“I just escaped. I didn’t have time to apply for student visa. I could come as a student to Australia if I wanted. But I didn’t want it. I wanted to stay and try to build a better country [in Iran] but I couldn’t.”
This interview took place on
I’m at the Darebin Intercultural Centre to talk to Suriyan and Katarina about how I could organise follow-up meetings with participants. I’m chatting with them in the DECC office when there’s a knock on the door and two women and a man walk in. They’re of Persian appearance and neatly dressed; the man in pants and polo t-shirt, the women wear subtly applied makeup. The younger lady wears paisley patterned pants in royal blue, and her feet are shod in black shoes dotted with yellow smileys. It’s through this lady, Niki, who’s translating Farsi into English, that we find the other two are married and looking for work.
Later on, Suriyan convinces me to talk to Niki. Although I had informed Suriyan that I don’t want to add to my list of contributors, her backstory piques my interest. When I approach Niki and tell her about the project she asks pertinent questions about where it will be published.
We sit at the tables near the kitchen and she pauses, gathering strength before I start asking questions. It’s clearly a difficult tale for her to tell.
Can you tell me what your life was like in Iran?
Um, I was student in second year of journalism in the best university of Iran. Tehran University. I had my work. I was teaching mathematics to students in Year 12.
Was that your job? You made money from that?
Yeah. I was living in student accommodation in Tehran because our house was in Karaj. It’s about 40 minutes from Tehran.
Is that normal, students live away from their family in Tehran?
Because Tehran is capital city of Iran, most of the people are studying and working in there. I was living in student accommodation for six day or five day. In the weekends I was with my family.
I was interested in equality, human rights…
How did you get interested in that?
Actually, my family, most of them are political and active in politics and human rights. My uncle, for eighteen years, was working with a group that were active for freedom in Iran. Maybe you know that, maybe you don’t – the Mujahideen.
The Mujahideen is an historical word used by Muslims referring to those who struggle in the path of Allah. More recently aligned with political insurgencies and militant groups. In Iran there exists an Iraq-based Islamic Socialist militant organisation opposed to the current government.
He was with them for eighteen years.
Also my dad, my Mum, my aunties – most of our family…I think the main thing in our family discussions is politics and who writes…it was interesting for my family.
The first time when I did real protest against everything in Iran was when I was seventeen. And that big protest, I don’t know if you have heard…2009, big protest against election. Unfortunately it was only five or six times that we could escape from police. After that they could arrest us.
So they caught you?
The police arrested us in one of the protests. We were in detention or…prison? Yes, temporary prison for about six nights and seven days. It was just the start for my actions. For me to be active in everything.
Was it hard being in prison, especially as a woman? What was that like?
Yeah. I was with my mum. It’s make me feel better.
Were there separate cells for men and women?
Yeah. But the main thing I can remember from that time, because my mind is trying to forget that, was that the court…
Let me explain this: in Iran there is no real court. [She stresses these words] There is no real judge. Someone who is in power, he can do anything with you.
I can just remember in that time it was a judge. They call him judge. He was deciding for us to go home or go to prison or…this kind of things in just a minute. I can just remember he looked in my eyes and just said, ‘I’m the rule in this country. I can do anything I want. Don’t do this again because if you do it I’ll be sure that…’ he just signed me the hand – hand-sign or something…[Demonstrates by making a slicing motion with fingers across throat]
My family is…they came from a political history so they can find me.
So they knew what sort of family you came from?
Yes. Because they searched on the everything [background check]. He just told me, ‘I’ll let you go this time, but the next time…’
You and your mother were both there when he said this?
This one with judge was just me. For a few minutes with that judge.
Was there a separate hearing for you mum? A separate time with the judge?
And what did he say to her? The same thing?
Yeah. And after that we could come home.
I started to, like everyone, studying, working. But I was trying secretly, to do anything. At that time I knew it – something is wrong with my country. I felt I have to do something.
If not someone comes and looks at my eyes straightly and says ‘I can do anything with you,’ [reference to the judge] it’s not right, and it’s not true, and I have to do something.
I worked and I studied until I go to university. In Iran we have a big exam for going to university. I was one of the best students and that’s why I could go to the best university.
