and they're living in absolute poverty.’ She could help, she thinks. ‘Just maybe raise their knowledge and, like, make them aware of what's going on.’ What’s the danger in that?
When everyday life involves doing things you are not supposed to do, you lose sight of the line. Do you cross it when you start collecting information? Taking photographs? Being a witness who speaks out loud? When you make too many people aware?
There’s a knock on the door, a computer confiscated.
‘See, in Iran you're never exactly aware of the consequences. No one knows – you can commit a huge crime and, like, see minimal consequences, and you can do basically nothing and... disappear and hang for it.’
Elaheh doesn’t risk finding out the punishment in store for her; she leaves in a hurry, without explaining much, without meaningful goodbyes, without time to think about what she would take with her from the only homeland she’d known.
Today, she’s in a country she knew only from Skippy, the tv kangaroo, beamed to the Middle East and dubbed on Iranian tv. But in Australia, too, the rules of her safety are slippery. She has an Aussie twang and a temporary visa. The restrictions of the visa dictate whether her son, a bright five-year-old born in Adelaide, South Australia, will ever get to meet the women who so lovingly cared for Elaheh at his age, one of whom is now battling cancer.
Do boats sink?
Here’s how Elaheh found her way into this ‘temporary’ situation. ‘We knew,’ she says, that after the officials took the computer hard drive, with documentation of the abuses against the Arab minority in Ahwaz, ‘that it would have very, very significant consequences. But, we had no idea of what exactly they would be.’
She knew she had to run.
Still, she describes it as ‘surreal’, slipping out of Iran, not realising where she was going or what it would mean. She acted on logic, not emotion. ‘Even now when I think about it, it's like, it doesn't feel like I'm remembering stuff from my life, it feels like I'm remembering something from a book I read.
‘I was scared that if I started feeling stuff, I'd stop being practical, and, I don't know, I'd f*&k up,’ she says, showing that, six or seven years on, she has mastered Australian vernacular.
‘The first time I remember feeling something was…’
Not as she says goodbye to her brother, mother and grandmother, ‘a kind of worried goodbye, but not a I’m-not-going-to-see-them-for-six-years goodbye.’
Not during the days of laying low at a friend’s house in Iran.
And certainly not when the friend of another friend starts making arrangements to get her out.
She takes the passport with another name, because her own ID would surely see her stopped. She gets through the airport gates, onto the plane to Abu Dhabi, and then another to Indonesia. She squeezes onto the back of a truck and stays squeezed for 12 hours of battering road.
It’s night, near dawn, when the jungle meets the sea. She doesn’t swim well, but she gets to the small boat that takes her to the bigger boat, where she falls asleep, all wet. When she wakes, the sun stings her face, and she throws up.
'I was semi-unconscious the whole way, because I got seasick like nothing.' She has never been on a boat before.
Two-and-a-half days in, storm-soaked and sun-scorched, she tells someone, ‘If they don’t find us by nighttime, just throw me in the water.’
But the Australian Navy does find the boat. Soldiers jump aboard the small vessel, shouting, pointing weapons. As the only person aboard who speaks English well, Elaheh tries to translate between the people with guns and the people at gunpoint. In a verbal eye-roll, she says to herself, ‘Look at us; we’re just a bunch of people.’ The bunch of people get on the Navy ship, and they each get a number, a ‘Boat ID’. The numbers are taken to Australian’s remote territory of Christmas Island.
Elaheh – or rather, GOE031– gets searched. She gets showered. She gets clean clothes and food and a bunk. She gets a short phone call to her brother the next day. She doesn’t know that her mother and grandmother, for nights now, have been calling her aunt in the US and all crying down the phone together because they had no idea what had happened to her. Then they would hang up and do it again the next day. ‘[My brother said] “Can you please, please call Mum because she's going to think that I'm lying to her,” and I said, “No sorry, they don't allow me – I'll call her in a few days.”’
Australia, a landmass comparable to the United States but inhabited by just 25 million people, compared to 325 million Americans, has space enough to disappear Elaheh and the many others like her, far from the view of most of its residents. In the coastal cities, Australian headlines inveigh the threat of this ‘bunch of people’ fleeing to its shores. Politics plays out, its moves physical and psychological, without close regard of the bunch of people who fled for protection here, where they are kept distant and deliberately disconnected from the voters.
