News

In the six months since the author, a Rohingya refugee and Manus Island detainee, began his new life in Chicago, he has been studying hard and relishing his freedom. He has also remained committed to giving hope to those still trapped in offshore detention. By Imran Mohammad.

Life in Chicago for former Manus detainee

The author in Chicago.
Credit: SUPPLIED

Life for me has changed immensely since I received my freedom in the United States. I have learnt so much in such a short time. I used to think there was an end point to learning, but we never stop. There are so many stages in life and each teaches us something new and different.

In America, I have finally found a place to call home and a country of which I can be a part. It has been a little over six months since I arrived in Chicago from Manus Island, via Los Angeles. Life here has been challenging and overwhelming in many ways. Last week, the weather was so terrifying I thought I would not survive. I was prepared with lots of warm clothes and food, though. It is a huge adjustment for people like me. I think it will take me years to get used to it. Then, hopefully, I will enjoy northern US winters.

I have been so impatient to organise myself, because I lost so many precious years. I haven’t rested properly since I arrived – I go anywhere, accept any invitation, do whatever I can to achieve goals I never thought possible. Now I know that through hard work I can be whoever I want to be. I have control of my life, and everything can be solved with time.

I can’t begin to describe the vulnerability I felt from a very young age. It was so hard leaving my home, my parents and siblings, everything I was attached to. Travelling by boat was terrifying. There were days and nights I felt I’d reached the end of the world. Captive in people smugglers’ hands, I so often didn’t know where I was or where they were taking me. I couldn’t speak their language. Everything happened in the dark, I went days without eating or drinking. And then came the camps and Manus Island, where the thought of no future became agonising.

Sometimes I wonder how I made it through my journey. No one would choose those struggles. But I had no choice because I wanted to be a human, not a refugee – I longed to be a citizen, not a stateless person.

In Chicago, I am attending Truman College to study for my high school diploma. I dreamed for so many years to sit in a proper classroom without being treated differently, and here there are students from so many countries. The teachers are friendly and highly trained, although there were times I struggled to follow their topics. One day after class, I asked a teacher to explain things to me – assignments and extra homework I knew nothing about. She had taken for granted that all the students knew what she was doing; she had no idea about my background. So, I told her a little about my life. “I can’t believe you could still sit in this class after what you endured,” she told me.

I attended every class she taught, every day after work, save for one. For four hours, I studied language art with her and math with another teacher. By Christmas, I’d finished two semesters. Now I have started to study full-time. There were so many times in my life I cried for not being able to do this, but I can now. I cherish every moment of my student life.

The one night I missed class, I had been invited to speak at the annual Human Rights Watch dinner in Chicago. There were hundreds of people there, and it was such a wonderful experience to address them all, although it was also nerve-racking. I chose to wear a suit, something I had never done before, something I never thought I would do. It was uncomfortable, as were the dress shoes, but I did my best to hide my discomfort.

Before I spoke, a guest asked me what freedom meant to me. I didn’t even need a moment to think about it – I can now cook what I want for my breakfast, I told him. I don’t have to make plans to hide one or two boiled eggs in my shorts as I used to when I was detained on Manus. We weren’t allowed to take any food out of the mess, and so it felt like we had the world’s most precious thing with us when we managed to smuggle out food. He told me to share this story with everyone when I was on stage, and so I did. No one could believe that such a little thing could give someone so much joy, and I could see some people crying in the audience. When I finished, everyone stood and clapped.

For many Americans, everything is just as they want. They wake up in the morning and turn on their computers or their iPads while they are still in bed, and the whole world is there on their screen. I can communicate with anyone in a second, I can send things to my friends and family who are living on the other side of the world. I just never imagined there would be a world like this.

Although this is a land of opportunity, many new immigrants and refugees find it hard to adjust. For those who don’t have family with them, especially, it is extremely isolating. They come here and never get to seek something better for their lives – they don’t know where to start, where to go, whom to speak with, because they don’t have the language to explain their situation. Often they find themselves working in factories, as I did. There, I met many refugees from many countries and have seen vulnerability and fear among my fellow workers. They cannot understand, cannot communicate with management. I feel blessed to be able to speak English; it has enhanced my life here in so many ways and enabled me to be a voice for others.

Sadly, I feel the political climate around the world is experiencing a crisis. I was offered freedom in the US, for which I will be forever grateful, but I was devastated to read about the children who were separated from their families at the country’s southern border. Many of them were too young to even comprehend what was happening to them. A dozen countries, including some of the world’s largest producers of refugees, are banned from entering the US. Hundreds of refugees are stuck on Manus and Nauru because of the ban. There are enormous amounts of wealth and resources to save refugees’ lives – and many Americans want to welcome refugees from around the world – but the yearly intake keeps dropping.

In my short time in Chicago, I have met many Rohingya from my community. Mostly they congregate around Devon Avenue, one of the most diverse neighbourhoods in the city. They feel comfortable in this area because it has mosques where they can practise religion and shops where they can find spices to cook traditional foods. They feel safe being around people from their own country.

Although I am glad we have community here, there are always some disadvantages. It was devastating for me to see that, although they have been here for many years, many young Rohingya have not learnt, seen or experienced much in their new country. They have no idea how the system works here, they do not know how to read their mail, their bills. They do not know how to browse the internet, beyond having an Instagram or Facebook account.

The problem is that we arrived here, after facing so many traumatic events in our lives, and we haven’t had the time to heal. Just as refugees have done throughout history, we are expected to find work as soon as we arrive. We have to help ourselves and our family members who we’ve had to leave behind. Carrying this responsibility, we are left with not much choice but to give up our dreams and work to save others. I have met so many young men with no family members who haven’t met anyone outside their work. They are so scared to leave their comfort zone.

I am trying to live my life differently. I want to learn, grow and experience everything this nation has to offer. And I feel sometimes people think I know what I’m doing but, in reality, I don’t. I just try to remember the idiom “fake it until you make it”, which I learnt from a caseworker on Manus. Fake it until you make it.

I am frequently asked by people I meet in America how I learnt English to a high level. Australia’s offshore detention centre on Manus Island wasn’t a place to learn anything; it was a place to give up. However, I held on to my hope – somehow – and remained focused through writing.

It feels strange when I talk to my friends who are still trapped on Manus. People used to give me hope when I was detained, sending messages of support over WhatsApp. Now I am the one who tells my friends to hold on. I tell them things will change very soon. There are two Rohingya refugees on Manus whose claims for asylum were rejected by the US. When we spoke, they were extremely despondent – they had lost the will to live. I just couldn’t find the words to help them remain hopeful. Many are self-harming, not with any goal in mind, but they are now at the point of utter despair. But I will never give up hope for them.

For my freedom in the US, I will always be thankful. I can’t put into words my gratitude to everyone who worked so hard for this to happen. Your humanity saved me and so many others. I want to thank the people of Australia who are still fighting to preserve the lives of those still trapped in limbo on Manus and Nauru. There is so much pain in the world. So many innocent people being used for the will of others. It is hard to stay hopeful some days but it is not impossible for things to change.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 16, 2019 as "Living life differently". Subscribe here.

Imran Mohammad
is a Rohingya refugee who was held on Manus Island for four years. He learnt English while in detention.