I started going to university and started studying social communication. It’s a field which includes media and journalism. At that time I was caring more about women in Iran. Because in Iran everything is unfair – but more for women. For example, as a girl…I’m just talking about the laws and rules, not families. My family was different.
“In society, we didn’t have same job and study opportunities. In many fields we couldn’t enrol girls. ”
Is that how you found out about feminism?
I could find out on Internet – at first in my family. My mum.
As a girl, in society, especially in university, we didn’t have equal rights as boys. For example in our accommodation – I heard that it was a rule that boys’ accommodation was open for boys every time.
Twenty-four hours a day?
Yeah. But for girls, if you arrive there just five minutes after nine, you have to sleep in the street. Many times I was telling them, ‘my mum knows where I was,’ or ‘bus arrived late’ or something but they didn’t listen to excuses.
In university I failed in a lesson…what do you say?
Yeah, a subject – in an Islamic subject [I failed] two times. Because I was ill and I didn’t want to cover all of my hairs. He was an ayatollah. And he just asked me, ‘cover your hair.’
So it wasn’t because you didn’t study or didn’t do well in a test?
No, he just failed me that subject. He was master and…yeah. I was a good student but I couldn’t be…
In society, we didn’t have same job and study opportunities. In many fields we couldn’t enrol girls.
Mine? Mining engineering?
When I saw these things, because I grown up in a family that believed in equality between women and men and freedom and this kind of things it was very hard for me. Especially since I went to university. I was living alone most of the time and I was working, studying…
As a girl you can’t decide for your marriage, you can’t decide for what you want over there. Even if you are going overseas you have to get permission from your husband or your dad. Or get a permission from a judge. [She laughs scornfully]. It’s funny.
Iran, every men can have different wives – four or five. Whatever. But as a woman you can’t even apply for divorce. I can just tell you, if you’re married with someone, you’ll be a victim for that man.
Can you take it to court if you want to separate? I’m just saying because I watched that Iranian movie – A Separation.
Yeah, I watched it. It’s real. It’s happening – but not for everyone.
So there’s a certain class that could do it? If you’re rich maybe?
Um, you can complaint of him – but the judge won’t do anything because he’s a man. I know many women in Iran whose husbands are addicted or whose husband is hitting them. But they can’t do anything. They have to stay with him.
Because if they could divorce, after divorce they can’t have custody of their children – that’s why.
So after divorce the father looks after the children?
By law – children over seven…
[She fades a little, as if caught up in a conversation in her head]
…and terrible thing in Iran is no-one knows about their rights. And I think for solving a problem, especially politic or human rights problem, first step is informing people about that problem.
“She was very distressed and she just asked me, ‘What have you done? What’s wrong with you? Someone came and searched all of the room.’ And they took my laptop.”
Um, I was trying to inform my classmates with speaking, but I didn’t think it’s enough. So then I try to write a text, just about our international rights in United Nations. It was on 8th of March – International Women’s Day. For example, like equality and these kinds of things and second part was about our situation and our circumstances in Iran.
So were they leaflets that you printed?
Exactly. With two of my friends we just try to…I don’t know what you say but I’m looking for that word in English – you try to give that paper to other students…I don’t know what you say.
Ah yeah, yeah. Distribute.
You mean give it to a lot of people, right?
Yeah. We couldn’t give it to a lot of people because it was illegal and very dangerous for us. We just try to distribute it in midnight in student accommodation.
So you had to sneak out? Would you have got in trouble if you were caught?
Yeah, especially for me. Because judge already told me before. But I wanted to do it because I believe its true and I have to do it.
In morning my mum called me – because always she knew what I am doing – she said, ‘just come home.’ She was just worried about me. So I returned to Karaj. I came back home and thought everything was perfect and no one knew it was our job [the leaflet distribution]. It was about ten am when someone called me. She was my roommate. She didn’t know we did this.
I can remember her voice right now. She was very distressed and she just asked me, ‘What have you done? What’s wrong with you? Someone came and searched all of the room.’ And they took my laptop. Sometimes in Iran someone come to your house and you don’t know. He has gun and he can do anything. But you are sure he’s from government. Maybe Sepah, Basij [militant groups in Iran]…you don’t know.
As soon as she called me I found out I have to escape with my mum and sister.
