Reza Yarahmadi arrived on Christmas Island in late 2009. After being released, Reza began visiting detention centres and campaigning for detainee rights. We met Reza in a park by a lake in the north of Melbourne popular with Kurdish families, on a sunny Saturday afternoon.
NIGHT TIME WAS LIKE THINKING TIME
People don’t know, even activists, no one knows until you live there one day: everyone is sick mentally. All people do is smoke, no one sleeps at night time. It’s just unbelievable – just imagine you’re walking and 100 other people are walking and no one talking to each other because everyone’s thinking, everyone just walking with a cigarette between their fingers. I remember many times for half an hour or hour I did not know where I am, I could not see anyone around me, and then I was like “Wake up”, it was like a dream. Wake and then I would see people around, no one would talk to each other.
Night time was like thinking time, you just think, just smoking, drinking tea and coffee, walking around. It was very strange, we could not feel it when I was there, but now when I think about it, it is actually strange, it’s crazy.
So many times I was thinking, what if they deport me back? What is going to happen? What happened to my family? What has happened to my father? If the government found out I left the country by a fake passport they will definitely come to my family, and what will happen to my sisters, what happened to my brother. These things you think about: yourself, your family, your future, your past, everything.
I WAS NOT COUNTED
I have no birth certificate. I was born in Iran but I was not counted as a human being since we Kurdish are not entitled to citizenship in Iran. It was like I was never born, because I had no paperwork, nothing, not even an identification card.
No education for us Kurdish in Iran, no justice, no health system. So I grew up, I went to school for five or six years, I can’t remember how long, but my dad was paying a lot of money to the school to accept me – Kurdish people in Iran if you want to walk on the street you have to pay for it. So when I grow up I thought I’m not going to have a future here. When I was young I had lots of dreams, I am a smart person, so I thought I want to go to uni, I want to make something of myself, I want to be someone in the future. Look at other kids, our neighbours, they go to school, they can go to uni, I can’t. So I thought I am 24 years old, I cannot get a job, I cannot get married, I cannot go to uni, I am not alive.
I have two sisters and one brother. All we could afford was for one person, the whole family put our money together so one of us could survive, and I was the youngest so they have decided that I will be the one. It was the hardest time in my life when I left my family, very hard to leave my mum and two sisters behind me, in that unsafe country, especially for Kurdish people. But they were thinking at least one of us could survive. They helped me get here and make something of myself.
I was in Indonesia for 31 days, paid people smugglers, came to Australia on a boat, a leaky boat. I thought to myself dying once was better than dying every single day.
We were 51 people in a very small boat, so we were sleeping on top of each other, and it was very scary, especially at night time, we had one 11-month-old baby and 2 ladies, no one talked to each other, not one word was exchanged because everyone was so scared.
The people smugglers took us to sea at night time. When I saw the sea, the water, I could not swim, I was like: “We are going to die, we are going to die, but still I want to go, even if I die, it is much better than this life I am having. If I don’t go there I will kill myself – so let’s try this”. Every one second you think you’re going to die now. We didn’t have enough water, and it was very very hot, like our skin was burning, and we had no food, just apples, and no life jackets. When we got to Christmas Island the first thing everyone asked for was water, because everyone was so thirsty.
I CAN’T EXPRESS MY FEELINGS
I was on Christmas Island for four months, which was horrible, the way they treat people is not acceptable, I would not treat my dog the same way they treat people. It was the worst time of my life behind the fences for nothing, I hadn’t done any crime. I was thinking always: “What have I done? Why am I here behind the fences? I’m a human, I just want a better life”. When I say better life it doesn’t mean a big TV, a big house, a better life means just being alive, or without stress and fear, without people abusing you, without government abusing you.
I remember my first day, when they took us to the camp it was dinner time, and they put us behind the fences and locked the doors. Very big doors, like prison. And I thought it would always be like this. I did cry the first day. I thought: “How long am I going to be here? I’m in prison for doing nothing”. And then after dinner they opened the doors, so you could go to other compounds and meet other people.
For the first 3 weeks I shared a room with 18 other people from different countries. It was very hard for us. We couldn’t understand each other. It was very hot, very hot. No air conditioning in the big rooms, the 18-bed ones. I can’t express my feelings, make the words, ’cause it was just horrible.I remember my first day, when they took us to the camp it was dinner time, and they put us… Click To Tweet
LOOK AT THE ANIMALS
I remember we were told for the meals, lunch or dinner, you had to line up there, and at the time there was 1800 people there so we had to run to get the food. If you don’t get there quick you might be left without food. I remember one of the Serco officers was telling his friends, “Look at the animals haha look at the animals”. So this is what detention centre is like. People, workers can abuse you verbally, physically, mentally and you can’t even complain.