‘They kept changing the place where we stayed. So I was in Christmas Island for two months, and I changed four camps. So we're like in each camp for two weeks. As soon as we started getting used to something, they would move us somewhere new.
'When there is a lot of new stimuli around you, your senses kind of want to first get to know them and get used to them, before you can process feelings from the past or anything. I'm like that. I'm a very practical person. So, there was a lot to learn and get used to and adapt to. And then when everything started to sink in... the feelings started coming back.
‘Around that time, I found out about the boat,’ she says. The boat?
‘There was this officer in the camp, this lady who was really nice. And sometimes at night when I was bored, we'd sit and talk. And there was one night, she was super sad. I was like, “What happened?” She said, “This boat sank and we found bodies.” And I was like, “What are you talking about? What do you mean, it sank?” And she said, “It sank. It's there. I don't know how many boats sank like that this month.”
‘I'm like, “Do boats sink?!” And she looked in my eyes. She was like, “If I wasn't looking into your face right now, I wouldn't believe that you didn't know.” And I actually didn't know. And I was crying, because I had no idea that I could have died a week ago.
‘I just, I realised that a week ago I could have died very very easily.
‘It was really… it was too much to comprehend.
‘I’d seen stuff like it in the movies, but when you watch those things, they're so far from you and your life that don't even feel any kind of empathy or anything, you know… but then they were happening to me.’
My year of doing nothing
‘Zilch’ is what Elaheh knows about Australia before washing up in the vast country in 2013, at a moment of vexed politics when it came to refugees. ‘I didn't even know there was a city called Adelaide,’ where she now lives. ‘I knew Sydney. I knew Skippy. You know Skippy?’
At the time, she does not know Scott Morrison, the man who is the Immigration Minister, building his career (today he is Australia’s Prime Minister) with a divisive campaign to ‘stop the boats’. He uses the language of war, flanking himself with a uniformed military general that he’s tapped to lead ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’. She doesn’t know that he’s painting her, and at least 30,000 others fleeing trouble, as an enemy to be fought off Australia’s shores.
Still, her war is better than many others’. It involves a lot of waiting and a little bit of moving around. Every week, an official in the detention centre calls out the boat-ID numbers of the people being transferred. Her number is shortly up. ‘The funniest thing,’ she laughs with incredulity. ‘When we left Christmas Island, and we left for [mainland] Australia, the moment our plane was landing, there was this kangaroo running next to us – when I came to Australia, the first thing I saw was a kangaroo running!
‘I was like, “Oh, come on!” If I saw that in a movie, I’d think it was so cliched, but it really happened.’
Her number takes Elaheh to the first red soil she’s ever seen, in the Kimberley region of Australia, to the Curtin detention facility, once described by former Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock as the country's ‘most primitive’ processing centre.
‘The horrible part was, there are a lot of families out there who had, for some reason, been there for ages... They were in such a bad place mentally. I remember there was just one family in there, in the room next to us, who had been there for ages and ages. And every time that they would come and give the names of the people who were going out of the camp and into the community, or to another camp or somewhere, they would get so upset and angry and be like, “It's not fair. They just came here two weeks ago and then they're going.” I remember wishing to God that I would not get transferred before them, because I just couldn't bear the thought – and thank God they got transferred one week before us.’
Elaheh’s next transfer is to another outback centre, where lucky detainees would be taken for a bike ride past mining sites. There she fell briefly ill.
Finally her number comes up and she is released from detention centres and into the community, into another kind of limbo.
‘We weren't allowed to work, we weren't allowed to study. We just receive Centrelink [social support] payments and we had a Medicare card. In my whole entire life, there was no period where I did as much nothing as that year. I've been working since 18 and studying and everything. I have not read as many books or watched as many movies in my life as I did in that year.’
She also gets pregnant in that year. ‘And, yes, it wasn't a very nice pregnancy at all.’
‘If I had the choice’
‘In my culture, when you get pregnant is the time that everybody takes care of you, and everybody – so, you know, your mum, your aunts, relatives, grandma, everyone – just spoils you. [But] I’m far from my country, and in this new place, and I wasn't allowed to do anything. And I was bored. And I was emotional. And added to that, I was pregnant. That was horrible.
