Mehdi arrived in Australia seeking asylum in 2011 at the age of 15. Here he shares his experience as a refugee and the long journey towards healing, holding onto hope and finding community.
After years in Australia’s detention system, asylum seeker Fazel Khodayar found hope through the action, support and friendship of others including Lisa Bridle. Here Lisa and Fazel share about their friendship and the powerful story of calling together for freedom from detention at Brisbane’s Kangaroo Point Central Hotel.
Lisa: Until early 2020, despite being very disturbed by Australia’s treatment of refugees, my efforts (like attending an occasional rally) were frankly half-hearted. In April that year, as COVID hit, a group of refugees began afternoon protests from their detention at Kangaroo Point Central Hotel. Their banners hung over two levels read: Where is Justice? 7 Years Torture. No Crime 7 Years in Detention.
Activists staged COVID safe walking protests in solidarity and within weeks, a 24 hour community blockade was established, and then numerous large rallies where the men inside gave heartbreaking speeches by phone.
Over eight months, we also held Sunday Solidarity faith vigils, where we gathered to pray, to silently reflect, to sing, and to use ritual to proclaim values of love, compassion, justice, and welcome towards refugees.
As a Christian, I felt compelled to BE there, standing with my sign on the streets of Kangaroo Point, called by the words: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me. I was ill and you comforted me, in prison and you came to visit me. ” Matthew 25:35-36
I wanted to say to the men “you are not forgotten; you are seen; we are fighting for your freedom”.
Two years on, and after nine years of detention, these men from that Kangaroo Point balcony are free. Fazel, one of those men, is a warm, funny, joyful man who has become a loyal and supportive friend, sharing Christmas day, holidays, meals and visits at his home and ours.
I am not sure if it is possible for him and others to heal from nine years of detention, while there is still no settlement certainty for his future.
He has faced trauma and the theft of years of his life.
I now realise that my previous inaction stemmed not from lack of care, but from feeling utterly powerless in the face of unrelentingly cruel public policy.
But I learnt that holding a sign, forming a community of resistance, and offering and receiving friendship, ALL make a difference, no matter how small.
The following story includes a reference to self-harm. Please take care as you read.
Fazel: We had been in detention for so long. We had no hope. We decided to try to protest, to ask people to notice us. We wanted to make banners but we had nothing. We hid black plastic garbage bags, and took paper from the activity class.
One of the guards gave us the sticky tape.
It was hard because we had no scissors to cut paper and tape. We hid razor blades we’d taken from disposable shavers. We worked on the banners after the last head count at night and hid them when our rooms were searched. I also made two horns to make a big sound.
Before the protests, I didn’t care about freedom. I was rejected for a US program and I lost hope. I had been collecting tablets in my room to hurt myself, but the guards found them.
When people saw us and supported us, it gave us hope. After so many years offshore, we felt that we are not alone, people do care about us and about democracy.
For me, I changed my mind about Australians. Before I thought Australians were racist people who were all against refugees. But the protests changed my mind 100%.
Now I know most Australians are good and believe in freedom. After many months of protests, it was hard to keep hopeful. They took the banners, some of us got sent back to Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation, and they locked off the balconies, but still I remembered all the people who cared.
I got my freedom in March 2021. When I first got out, I was scared all the time. Even if someone smiled at me, I felt scared. I couldn't trust. I would think it was a trap and I would get sent back to jail. I am still scared when I see the police.
I feel hope with the change of government but then again it was Labor who sent us to Manus. I might go to Canada. It is a good country but too cold.
After so much suffering, friendship is so important to me. I hope I can stay here where I have so many good friends.
Then I will start my life again.
Sometimes we can feel powerless in the face of suffering,
but we turn to you for hope and comfort.
Let us feel your protection, love and grace in times of hardship and let us be your hands and feet in times of strength.
Thank you Jesus for exemplifying what it means to love the stranger.
May we continue to reach out to others in need and love one another.
Take action and join the conversation
One of the most important ways we can help contribute to a country and communities which always 'seek to heal and never to harm' those seeking refuge and asylum on our shores is to engage in conversations with the people around us. Take action this Refugee Week by connecting with your friends, family and faith community about this series.
Do you need support? The following support services are available:
Lifeline 24 hour crisis line: 131 114
Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636
Lisa Bridle is a Brisbane social worker and mother of three adult children. She has a background in community development and disability advocacy, and continues to be involved in solidarity action through Love Makes a Way and Refugee Solidarity Meanjin.
Fazel Khodayar is a refugee from Ahwaz, Iran, and spent years in offshore detention on Manus, before coming to Australia under Medevac. Back in Iran, he studied at University after a stint in the military, and is currently working as a painter in Brisbane.