When Freedom Is Only the Beginning

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During the weeks I spent with refugees who had just been released after more than eight years in Australia’s immigration detention regime, I got asked a lot of questions:

How do I use Google Maps? Will I get in trouble if I cross the road without using a pedestrian crossing? How do I get a proof-of-age card? A driver’s license? A tax file number? Do you think a Labor victory in the election will be good for us?

Some of them were easy to answer. Others, not so much.

One refugee’s question was, simply: What should I do? He was talking about his younger brother, deeply traumatized from long years in detention, who had yet to leave their room at their new temporary accommodation, though both of them had been free for two weeks.

The man was trying to coax his brother out by bringing something back whenever he returned — mostly food, takeaway kebab once, a piece of cheesecake from a dinner another time. Trying to introduce the outside world, bit by bit, into the small room they shared. He thought it was working, slowly. But it was hard to tell.

In my recent story about the lives of these men, there wasn’t room to include a lot of people and details, like those two brothers, who didn’t want to be identified.

The stories of some of the refugee advocates who helped the men also had to be left out. Charities like the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, Refugee Voices and the Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project give them monetary support and housing, but day-to-day matters — helping them with paperwork and navigating Australian bureaucracy, driving them to buy groceries and to various appointments, helping them find jobs and winter clothes — mostly fell to a small group of volunteers, many of whom had taken weeks off from their jobs.

Many told me that the release of dozens of refugees in quick succession was putting a strain on them, financially and emotionally.

One day, Anne McAllister, a retiree who spent nearly every day at the motel in Melbourne where the refugees were temporarily staying, was on the verge of tears.

One of the refugees, Sirazul Islam, had told me that he was worried about having to leave the motel. Many of the others were looking forward to that day, when they would move to more permanent homes. They would have peace and privacy, no longer spending each day with the same men they had been detained with for nearly a decade.

But Mr. Islam feared that refugee advocates would then stop visiting him, and that he would be on his own with his severe mental health issues, forced to navigate an unfamiliar city where he barely knew the language.

Ms. McAllister, a stern, no-nonsense woman, was aware of his fears.

“Twice, I’ve held his hands and looked into his eyes and promised him I will do everything I can to help him,” she told me, out of earshot of Mr. Islam, her voice threatening to break. “But I only have two hands.”

It’s hard to do this kind of story, in which you spend so much time with the people you’re writing about, without getting a little bit involved in their lives. I still keep in touch with the men I wrote about. It’s now been two months since their release.

They’ve all moved into new homes, are finding work, learning how to drive, starting to get their medical issues addressed. Mr. Islam has solved the problem of support by asking a friend, another refugee was released a year ago, to live with him. Now, like the others, they’re waiting to see what their futures look like under Australia’s new Labor government.

And now for this week’s stories.




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