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When hope turns to despair

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Asylum seeker families in Adelaide have opened up about the stress of living for years with constant uncertainty, little or no income and a reliance on charity for basic necessities – issues which have been magnified during the coronavirus pandemic.

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As asylum seekers on bridging visas, the families insist they cannot return to their countries of origin where they face imprisonment or even death.

Charity workers providing vital assistance to the families say living in poverty with ongoing uncertainty is compounding the trauma these people experienced prior to coming to Australia.

Among the approximately 550 families living in Adelaide on temporary visas since the Federal Labor Government halted permanent resettlement in 2012 are Saeed, Majeedh and their four children.

They came by boat to Australia with their eldest two children in 2013 after experiencing persecution in Iran as part of the minority Ahwazi Arab culture.

The family spent three months in detention on Christmas Island and Inverbrackie before being granted a bridging visa.

Seven years later they are going through a complex and lengthy appeal process after their application for refugee status was rejected under the so-called ‘fast track’ system which has come under fire from humanitarian lawyers.

The eldest child, Mohammad, 15, attends a local secondary school while Mustafa, 11, and Maryam, 5, go to St Brigid’s Catholic School, Kilburn (pictured left with baby sister Milad).

The family has been receiving financial support through the Federal Government’s Status Resolution Support Program, which helps cover the rent, but they can’t always pay it on time and the family relies heavily on assistance from charities for food and clothing.

During COVID-19 they have been receiving a weekly food package from the Circle of Friends 121 group established recently to help asylum seekers during the pandemic.

While Mohammad and his younger siblings speak fluent English, their parents have never been given access to language lessons and have limited English.

Translating for his father, Mohammad explained that Saeed was a mechanic in Iran but the government made it difficult for him to work and took over his family’s land.

“He had no rights, he was afraid of being arrested; they were following him all the time,” Mohammad said. “We can’t go back because we are Arabs, not Persian, but still our application is being rejected. We don’t understand why they don’t believe us.

“We feel like we are part of Australia, we want to stay….most of my days I am speaking English so it would be hard for me to go back and study in Arabic.”

Mohammad said while he hoped to study business after finishing school he would not be able to go to university because he isn’t eligible for a HECS loan, even though he has been studying here for seven years.

Asked how she is coping, Majeedh, who suffers from migraines, said, “it’s very hard, very hard…we just want to be happy”.

Mohammad said his parents had “lots of hope” in the beginning but now the stress is “rising every day”.

“They thought they were going to be over the hard times when they came to Australia. They came here for peace and to get on with their lives. They thought Australia was going to be a safe place with no worries.”

Zahra and Hassan fled Iran in 2013 with two young children and spent two and a half years on Christmas Island before being sent to Adelaide on a bridging visa.

Christians from the ancient town of Shiraz, Hassan ran a real estate business and Zahra (pictured left) was an art teacher but the government closed the business and told Zahra she couldn’t teach because she wasn’t Muslim.

Their application for a Safe Haven Enterprise Visa has been rejected by the Immigration Department and the Immigration Assessment Authority but they are appealing the decision in the Federal Court.

The family receives $200 a month from Red Cross and the rent for their Happy Valley house is paid by Vinnies, which also provides food vouchers.

Zahra spends three days a week delivering catalogues on foot to 800 houses, for $100. She also cleans homes but that work has dried up since COVID-19.

She cares for her husband who has a disability related to an injury he suffered during the Iran-Iraq war and which has been exacerbated by the stress of detention on Christmas Island. After their visa application was rejected he fell and broke his hip, confining him to a wheelchair much of the time.

Their children, Daniel, 12, and Deana, 11, attend Braeview Primary School. Daniel loves sport, especially soccer, and has lots of friends. This is despite experiencing trauma symptoms such as bed wetting after witnessing another Christmas Island detainee trying to kill someone.

Zahra is not eligible for Centrelink or disability support for her husband and had to teach herself English.

“Mary (Ireland) and Catherine (Russell) from Vinnies and Circle of Friends come every Saturday to give us our box of food,” she said. “Mary is a very, very nice woman – if she is not helping me I don’t know what I would do.”

After Immigration rejected their visa application, Zahra said she “cried for two months”.

“For me, it’s very hard, I have to be strong for the children and for Hassan, but it’s very hard. I am mother, father, man, woman, everything,” she said. “I never thought it would be like this. We came to Australia to have a better life…but I love to stay in Australia.

“I pray for everybody in our situation, I understand that Immigration can’t let everyone in, but now they (the boats) have stopped coming, everything is closed, and we are already here.”

Dil arrived in Christmas Island in July 2013 after fleeing Myanmar (Burma) with his wife Sajidah and their two children Ibrahim, now 13, and Ominah, now 10.

After a month the family (main picture) was placed in detention in Melbourne for one month and then Brisbane for 19 months before being granted a bridging visa.

Dil, 37, said he chose to come to Adelaide because he had a friend here who told him it was a good place. He began growing zucchinis at Virginia until the landlord stopped the farm’s water supply.

Now he works 20 hours a week for a vineyard and sometimes drives for Uber Eats.

The Immigration Department has refused his application for a visa, despite Dil’s claim that he has no rights as a Muslim in the predominantly Buddhist Myanmar.

He insists he could never go back to Myanmar adding “a lot will happen” if he does. Their children attend Salisbury High and Salisbury North R-7. Omayah, 3, was born in Adelaide at the Lyell McEwin Hospital.

Ibrahim, who speaks fluent English and wants to be a mechanic, said he likes living in Adelaide.

“I feel part of Australia, I can’t even read and write in Burmese,” he explained. “When I started school here I was in Year 1.”

“Australia is good,” agreed Dil. “It doesn’t matter what race or religion you are.”

But he said it wasn’t what he expected in terms of welcoming people from other lands, as its national anthem suggested.

Dil said if he had a permanent visa he could start his own business growing vegetables again.

“If they didn’t want us here they should have told us before,” he said.

“It’s not fair.”

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