Asal, 17: A voice from Nauru
A few nights ago I was editing a video at my computer when a message popped up on my phone: “I need u to answer right now! Where r u?! He burned himself.”
Pictures followed. A burnt body, skin like melted plastic. “Tell me the details,” I wrote back. “Hey! The situation is sooo fucked up!”
The message was from a young woman named Asal, an Iranian refugee I met on Nauru a few months ago. The message was about her good friend Omid, another refugee from Iran. We had met when I travelled to Nauru from the United States to teach art classes for a week with my friend Mosley Wotta. Acquiring a visa to Nauru is virtually impossible. We relished the opportunity to learn more about what was going on in Nauru.
During our first day we interviewed Masau Detudamo, a well-educated local who works with Nauru’s Foreign Affairs Department. We wanted to get his perspective on the refugee situation and camps. “Right now, Nauru is doing pretty well. Unemployment is down to 0 per cent. The economic activity is due to the managing of the refugee centres. It’s created jobs. That’s where a lot of the activity is coming from. There is some controversy around the centres. Anything surrounding refugees is a sensitive issue. We are helping people who are in a tough situation. I believe that Nauru is just a transit stop for them. There are some challenging issues to work through.”
The following day we met Asal, who was one of the first asylum seekers to be transferred from Australia to Nauru. She had a very different perspective on the situation. Asal had a giant smile, swagger and used a London accent – like a young, sober Amy Winehouse. When she heard that we wanted to interview asylum seekers she immediately became our de facto guide.
Everything started to unravel when Asal was nine years old. Her father passed away. Her uncle tried taking legal custody. The same uncle had plans for her older sister, Shireen, to marry his son. Shireen was in love with someone else, and couldn’t imagine marrying her cousin. Shireen had a secret marriage with the blessing of their mother. Asal, her mother, older brother, sister and brother-in-law bought plane tickets to Indonesia to escape the situation.
Their plan was to hire a smuggler and travel by boat to Christmas Island in Australia, where they hoped to start a new life. “My sister was pregnant when we got out of the country. We were in Indonesia for 28 days. It was full of stress because we didn’t really know when we were going to start going on the boat. One night the smugglers called and told us it was time to move. We thought we were going to go on the same boat as my sister, as he promised. He broke his promise and separated us.
“I remember it was raining. A baby was crying. We got into a small wood boat. We thought, ‘Is this boat that he promised?’ We didn’t have any choice to go back at that moment. We had to just keep going. I can say that it was the worst night and days of my life. We were on the boat for two-and-a-half days. There was vomit and urine everywhere. It was such a bad condition that you can’t understand.”
At one point during the journey, they thought that their boat was going to break apart. The Australian Navy briefly came to check on them. Despite their pleas for rescue, the navy left them to fend for themselves.
When they arrived at Christmas Island, they were detained by the Australian Border Force. Their boat was given the name ANA 800. Asal and her family spent two months in detention centres in Australia. They were told that a legal ruling meant they would be transferred to another county.
Shireen and her husband had arrived in Australia before the ruling and were able to stay. They were separated by only a few hours, but the fate of Asal and the rest of the family was very different.
“The Australian guard tried to give us hope, but it was a lie. They told us that we’d live in an open camp in a big apartment complex,” she told me. “We were one of the first families transferred to the detention centre in Nauru. My number is Nd009. There were only six tents. They would give us two-minute showers and Nauruan security would smash the doorway. People started getting sick from the water. The other refugees tried to harm themselves so they could go to Australia. After that, people with real health problems didn’t have proper care. Me and a lot of the teenagers were broken inside but we didn’t want our parents to know it. We couldn’t show it. We thought if we showed it then it would cause our parents to break down.”
For Asal, the past few years have been hell. Some of her friends have been raped by locals. Asal was assaulted by a Nauruan when she fought off his sexual advances. “We don’t go outside some nights because we know on the weekend the Nauruans will be drinking. We don’t feel safe.”
I see another message on my phone: “Hey jess he’s dead. He was part of us... He was like a family.”
With feeble attempts, I try to offer Asal condolences. “I can’t imagine how you feel.”
She sends pictures of Omid from before his self-immolation. “He looks like he was an amazing guy,” I write. “Did he say anything?”
“He did right before he kill himself… He said: what do u want from us after three years? Are you here to see how we r doing? This is how we’re doing.”
I imagine the flames, the screams.
Asal sends another message: “He didn’t just burn himself he burnt our hearts with himself.”
Over the past few months I’ve had many conversations with Asal. She’s talked about her dreams of going to university, being a gynaecologist, having a family. Like other refugees, though, she feels trapped and hopeless on Nauru.
A few days after the death of her friend, Omid Masoumali, Asal sent me this message: “Thinking about killing myself every night and how to do it … It’s three nights that I haven’t rest cuz when I close my eyes I see him … I’m that type of person who always smiles even when I’m crying inside … But I know all that tears will get together inside me and will explode one day which is too late…”
At 17, Asal has become a community organiser. She has gathered more than a hundred signatures for a letter that has been collectively drafted. Here are a few excerpts:
“We have been living in Nauru as prisoners for three years now. The Australian Government has refused to let us in or accept us. We’ve decided to rescue ourselves by getting on boats once again. At this time we want to leave Nauru island.
“All people have the basic right to be free. We want the ability to decide our own future. We won’t let the Australian Government tell us where or how we should live our lives! The Australian Government has kept us as prisoners and slaves. They use us for their own political benefits and games.
“We are asking all the people around the world, especially people of the Government of Australia, to respect our human rights. Let us choose our future and make our own decisions…
“If the Australian Government won’t let us choose our own future, then you should know that many of us are on the brink of suicide. Let this reality weigh on your conscience. We are all tired and desperate because of the situation that we are living in for three years now. We chose to die instead of living in this hell.”
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 14, 2016 as "Crying on the inside". Subscribe here.