‘But after my son was born, it was actually nice because he kept me busy, and we spent, until he turned two, we spent all of our time together. Which was super nice. He was a very cute baby. He was adorable. He was a happy child. So, yeah, it kind of helped me... when I had no one here, now, I had someone.’
Her son, whom she names Ben, learns to talk; English is his first language. ‘He’s an absolute Aussie. He fits in perfectly nicely.’ Like his mum, the boy is in limbo – born into it, in his case. Australia does not bestow citizenship on children born to non-citizens on its territory.
‘When you have a child here, the child has the same visa status as you do. So [when he is born] my son is on a bridging visa.
‘And there was this really, really, really absurd thing that happened, which was that every year, because our bridging visas would expire, [she and the boy’s father] would get new visas in our mail. And then for my son, I would have to go to the immigration office in the city. They would take me to this room, and I will have to just sit there with my son for, I don't know, 20 minutes, half an hour, and then they bring some documents and I sign them and they would give my son's visa. And when I asked why, they said... because your son has never been in detention. He was born here. In order to get this visa, you need to have been in detention. So he needs to be here, “technically [detained]”, so we can give him a visa.’
Together they wait. She gets a new bridging visa enabling her to work and study, and soon she becomes a certified interpreter. Every few days they call her family in Iran, who have unreliable internet, and share news, sometimes happy and sometimes sad. They play and work and wait for the Australian government to allow her to make her claim, her case for protection because she faces persecution in her home country.
Years go by before she is allowed to apply. Nine months after that, she’s notified that her interview will be in a week. ‘I remember being very, very excited. Because anything is better than being in a limbo. I just wanted to get it over with.’
At the end of the hour-long questioning, Elaheh is asked if she has anything to add. ‘I said, “Look, you've read my file, and I told you I grew up with my grandmother, and she is 70-something years old. Now, people in Iran don't live as long as people do here usually. And my grandmother was just diagnosed with cancer... I'm not sure if I'm gonna see her before she dies, and she's like she's – I'm closer to her than to my mum.
'I love it here. I’m glad I’m here. But coming here wasn’t worth this. I wouldn’t choose this life at the expense of not seeing my family for so long. If I had the choice.'
With that, she leaves the interview, to wait some more.
Eighteen months later, Elaheh is recognised as a refugee. After several years of working and paying tax on her bridging visa, now she can also receive some benefits, most notably child-care subsidy. Her boy is thriving and loves the other kids at his care centre. She’s studying at university, doing honours in psychology.
‘This year , I got the scholarship, and I started uni. And then I got my visa – and the night that I got my visa, I was just lying in bed, and my partner was like, “Are you ok?” I said, “I have nothing to worry about.” And he said, “That's a good thing, right?” And I said, “I don't know, it feels weird. I actually, I was actually looking for something to worry about. It's been six years since I haven't been worried about anything.”’
The limbo isn’t over, though.
Instead of a permanent protection visa, she has a Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV), a legal innovation of the Australian government. SHEVs last five years (unlike three-year TPVs, or temporary protection visas) and are the best-case visa available for people who arrive by boat, even when they are assessed as a refugee – despite that the Refugee Convention doesn’t allow discrimination based on a refugee’s means of arrival.
So, she had waited six years for a visa that is valid only for five years. And a visa with other constraints, too. If she'd come by plane, or through UNHCR's humanitarian resettlement program, Elaheh would have been able to apply for her family to join her in Australia.
What changes when an asylum seeker is granted a TPV or a SHEV?
When an a member of the legacy caseload is granted a TPV or a SHEV, this is a recognition that Australia considers them to be a refugee entitled to protection. However, unlike other refugees who are granted protection for life, they are only guaranteed a safe home in Australia for the 3 to 5 year term of the visa. When the TPV or SHEV expires, they will be required to reapply for a protection visa, and re-establish that they are a refugee in need of protection.
TPVs and SHEVs give the holder a greater range of entitlements than bridging visas, but fewer than a permanent protection visa.
Because she came by boat, however, she faces the prospect of being separated from her family indefinitely. People on TPVs and SHEVs are denied 'family reunion'; they cannot sponsor their family to come here. Many refugees worry about their family's safety and wellbeing in the places that they've left, an anguish that compounds the strain of separation itself.