My mind is trying to forget this. We catch a bus and went to a city – my relatives are living there. As soon as went in the bus our neighbour called us and told us it happened again in our house – they came and searched everything. I can’t really remember how many days – at that time my dad was working in another city.
What do you think would’ve happened if they caught you?
He told me before with this [throat slicing motion]. Yeah. At least torturing. Because I came from a family who is active in Mujahideen.
Would they torture women?
Finally, in our New Year celebration – Nowruz – in that time we could come to airport and give money for someone who wanted to pass us from airport or someone who’s checking our passports. We waited for that time because that’s a public holiday and most of the officers are in their house and less officers in the airport and it’s easier for us to escape. And we paid a lot of money, I don’t know how much, to that person who let us go.
So your mother did all that?
Yeah…with my dad.
“I was in a terrible emotional coma in that time. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t communicate with people. Serco officers just was trying to active me – to force me to communicate with people but I couldn’t. ”
We could catch the plane and it wasn’t done – because Indonesia was not safe for us. We knew that when we got a phone call from one of relatives which says the secret police knows where am I [in Jakarta] and they will find me and kill me. That’s why we couldn’t apply for the UN. Otherwise we were planning to apply.
For 28 days we couldn’t come out from the house because it wasn’t safe for me. Not just for me but even for my mum. Obviously she was with me. In all of that 28 days we didn’t know when we want to depart. We were ready all of the time.
We knew about Australia because my aunty is a citizen here. We knew it – Australia is a safe place before we came here. But I can say I never think about this: I will live in Australia one day as refugee.
When anybody asks I say, ‘I just escaped. I didn’t have time to apply for student visa. I could come as a student to Australia if I wanted. But I didn’t want it. I wanted to stay and try to build a better country [in Iran] but I couldn’t. But if I did, I promise you I was here.’
It was very hard for us. Since I did that leafleting I think god was with us all the time. When I’m thinking about it everything was like a miracle. Yeah, we could find that man [people smuggler] in Indonesia. We could collect some money from Iran – our relative, friends, for giving that money to that person who wants to bring us to Australia with boat.
Finally they came for pick up us with a van. Twelve hours driving in van. Then they take us to city. I don’t know what it was – it was after midnight – everywhere was dark. Then we walked in jungle about two minutes. After that we quick boat…what you say?
Maybe. I don’t know. Two hours in that. Then we arrive in that. Boat. We call it boat but I want to call it a piece of wood. Then all of the way on the boat my mum was unconscious. She couldn’t even open her eyes.
How long were you on the boat for?
About forty hours. I told you, it was like miracle. We could arrive to Christmas Island safely. Nothing happened with our boat and ocean was…I thought ocean was dead.
Then the navy found you?
Yeah, the navy came. [smirks] It’s funny now for me.
Why’s it funny?
Because at the time I thought it was amazing feeling. I thought everything is done. Now we can be safe. I can see that freedom and human rights and justice that I haven’t seen before, in Australia. I can’t explain what I felt. I was very happy.
But it wasn’t like that when arrived at Christmas Island. I was shocked when I saw that officers with guns and they just searched all of our body for guns. And then detentions and treated as a criminal.
You felt that way?
It wasn’t just feeling. It was reality.
But I didn’t know my crime. I know what did I done – it’s okay for me. I can tolerate it because I know it’s the cost of freedom. But for my little sister…
Was it hard for her?
I can never understand this. Why with her. What was wrong? Why was she crying? And still it’s happening?
How old was she then?
“But it wasn’t like that when arrived at Christmas Island. I was shocked when I saw that officers with guns and they just searched all of our body for guns. And then detentions and treated as a criminal.”
I think at that time, my mood and my mother’s mood, she was trying to…don’t show anything but I know she [little sister] was worse than us because she was a child.
I was in a terrible emotional coma in that time. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t communicate with people. I was just in my room. Serco officers just was trying to active me – to force me to communicate with people but I couldn’t.
After we transferred to other detention in Australia I find out this – my psychologist in Christmas Island advised my case-manager to transfer us.
Other painful and horrible things in detention – everyday you have bad news. Most of them are not news. I don’t know what you say…something people say to…
Yeah. When you can’t go back to your country and you hear government wants to deport all of the refugees – it make you harm yourself.
