Portrait

Every day he calls his mother in Afghanistan, just to see if his family is still alive. By Sarah Price.

The uncertain future of a young asylum seeker in Australia

You promise him you won’t use his name. They’ve warned him not to talk about this, not to tell his story. So he’s nameless. For now. And it riles him. “It is an injustice. We need to tell people who we are, why we had to come to here.” His English is good, mostly fluid, yet he begins to pause between words – “but if they learn my identity, they could send me back” – he hesitates and you hold your breath – “and I will be executed.” There’s the beginning of a headache from tension in your forehead. You’re frowning too hard. He is only 21. This is Australia. 

He wears suede lace-ups and smart pants and a carefully ironed shirt; looks like most other young men, only neater. Your eyes meet. His are dark, gently penetrating. You ask about life in Afghanistan, about his family, and he lowers his head and stares at his hands. Travelling home from university, his older brother was dragged off a bus by the Taliban and executed by the side of the road. Soon after, his father, a local doctor, was stopped in a line-up of traffic. One by one the Taliban searched the vehicles. After finding English papers on his father, they took him away. That was five years ago. His father has not been seen since. 

He asks if you would like a glass of water, then graciously thanks the waitress who delivers it. This is his story, his trauma, and he is calmer than you are. Resting his hands gently on his lap, he continues. He was just a teenager when his brother and father were taken. Fearing he would be next, his mother paid to have him smuggled out of the country and put on a boat. “She said she would rather never see me again and know that I am alive, than never see me again because I am dead in Afghanistan.”

The first time he saw the ocean was when he travelled on it, “on a boat built for 40 people, but there were 80 of us”. He had his own spot: a space to sit, but not enough room to move or to stand. There was no roof or shelter. The ocean tossed the small boat through the water, smashed into its sides, drenched its occupants with salty spray. Everyone became seasick. It stank of petrol and vomit and urine. “Then the motor broke. We were lost on the ocean and couldn’t see anything but water. The boat just went up and down, up and down. We thought we would die. All I wanted was to see my mother one last time.” Too scared to eat, or sleep, or go to the toilet, he only drank small amounts of water. Every night it rained, and he sat in the dark and listened to the hiss of the ocean, and to the cries and moans of people on board. “It was hell. At night I was wet and freezing; the daytime, so hot.” He touches his nose, where the skin is scarred from sunburn.

People who arrive by boat are punished, he says. “If you are an asylum seeker you don’t have a life. On bridging visas we have no future, no plan. In detention you are in a compound surrounded by bars. But when you live in a society without basic rights, it is just another detention but bigger and wider.” He lives with a group of men, all asylum seekers from Afghanistan. Shaking his head in frustration, he tells you they are forced to live with no purpose, and he lists the things they need: training and education, work, connection to the community. He is the lucky one. Sponsored by a private college, he has completed diplomas, won awards for academic excellence. Volunteering for various organisations, he helps to ease the isolation of people new to Australia. He’s won awards for that work, too. 

Every day he calls his mother in Afghanistan, “not to say how are you, but to see if my family is still alive”. Now in his late teens, his younger brother is at a dangerous age in Afghanistan. “They will take him too – there is no hope to save his life.”

Speaking softly, he wants you to understand that he is very grateful to be here. “I am so lucky to live in such a beautiful country, where the people are very kind,” he says, removing his glasses and wiping his eyes, “but what I want is too big. I want to serve this country. I want to belong to the community.” Coming to Australia he had dreams of going to university, like his father and brother. But living on $250 a week and having to pay international student fees makes it an impossible dream. 

He does not know his fate, is not allowed to ask. Week after week, month after month, he waits. It has been more than three years so far. “Every night I go to bed and wonder what the government will decide. I never know what will happen tomorrow – when they will send me back.”

You drive him home. Above you, the sky is a cloak of brilliant blue. His street is typically Australian: wide, bitumen road flanked by square, brick homes; sharp edges around flat lawns; a scattering of wattle and jacaranda trees; thick, drooping power lines. Parked outside his flat, he tells you he is having a test for his driver’s licence next week, and he touches the dashboard of your standard Hyundai. “You have a beautiful car,” he says, smiling. You’ve never really thought of your car as beautiful before, and not for the first time today you feel a sense of shame. You’re not sure if it’s your shame or the collective shame of a nation. 

He is silent now. And it’s suddenly awkward, because there is so much you want to apologise for. You’re sorry for not using his name, for the lives veiled in secrecy. You’re sorry he had to arrive here in a broken boat, frightened and exhausted, counting his days until death. You’re sorry he was locked in detention. Sorry he cannot work, cannot study what he wants to study. Sorry that he lives in fear every day, knowing he may be sent back to certain death. 

You thank him. He smiles again and shakes your hand, and you’re reminded of his grace, of his perilous life. Your eyes prickle. You want to keep hold of his hand, but you can’t. He slips from the car and down the driveway.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 26, 2015 as "Feeling the wait". Subscribe here.

Sarah Price
is a Sydney-based writer.