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Having endured seven years on Nauru, Salah and his son Mustafa are the last refugee family remaining on the island, after their US resettlement applications were rejected. By Hannah Ryan.

The last refugee family on Nauru

Mustafa works out in a gymnasium in Nauru.
Credit: Supplied

From Nauru, Mustafa shares images of his gruelling workouts on Instagram. He captions the posts with words of wisdom: “It’s never too late to start”, “never skip leg day”.

“I train, eat, sleep, repeat,” says the 22-year-old bodybuilder. “That’s what I’ve been doing all these years.”

There’s one post that shows a wiry 15-year-old boy, half-smiling, arms hanging awkwardly by his sides. Beside him is another picture of a man with a beard and a topknot on a beach, his bulging quadriceps and trapezius showing his hard work in the gym. This is Mustafa’s before and after shot.

The first picture was taken at Abu Dhabi airport in 2013, just after Mustafa had fled Iraq with his father, Salah, leaving behind his mother and little brother. His uncle had been murdered and Salah received threats suggesting he could be next.

Soon after, the pair boarded a boat to Australia. They were intercepted and taken to Christmas Island, where they spent four days before being sent to Nauru, an island whose size and culture came as a shock to a boy who grew up in Baghdad.

Within half a year they saw the asylum seeker population swell to more than 1200. The years passed, and they waited and watched as the numbers of refugees dwindled. The others flew to Australia, Canada and the United States until, eventually, Salah and Mustafa were the last refugee family left on the tiny island. That’s where they are today.

 

During their seven years on Nauru, Salah and Mustafa have each held on to a singular focus to help them survive.

For Mustafa, it’s training. He spends two hours each day doing rigorously planned workouts. He compares it to growing a flower: you have to keep watering it so it grows, and if you stop it will die. He started lifting weights when a gym opened at the Nauru camp in 2014. He’s only stopped twice, when he was sick.

“I love it because it makes me so strong: mentally, physically, emotionally,” he says. “This sport is not just about lifting weights, it makes your mind strong.”

Salah’s devotion, by comparison, is to his son. “For the past seven years, I have raised Mustafa with a very special bond,” he says. “I have been a father, a friend, a psychologist, a mentor for Mustafa. And in return, Mustafa has been a very decent, disciplined son.”

Salah describes his son as quiet and respectful, words that could be used to describe the 49-year-old, too. Salah is polite and courteous, but evidently anxious about his son’s future. He boasts that Mustafa doesn’t smoke or drink, then admits, unprompted, that he smokes himself. “When I leave this island, really, really I stop,” he says. “Just my friends here are cigarettes.”

Salah confesses that he doesn’t really understand bodybuilding, but talks about his son’s dedication with pride. “I believe he has a great future in that regard,” he says. “He just needs to change this life and leave this island.”

 

Australia’s brutal offshore processing regime is slowly ending.

Since September 2012, Australia has sent more than 4000 people to Nauru or Papua New Guinea instead of hearing their asylum claims here. Now, there are fewer than 500 left in those two countries, about 200 of them in Nauru. Nobody is detained in camps anymore: the prison is now the island, not the processing centre.

In the years it has taken to reach this point, Mustafa has grown up. He was an adult by the time the Kids Off Nauru campaign caused all children to be evacuated from the island in early 2019. He’s been recognised as a refugee, got a job at a casework organisation, and started training with Nauru’s Jezza Uepa, who was crowned the World’s Strongest Man at last year’s World Powerlifting Championship.

He has also seen almost everyone who mattered to him leave Nauru. The people who taught him English, Australians working with Save the Children, were kicked off the island, marking the end of his schooling. Friends his age all eventually left, too. His closest training buddies started new lives in Chicago last month after being transferred to Australia last year. That won’t be possible for Salah and Mustafa: while they were recognised as refugees in 2015, the US rejected their resettlement applications.

For many, the pathway out of detention was worsening health. But the Australian government has been determined to clamp down on refugees coming to Australia for medical treatment. In early 2019, when Mustafa had dental problems that could not be treated on Nauru, he and Salah flew to Taiwan, which agreed in 2017 to temporarily admit refugees from Nauru who needed complex medical treatment. Australia flies the refugees to Taiwan in small groups, and they stay there until everyone completes their treatment – in this family’s case, for months.

Training at a local gym, Mustafa caught the owner’s eye. He invited Mustafa to compete in Taiwan’s national fitness modelling championships at Taipei University. With his father’s encouragement, he entered.

“You should prepare for, like, three months. I had one month,” Mustafa says. “I called my friends and was telling them about it. They said, ‘You’re crazy.’ No one believed in me. They thought I can’t do it. So I started planning my meals – no sugar, high protein – and I could see my physique changing.”

Mustafa speaks proudly about standing on the stage as they called his name. He remembers everyone looking at him, taking photos with him, asking him where he was from. “I wasn’t going there for fun, I went there for treatment,” he says. “But I found an opportunity. I said, ‘I don’t want to waste any opportunity.’ ”

He placed sixth out of more than 30 competitors.

In a picture on Mustafa’s Instagram from the day, he and his dad stand together. Salah proudly holds his son’s certificate. Mustafa holds open his jacket to brandish his bare chest and abs.

“I was so freaking happy,” he says. “When I stand up on the stage, I show the people I can do something. This is my hard work.”

For Mustafa, it’s a story about what he can do through determination and grit. But for Salah, it’s a story about the unfair limitations on his son. In a separate interview, Salah remembers some other details. He recalls Mustafa’s confusion when he was asked which country he was from. They needed the details for his sign-up forms. He did not have paperwork to show he was Iraqi, but he didn’t think of himself as Nauruan either.

After the competition, Mustafa was offered contracts to work at the gym and to be sponsored by a clothing company. But he couldn’t take it up: he had to return to Nauru. “Of course, it is very sad,” Salah says. “It was torture for me to see that my son is missing out on these opportunities and this future.”

 

After years of deprivation and court injunctions and deaths, there’s a new kind of suffering for those still trapped in offshore detention.

“All the kids that are the same age as Mustafa have gone to America, they’ve gone to Australia,” Salah says. “He’s very sad. He’s happy for them, but he asked me, ‘Why? Why just me?’ ”

Dozens of people flew out of Nauru to Australia earlier this year, including the last of the other families. Being left behind was a blow for Mustafa. “People started asking me, ‘What’s wrong? It’s the first time your face looks different.’ ”

He has sought mental health help, which he had never done before. He is worried about becoming distracted from his training.

Both Salah and Mustafa separately say they are increasingly concerned about the other. Both confess they are tired but trying to hide it.

Their best hope is to be resettled in Canada, where they could be reunited with Mustafa’s mother and brother. They submitted applications last year. They both want to attend university, and Mustafa aspires to be crowned Mr Olympia, an international bodybuilding title.

Salah and Mustafa both insist the day will come when they leave Nauru; they just don’t know when.

“There is always hope,” says Salah, “since I know I haven’t committed any crimes by coming here. We have been patient enough, and we have been waiting for the day that we also get out of that place and see our future.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 13, 2020 as "Working it out".

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Hannah Ryan
is a journalist based in Sydney.

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