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Electricity and gas have been cut off to the Melbourne home of Kurdish widower Sadoullah Malakooti and his three daughters, as the family faces destitution after cuts to government support for asylum seekers.

By Abdul Karim Hekmat.

Asylum seekers in crisis

Sadoullah Malakooti watches his six-year-old daughter, Raha, play by candlelight.
Credit: Abdul KARIM Hekmat

Raha Malakooti was just a baby when the boat she was travelling on capsized on its way to Australia.

Her mother, snatched by a seething wave, was never found, but the sea spat Raha out. Australian rescuers spotted her face down in the water and scooped her out. On a rigid inflatable boat they resuscitated her, but as they made their way towards a navy ship in fading light, she stopped breathing twice more.

Some 30 people died that day. Raha and the other survivors from the doomed boat were taken to Christmas Island. Among the residents there, Raha was known as “miracle baby”, a beacon of hope in the sea of misery that took many lives.

I first met Raha in November 2015. She was an adorable girl – thick curly hair, big brown eyes and eyebrows like Persian calligraphy. She was wearing a pink T-shirt, covered with pictures of Cinderella.

This was two months after the image of Alan Kurdi, the young Syrian boy photographed dead on a Turkish beach, captured the world’s attention. I thought Raha’s miracle rescue could have been a human face for Australians during the refugee crisis. Yet her story remained hidden under the cloak of secrecy of Operation Sovereign Borders.

“God has given her a second life,” her father, Sadoullah, told me then. Nearby his daughter played with toys on the living room floor, and he soothed her lovingly in Farsi.

But he was still seething then over his wife’s death. The capsizing of their boat, he told me, was “an entirely preventable incident”. Their vessel, carrying 180 people, was being escorted to Christmas Island by two Australian Navy ships when it started to founder.

Sadoullah says it was terrifying to see Raha’s breathless body being resuscitated. When she began breathing again, “I was so happy, as if the whole world was given to me”.

Having survived a boat tragedy, Raha, now six, faces the threat of starvation and homelessness after the government stopped her family Status Resolution Support Services (SRSS) payment in April this year.

“Raha was cold and scared of the dark last night,” Sadoullah told me this month. His youngest daughter is terrified of darkness. Though she wanted to go to the toilet, she told her father, “I am scared.”

I visit the Malakootis’ Melbourne home on May 7, a day after their electricity has been disconnected. Toys are strewn on the wooden floor – teddy bears and dolls that Sadoullah says Raha played with under candlelight. Sadoullah has spent the day talking with his power company and has organised part payment of his bill in order to get the power back. But the food inside his fridge, including meat and fish, has already perished.

By the time his children get home from school, the electricity is still not on. As they rush into the house, they all ask the same question, “Has the light come back?” Their father fumbles over the answer.

Carrying a pink school bag, Raha dashes around the house – the living room, the bedroom, the bathroom – testing the light switches. “This light not working,” she says. “That light not working. I am going to be scared tonight like last night.”

When I first met Raha, three years ago, she knew only a few words of English. Now she is the most talkative person in the house. Her command of the language leaves her father scratching his head sometimes. His eldest daughter, Yekta, comes to his aid as interpreter. It does not worry Sadoullah that Raha does not speak a word of Farsi.

I ask Raha what she did today at school. “Our teacher talked mostly about Mother’s Day,” she says. Her gaze drops. Raha doesn’t remember her mother. Yekta, 12, who was seven when their mother died, remembers but does not talk about her mother.

Instead, she shows me an artwork that she and her 10-year-old sister, Paria, have done at school – a tile, painted blue, with a butterfly on top. “I love you mum, I love you mum so much,” Yekta has written at the bottom.

Paria also painted a butterfly on a blue tile with an inscription, “I love you mum so much”, and two love hearts.

I ask Yekta if she remembers her boat journey and she says yes. “The water was very scary, the waves were as high as this wall,” she says. “The scariest part was that nobody came to our rescue when we shouted for help.”

 

As I have previously reported in The Saturday Paper, the Department of Home Affairs stopped Sadoullah’s family payment a year ago and did not renew his or his children’s Medicare cards when they expired late last year after their refugee application was rejected on the grounds that Sadoullah is not a stateless Kurd. He is not allowed to work. He applied for a review of his refugee protection claim in the Federal Court but has not received a response.

When Raha was sick for two weeks – “complaining of headache” – Sadoullah could not take her to a doctor. Yekta, meanwhile, had been seeing a psychologist following the shock of the visa cancellation but had to stop. Sadoullah says he was sick himself, for 40 days, but couldn’t afford a doctor’s visit.