It hurts so much because you are not expecting people you ask for protection to treat you like this. He could call me an animal because I could not stand up and fight back. It hurts when you can’t stand up for what is right. When you can’t stand up for yourself.
There were some very nice guards, there were Maoris from New Zealand who were just lovely, even now people in detention centre – because I visit detention centre regularly – they’re all happy with the Maoris from New Zealand, they’re very kind people, have nice hearts. But there were a couple of Serco guards just horrible. One of them, one night he was angry – I don’t know why – I asked him for washing product to wash my clothes and he didn’t give me anything, so I had to wait until tomorrow morning when they change their shifts someone else came and that person gave me some. But I don’t know why he wouldn’t give me some washing product.
They can say yes or no and they decide if they give you or not, if they want to help you or not, if they like you or not. It is out of your hands, you can’t do anything, you complain to the same people: Serco. I believe they will chuck it in the rubbish bin if you send them a letter to complain.
It is a prison, it is a jail – no there is a big difference between jail and detention centres. People in jail have committed crimes and should be punished, but people in detention centres haven’t done anything wrong; just seeking help, asylum, which is a very basic human right. All they have done is come to this country and ask for help.It hurts so much because you are not expecting people you ask for protection to treat you like… Click To Tweet
IT TOOK THEM THAT LONG TO PAY ATTENTION
The food was disgusting, just disgusting, I won’t give it to my dog, it smell like shit. It’s not just me saying that, everyone single person was saying that, but what could we do, nothing. One of my friends did complain, just verbally, didn’t write anything, and one of the Serco officers told him, “This was our tax money, it’s better than where you came from, so you should be thankful we give you food, you eating our tax dollars”.
If I see that person, I will tell him I paid that tax back. These people will pay it back, the money back that you used to torture them, this is very nice of them.
For that four months on Christmas Island, I did not eat a meal once, because I hated the smell. I had to line up with people but not getting the meal just getting the fruit, and asking other people if they not eating their noodle or fruit, and after 90 days they called me to see a psychologist, who said “Your name has not been ticked since day one, what have you been eating?”
It took them that long to pay attention that someone is not eating. Many people were bringing their stuff that they didn’t want for me, their noodles and fruit, I was famous there, everyone knew that I don’t eat and it had been long time not eating anymore. I lost lots of weight, when I came out I was very skinny.I give them hope always – I came from the same way, I came from detention centre like you. And… Click To Tweet
THERE WAS NOTHING TO DO
When you are there you just want the freedom, that is all you want, that is all you think about, when you eat, when you smoke, when you in bed, when you on toilet, when you in the shower – all you think about is freedom.
All we were doing in the afternoon sitting behind the fences looking at the trees outside the detention thinking one day we will be over the fences. What are people doing there, how is life there? How lucky those people driving their car, they have kids, they’re going to uni, wow – I just want to get out.
There was nothing to do, nothing to do, there was a gym, very small gym, the facility was terrible, not enough for even 10 people, and there was 1800 people there at the time. So I was doing nothing during the day, sleep for a few hours because I couldn’t sleep at night time, none of my friends could sleep at night time, we would just sit there telling each other our stories and talk about issues and our dreams, I’m gonna do this when I get out, I’m gonna do that when I get out. I was not a smoker when I came to Christmas Island, but in Christmas Island I was smoking 40 cigarettes a day.
There was only one shop. They always didn’t have shampoo, or telephone cards, or smokes, or you had to wait for the next week. You need it, you have to wait one week, but you can’t live without shampoo and soap. And clothes like t-shirts and tracksuit pants, they will give you one set when you arrive there and that’s it. Even when I was in hospital, I asked for another one because I did not want to be smelly because the doctors would come to visit me, they refused to give me one.
So you have got to line up, big big line, like 1000 people to do their shopping at only one shop, and there is always fights. And this goes back to the way they manage it – not the detainees, they do not want to fight each other – the way Serco manage and run the shop make people fight each other.
And you could see people crying when they were talking to their families, crying talking to their kids, crying talking to their friends, or hearing like a relative or friend been caught by police in Indonesia, or your relative passed away.
When I spoke to my family I wouldn’t tell them, I could not tell them about detention life. But there were other people who told their families and my mother and sisters heard about it. When I got out of detention I talked to my mum, and she said, “You have to love your sisters, because that 4 months you were in detention centre they had no food, no sleep, crying, stressed about what is going to happen to you in that jail”. And I said, “Why? It was good place,” and they said, “No you were not telling us but we heard from other people the place was horrible.” But I was telling my family at least I am safe.
THEY BREAK MY HEART
I had kidney problem, kidney stone, and I was in pain every single day, I was going to the medical centre, and all they were telling me was have more water – I don’t know if water there is magical, but the water couldn’t help me.