On a SHEV, the best Elaheh can hope for is to get permission to travel overseas to meet her family in a third country, if she can demonstrate exceptional compassionate grounds. Any travel outside Australia must be pre-approved by the government. It’s clearly too dangerous for her to go back to Iran, but her family can travel overseas, so she wants to meet them in a third country. They wouldn’t be given tourist visas to Australia, on the basis that they’d likely seek asylum rather than tour the sites.
‘I've applied to immigration,’ Elaheh says in our first talk. ‘I'm going to Georgia, and my mother and my brother and my grandmother are coming there too. So I can meet them for the first time after six years.’
And they'll meet her son for the first time?
‘Yes. And they'll meet Ben! I heard about this family who are going to Italy and the [immigration department] didn't allow them to… but, yeah, fingers crossed, I’m planning to go at Christmas.’
Then, when they return, she will take her son to his first day of school.
Weeks later, we call Elaheh again to record for the podcast. When we ask her to tell us about being away from her mother and grandmother, she demurs.
‘Can I not? Sorry.... It's just that right now I'm applying for a travel document and for immigration to give me permission to go meet my family during Christmas. They rejected my application two weeks ago.
‘It's a bit emotional.’
We talk about her life in Australia. Sometimes, she feels so at home. ‘About two months ago, I met this family in the park who were tourists from America, and I told them everything about where to go, how to go, what to do and what's cheaper and where to shop... she just thought I was just an Australian.’
But an Australian citizen or permanent resident has rights not available to someone on a SHEV temporary visa, which brings her back to the travel application.
‘I kind of thought that I was done dealing with immigration and nonsense, but apparently I'm not. They rejected [my request to travel]. Basically we provided everything they asked for, and we provided reasons that we couldn't provide the other stuff. But they just… sent an email saying, “We reject your application because we don't think your reasons are compassionate enough and you haven't provided enough documents.”
‘The annoying thing about it is, there's no one to talk to. So I went to the immigration office. They've changed everything there. You can't talk to anyone in the office – it used to be that I could talk to someone. [Now] they gave me this number – I called the number, it's just a basic number for basic inquiries on immigration. The person had no idea... I'm like, “Is there anyone [there] who can help me with this?” And he was, like, “No, sorry.”
‘So we’re just gonna apply again.’
Professor Jane McAdam, Director of the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, says, ‘We know the detrimental human impacts of these policies. Quite aside from the fact that many of them violate international law… it's the human consequences and the fact that many people are at breaking point now.
‘People can have hope for so long. But there comes a point, I think, at which people's resilience starts to fade.
'I'm really concerned that there are a lot of people now whose mental health is really suffering and who worry, perhaps quite rightly, that they will never see their family again.’
Sarah Dale of the Refugee Advice and Casework Service sees it in her clients, who have been recognised as refugees but even years later still can’t see the people they need the most, their family: ‘That limbo and that uncertainty and that angst has remained as a big part of their lives – being separated from family has remained, and uncertainty about what the future looks like for them has remained.'
Elaheh had better luck with the second application. She got permission to travel to Georgia with her son. He mum, grandma, brother, aunt and two cousins came for a genuinely joyful reunion.
‘When we got there, it was just absolutely a dream,’ she says. ‘My son is turning six now and he had never met my family but... just from the first minute when we got there, it was like he’d known them all his life, he was so close to them, and everything was so natural and beautiful.’
Her family had brought food from home and cooked Iranian dishes. They all fussed over Ben and played with him constantly. ‘He had this beautiful connection with my brother, and they still video-chat on my phone every weekend,’ Elaheh says with the joy of it evident in her voice. ‘It was really a dream.’
Buoyed by the visit, Elaheh still doesn’t know if or when she and Ben will ever see her family again. She is bound by the SHEV visa requirements until 2024. And so is Ben; whatever happens to her visa, happens also to his. In a few years, she will have to apply again for Australia’s protection, a process the government is still figuring out, even as reapplications roll in from thousands of people whose protection is ‘temporary‘ and already running out.
UNSW's Kaldor Centre is raising the voices of people like Elaheh and support lawful, sustainable and human solutions for those who have been forced from their homes. Please join us on this mission.