Since my previous report in December, the Malakootis’ situation has worsened. Sadoullah finds himself in huge debt. The bills he receives are all marked final warning, or they warn of impending disconnections. He spreads them out on the table in the kitchen – the final water bill is $274. He owes $1664 in rent.

“We urgently need you to bring the rental payment up to date, as soon as possible,” reads the letter from a real estate agent.

The biggest debt is his gas bill – $5720 – which Sadoullah says accumulated over several years. The gas was disconnected two months ago. He says of Home Affairs, “Let them send me to detention centre or support me here. They after all responsible for my children’s wellbeing, they keep me in limbo for six years.”

For 10 months, the Malakootis survived on charity. Until March this year, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre paid their rent. The substantial donations the family received from readers of The Saturday Paper covered food expenses. For the past five months, however, Sadoullah has relied on borrowed money from friends to bring food to the table for his three children. Sometimes he says the children go hungry or he takes them to “friends’ place to eat”. The power company put him on a financial hardship plan of $60 a month – but, with no income, he was not able to keep up the payments.

The Malakootis are just one family Home Affairs has stopped payments to – it has also been suspended to about 1200 others. According to a report last year by the Refugee Council of Australia, there are about 7000 people around the country who will have their payment cut, including “pregnant women, families with young children”, who will then “face a life of destitution and homelessness”.

The re-election of Scott Morrison last Saturday sent a shiver through the refugee and asylum-seeker community who hoped their nightmare would end after the election. “I am utterly saddened and don’t know how to answer difficult questions from refugees who have already flooded me with questions about the translation of [the election] results in their lives and future,” says Shukufa Tahiri, a former Hazara refugee who works as a policy officer at the Refugee Council of Australia. “So much hope and optimism were tied to this election.

“While the rest of us will go about our everyday lives, this result means absolute breaking of spine for thousands of refugees who have sought asylum since 2012-2013,” she adds.

She says she has witnessed asylum seekers “crumble into hopelessness, their hair grow grey, grown men cry, talk of ending it all and reach an absolute breaking point psychologically and physically”.

 

Sadoullah shows me a certificate from Yekta’s school, saying she is one of 10 students, out of 300, selected for possessing an “outstanding attitude to learning”. He says he wants his children to have a good education, something he was denied as a stateless Kurd in Iran, where he could not go to government school, or buy property or cars in his name.

“My father wants me to be a doctor, but there is no light to study,” Yekta says.

What does she want to become, I ask her. “I want to become the person who teaches doctors at the university,” she replies.

“You mean an academic or professor?” I ask.

“Yes,” she says, with confidence.

I ask Yekta what she likes about Australia and she says she likes many things. Here there is less crime than in Iran. The most important thing is “the community” and “her friends”. She mentions an Australian girl she met when she first arrived. “She is like my cousin; we celebrated every birthday since and play tennis together.”

In the late afternoon, Raha wraps herself in a pink scarf. “I feel cold, but still it’s afternoon,” she says. “I don’t want to get cold. My hand is cold, it’s freezing here. I am freezing.”

Her father puts a pot full of water on a portable gas stove in the kitchen. “The vapour hopefully gets the living room a little warm,” he says, watching as the steam spirals into the air. “Once we are in bed, we can wrap ourselves with a blanket.”

Sadoullah fries potatoes and chicken nuggets before darkness descends. He places the plate before his children and they all gather around, talking and eating. The food is simple; no vegetables, no fruit.

“What if I put a strange creature into my mouth?” Raha says, as she nibbles the food on the shared plate. “Daddy, are we camping inside our home tonight?” asks Paria. “It’s not school holidays yet,” Yekta answers. “It’s worse than camping. We could sit around the fire and get warm. Here, we can do nothing.”

Sadoullah looks on as his children eat in the dim light. He retreats to sit on a chair, letting out a sigh.

The night, he says, reminds him of a time when Saddam Hussein bombed his home town in the 1980s in Ilam, a primarily Kurdish area in Iran, destroying homes and powerlines.

They sat in the dark back then too, he says, around kerosene lamps, or they ran into the mountains to hide in caves. “You know, it was expected in the war,” he says. “But I did not expect my children would sit in the dark like this in Australia. I did not expect that the Australian government would withhold food from them and leave them to starve.”

Raha and her siblings spent a second night in the dark, bracing against the cold while life for their Lalor neighbours went on peacefully. On the third day, the family’s electricity was reconnected, Sadoullah later told me, but he was not sure how long he could continue living like this before he and his children end up on the street.

The Edmund Rice Centre is currently raising funds for the Malakooti family.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 25, 2019 as "Hearts in darkness". Subscribe here.

Abdul Karim Hekmat
was a finalist for the 2018 Walkley Freelance Journalist of the Year.