For a week I was crying going to the medical centre. Everyday I was going there at 9am until lunchtime and then I had to go back to my compound, they lock the fences at lunchtime, and then after lunch I would have to go back to the medical centre and ask for help and no one actually cared about you. No one gives a shit.
I’m a human being, if I see one person who in the power now: “What if it was your kid, what if it was your son, would you do the same?” Would you treat them the same if a member of your family is in pain, all you are going to do is tell them to drink water and give them two panadols, no. But for me you don’t care, because you don’t want me here, because you didn’t like me, because you thought I was a terrorist, thought I was a dangerous man, thought I would take your jobs, because you thought I was here to take your Centrelink money, or your tax money. This is the treatment – I am a man and in my culture a man would not cry unless your loved one died, in my culture it is very embarrassing for a man to cry, but they made me cry in front of my friends, in front of many people, crying every day for a week cause of the pain, so they break my heart. This is not the way you treat a fellow human being – I would not treat anyone like this, not even my enemies.
Finally after a week struggling with the pain, yelling and asking for help, finally they have decided they need to send me to the hospital and realised that I have stones in my kidney, two big stones, so they sent me to hospital, I was in hospital for two days. On the way from the hospital to camp I was thinking about killing myself because I didn’t want to go back to that hell.
That was my lowest point, when they were taking me back to the detention centre, you know why? Because after a while being behind the fences I saw the freedom in hospital, people coming and going from the hospital, with their kids, laughing and eating, drinking. I saw the freedom and it made me sick – why am I not free like these people, why can I not sit somewhere and have a coffee and laugh and talk? That is why it made me feel like I wanted to kill myself. We’re all people created by God, why should some have the freedom and someone like me be in jail?
In that four months, I had no contact with anybody except the detainees. These days it is much better, we, activists can talk to people, call them, talk to them on Facebook giving them hopes and stuff. But at the time, no one. I was thinking how good would it be for a friendly face come and say hello to you. I was hoping one day someone would. Like in the hospital it was so nice, because there was a nurse who was just lovely, she would sit and talk to me, I mean I couldn’t talk because I had no English. She was just telling me stuff, even though I couldn’t understand her it was so nice to have someone talk to me, a friendly face, a nice person. She would laugh and talk and clap, it was very good. I could understand she cared, that’s why she sat down and talked to me.
I AM THE LUCKY ONE
It was the 3rd of March 2010. There was a good friend of mine on Christmas Island, they put our names on the wall, because the way they call you for an appointment is they put your names there. It was my name and that guy’s name, but at different times, I was in the morning like 9am, and he was in the afternoon. When I went in there they told me I was granted a permanent protection visa and I was very happy and I came back and told him you are going to get your visa in the afternoon because they told me I got mine. I was very happy until he went there and when he came back he was crying and screaming and saying I don’t want this, I’m going to kill myself, I’ve had enough, there is no future for me. I thought he was just being funny but when I saw the tears I believed he had been rejected. He had some papers in his hands, we could not read English so we took them to someone who could, and the guy said it says your case has been rejected, we do not believe you are Kurdish. I don’t know how they are making the decision because we Kurdish we have the same story, the same information, everything was the same, some people were granted and some people were rejected. He was rejected and actually that was the start, that was the first Kurdish person to get rejected and after that Kurdish people got rejected.
That friend was in camp long time, I think 3 years, he was in Christmas Island and then they transferred him to Villawood, and then he was in Villawood for nearly 3 years, and when he came out I talk to him and he wasn’t well, he wasn’t working, studying, he wasn’t getting out of home, he wasn’t well.
After Christmas Island, they took us to temporary rooms provided by the Department of Immigration free. When they do that, from the airport to that place, everything was just strange, we don’t know where we are, what is going on, what is going to happen to us tomorrow morning.
After that we went to our rental apartment with couple of other people. That is when I felt like I was out of the detention centre. Because temporary accommodation is kind of the same thing as detention centre, you not locked up but you can’t have friends there, you cannot drink, and there is a facility person who looks after the place, who watches you there, watches what you do. He said he would report us if we do stupid stuff, like bringing friends there or drinking, he would report us to the Department of Immigration and have our visa cancelled, we were scared. After a while though we realised he was talking bullshit.
I had hope: “I will get out of here one day, I do not know when but I will get out of here, just be strong Reza and think about when you are out in the community, when you can study, you can work, you can marry”. Thinking about my future, “I’m gonna make something of myself, I will get of here I will help my family”. These are the things that make me stronger in detention centre. And also I knew there were many nice people who want us here, so I was thinking when I get out there are people who will help us, who want us. I was thinking I am a strong person, I could survive for 24 years in Iran, it means I can survive here.