Niki finds this part hard. Her gaze has lowered and her voice has dropped to almost a whisper. She’s almost in tears. Fortunately Suriyan comes along and in his typical effortless manner, diffuses the tension. ‘Do you want some scones?’ He offers the puffy baked goods on a tray. Niki refuses but I say I would like one. Suriyan fetches cream and jam and with some encouragement Niki agrees to try a scone. I heat them up in the microwave and we tuck in.
Suriyan goes wandering again and returns with plants. He offers one of the small pots to Niki. ‘Yesterday, young Australians came to talk to young asylum seekers, but [some] people who promised to come didn’t turn up. So they [the others] brought eight plants as gifts – their sense of gesture.’
‘This one’s mint,’ I say pointing to a small herb. Niki recognises the other one. ‘This is rosemary.’ We talk about gardening for a short while. Niki appears to have gathered herself so we return to her story.
the freedom fighter
“I am in touch with Australian people. I know about their kind and pure hearts. The problem is they don’t know about us. ”
Let’s continue with the Australia part of the story.
After the two months prime minister decided, I don’t know why, to get us bridging visa and get us into community. And when you are in detention it’s the best news you can hear.
We came to Melbourne.
Did you choose Melbourne?
It was because we had a relative. Yeah, we came to community but we don’t have any work rights. With bridging visa we can study but if we pay for that as International Student. Imagine if you can’t work how you can pay?
For six weeks we were in a temporary house with Red Cross. We were looking for house to rent. It was so hard to rent a house. And it is, because we can’t work, we don’t have a record.
It’s hard for us to fill out the form, our documents…you know some of application form are working with points. Ten points for licence etc. We didn’t have all of those.
We could rent a house with our caseworkers help at the end of six weeks in Lalor. I don’t know why but Red Cross advised us to rent a house Lalor, Epping, Reservoir or South Morang. I don’t know why these suburbs.
Did you like the place?
No. We had to rent that house because we had to go from that temporary house…It’s old. Three bedrooms. This house is expensive. It wasn’t because at the first we were four of us. But after that when my dad left us it is expensive for us…
I haven’t heard very much about your father. Is there a reason?
Mmm, yeah [she says this in a small voice]…
Um, maybe it wasn’t his fault but I couldn’t tolerate this thing: he decided to left us and now he’s living in Melbourne. And he’s living alone.
Do you still see him or talk to him?
Once a week or less?
Less than that.
But he still wants to be in touch?
Umm…sometimes he calls.
He has his own life.
What does he do? Do you know?
I don’t know [her voice falls again into a softer register]
The main thing is I feel I have to handle everything in my family. My dad is not with us. My mother, she can’t speak English. It means she can’t do anything. And my sister she’s a child. That’s why I have to look for house and our bills. Many problems we have. I didn’t have time even. Till now, I didn’t have time to study for myself. Because I feel guilty about, especially my mum and my sister.
How have you coped?
Since I arrived to Melbourne I am in emotional coma. But I am happy since I started to work for about forty-five days I had a table in Federation Square and some petition against violence to human rights – some photos and everything about Iran – hangings and torturing and stoning to death.
Like a protest?
A petition for informing people and getting their signs against everything in Iran. That made me feel useful.
It’s unbelievable even for me, after one and a half months my mum was on hunger strike for political reasons in front of Immigration Department for the refugees in Iraq from Mujahideen. Because they are a group active for freedom and they are in danger. They are doing everything for freedom in Iran. My mum was on hunger strike for fifty-five days to do something for them. We’ve been busy with that.
After that I was trying to enrol my sister in a school. I could, finally.
That helps, doesn’t it?
Yeah. And then I woke up and saw my situation. Especially refugees in detentions – I know about them. I’m trying to know about them more. I felt I have to do something, especially for them.
That was why I did a speech in rally for refugees. After that everything started from there. I did some interviews with some journalists, with some students from university. I went to some schools in St Albert.
I’m doing some speech about my story, the reason I came here. How I came here, why I choose to be a boat refugee. I am trying to inform people about our situation.
I am in touch with Australian people. I know about their kind and pure hearts. The problem is they don’t know about us.
Yes, and now I’m here.
Let the truth be told
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the curse of the forebears
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