I am the lucky one, I have friends still in detention centre. I have a friend who arrived Christmas Island before me in 2009, and he is still Villawood detention centre in Sydney, now 6 years. Young guy, when he came he was like 20, so 6 years of his life and this is the time when you can do something with yourself and when he leaves detention now he won’t be a normal person, he will never be that young guy who left his country.I am the lucky one, I have friends still in detention centre. Click To Tweet
IT WAS SCARY TO GO BACK
I was missing my family, I was missing my mum and my sisters. We were good friends because we had no one else apart from the family members and we couldn’t get along with Iranian people.
Last year, because now I am Australian citizen I could go to Iran and see them. Now thinking back it is funny, because at the airport we didn’t talk to each other for 5 minutes, just looking at each other after 5 years, when I left I was young guy 24, when I got back old bald, no hair, everything different. Everyone was crying, it was big shock for both sides, we didn’t talk to each other.
It was scary to go back there, but I was thinking if I get in trouble, because I am Australian citizen, my government is responsible for me, they have the power to help me. So when I went there I relied on the Australian government, and the good thing about it was the Iranian Government didn’t recognise me, because when I left I had different details, a different name, someone else’s passport.
My mum got old and sick, she had heart attack twice, and my sisters told me it was because she misses you a lot. I am the youngest one, but there is nothing I can do. It is difficult, even when I was there for that 3 months, I didn’t enjoy my trip. Seeing my family was fantastic, it was good, but I was scared to travel alone, because if they catch me, they can do whatever they want, so I decided to not travel a lot and just spend time with my family.
WE FOUND OUT WE LIKED EACH OTHER
My fiancé, she is an asylum seeker here. She asked me as an activist to help her with issues she had, because I usually do and people in the community they know me, so we met to talk about her issues and then I had to do a speech in public meeting for Socialist Alternative. I invited her and she came there and then we had a beer after the speech and then we met again and we found out we liked each other. She is from my country but she is Iranian not Kurdish. She is on a bridging visa.
I have asked a couple of questions about when she was in detention centre, and she cried and was not really interested to talk about it because she was sick there for a while and no medical attention. She told me a little about it and then she started crying so I said ok we’re not going to talk about that anymore. But she was in Christmas Island and Darwin, for months – I don’t even know how long she was there for, we don’t talk about it.
At the moment, she is very stressed because of her situation, because as I say she has bridging visa, and they hear different comments from this person and that person. I am spending my time looking for jobs, but we do enjoy rallies and I took her even once to one of those anti-racism rallies. We really enjoy attending the rallies together, meetings, she is always with me when I do that sort of activism, and visiting people in detention centres, we do these things together a lot.
IT IS ALWAYS GOOD TO HAVE HOPE
I visit detention centres regular since 2010. It wasn’t hard for me because that never happened for us on Christmas Island. First thing I did after being in Melbourne for one month I went to Sydney Villawood to visit people. And then I came back and visited people in Maribyrnong and Pontville detention centre and I’m still doing it.
I take them meals, Persian meals, because they haven’t had it for ages. If you be away from home a while, you would love to have traditional meals. But when I take it to them, they eat whatever they can and have to put the rest in the rubbish bin in front Serco officers, they cannot take it to their rooms – this is just one of their rules. So if they are not hungry, bad luck. This rule came in I think last year, I remember I had an argument with Serco officers about this rule and they say because of hygiene and stuff.
When I visit we talk about different things, but I always give them options, and I always give them hope. I tell them someday you will be in the community, you will have job, you will have future, you will have kids, you will be married, just wait for the time – I know they torturing people but it is always good to have hope. I give them hope always – I came from the same way, I came from detention centre like you. And when I tell them, they say, “You are one of the lucky ones, we are not so”.
Once they were going to deport people to Nauru. We took action, and I was kind of leading the action with someone else. The day after, when I went to college I was very tired because I hadn’t slept all night, and one of my classmates was Australian lady said you look very tired, and I told her the story, and she had no idea, she did not know any of those things about the detention centre system and policies, and then she told me, just let me know I really want to be involved.
We took those actions three times. We were locking the gates by lining up and holding each others’ hands, and checking the cars going out to make sure there were no detainees in there and there are two gates we blocked, and we were ready to go to airport in case they take them from somewhere else, we were ready to go there and hand out the papers to people so they could read what was happening and please stand off that flight. Because I know everyone, I check the cars to make sure there is no detainee, I am the person who is in touch inside. Now Serco call me the troublemaker.
I am not scared, not at all. First, I believe actions will be louder than words, we have to do something rather than say something, or sitting behind computer writing something on Facebook. And the second thing is I believe if I am silent, I am a dead person, I am gone. What I believe is, we are all human beings. If they abuse you, one day later they will come and abuse me. And if they get the power and no one says anything, the day after they will go to someone else – so we have to stop them .
After six years I am still thinking about detention centre, and I’m sure its going to be with me for the rest of my life.