The Reluctant Activist
“And then my friends told me, 'Just go – we are Australian citizens, that’s ok for us. But you just go.'”
This interview took place on
I arrive at the Intercultural Centre a bit after lunchtime. There’s a farewell party going on in one of the downstairs meeting rooms and I’m ushered in by the staff at reception and offered a large slice of cake. The same happens to Niki as she walks through the sliding doors. She sits beside me and shyly tucks into the cake with her plastic fork. She seems low on energy, speaking softly and infrequently. Her hair’s been cut short to her jawline and her clothes aren’t as flamboyant as when I last saw her. After the speeches finish and we’ve eaten all the cake we could, Niki and I retreat to the asylum seeker welcome lounge and begin our conversation.
Can we talk about what’s happened since the last time I saw you [see Riot Grrl]? You were telling me how your sister was just beginning to feel better and you were too…and your mum had protested up outside the immigration centre?
Oh, the hunger strike?
Yeah, the hunger strike, and you were getting involved in rallies and going to schools and talks and you were feeling good about all of that.
Yeah. About my sister, actually she went to language school and she finished it early because her English was good and for the next semester after these holidays she’s going to normal high school.
My mum, she’s good. That hunger strike was for about 90 days, my mum was on hunger strike for 55 days. And that’s finished.
First months I was trying to speak in rallies and in schools. Refugee Action Collective sometimes, in Greens party, Labor party…but I got many warnings. From? From friends and non-friends.
What were they saying?
Actually, I don’t want this part to be told in the website.
Redacted redacted REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED
Why do you not want to say that?
I’m just concerned about my sister and my mother.
Okay. It makes sense.
If it was me I’m sure I wouldn’t like to stop it. But…
Because I’ve already told your story and it says you’re doing these things. So, I mean, I can take them out if you’re still concerned…
No, no, that’s fine. I can’t remove everything from [other media organisation] or this. They had some interviews with me. But I can stop it since now.
It’s interesting that people have told you that. And surprising that you’ve decided to stop.
It wasn’t just a friend. There were many. More than four. Tamil, Iranian, there were many…Australian. With same experiences.
To Un-learn and Re-learn
“It doesn’t matter for me. I’m ready to start, even from year 6…no, I’m lying. Year 11. Not 6. Year 11. But it’s very important for me to just start. ”
What have you been doing, instead of all of that?
Same as always. I am looking for a way to study. And actually I enrolled in learning centre in the North of Melbourne.
I’ve been there for about 2 weeks, but it’s school holidays, and I’ll be there again for the next semester. For VCAL certificate, but it’s not what I wanted.
What certificate is that?
[Laughs] it’s better than nothing.
What do you learn?
Just English, Math, and something they want…I’m not sure.
That’s a certificate, after that we can learn TAFE. But I won’t stay there for long. I’m just looking for a way to go for VCE, or go straight to University.
Can you still do VCE?
Um, not sure. I’m on [removed] visa.
What’s the school like?
My caseworker found this school for me.
Ok, first day at name of school removed…before that, interview day. They called me and they said we have interview, for example, Friday, come at two o’clock. I was there and I was just in shock – why interpreter? I don’t need interpreter.
Oh, so they arranged for an interpreter?
They said many other asylum seekers couldn’t speak, even with greeting. And I just spoke to a girl named name removed.
So that was the interpreter?
No, she’s a volunteer in that school. I think she’s in charge for…I’m not sure.
After that we had a quick interview without interpreter. And we could just fill out the forms and sign in five minutes and she [admin lady] was just laughing. Oh it was really easy without interpreter.
And then after six months I went there, the English was ok. But the Maths, I was just laughing at those questions.
Yeah, really really basic. And then I told her, ‘Sorry, but I was teaching these questions in Iran to students, I can’t just sit in this class and learn again.’ And then when I came back home, [admin lady] called me and she said, do you want to come and be volunteer here?
Is that what you’re doing now?
Yeah, but I’ll go there for English as well. And maybe I could help them for English. She said for Maths, because we need teachers for Maths but I don’t think I can do it for Maths because I need to know special words to teach them in English and that’s really hard. But for English, I’d be happy to do it for asylum seekers. Basic levels. And this way I can improve my English as well.
“They told me they don’t get many people who want to continue their study in University and said, 'it’s really cool to find you.' ”
Are they small classes?
Yeah, small classes. A youth worker, and a teacher. And all of the teachers were just in shock. They told me they don’t get many people who want to continue their study in University and said, ‘it’s really cool to find you.’ It’s better than nothing, after 6 months.
But you were already in University in Iran…can’t you go to Uni?
Maybe. It doesn’t matter for me. I’m ready to start, even from year 6…no, I’m lying. Year 11. Not 6. Year 11. But it’s very important for me to just start. That’s why I went to that school. Even I know that’s not good for me. But that’s better than nothing. That’s better than staying at home.
Do you still want to be a journalist?
If you go to Uni, what subjects would you do?
Of course I will learn law. I will study law. Because as far as I remember I wanted to study law, even in Iran. But the government didn’t let me because of my family and these kinds of things. And the only subject I could learn was Journalism.
“I can say 99% of them, they don’t like asylum seekers. Because we can’t work, we don’t have enough money. We don’t have history for renting house in Australia.”
And what does your mum do now? Does she work?
Actually we are not doing anything helpful. But always we are busy. Just with some surviving.
And you moved house did you? Sara told me.
Yeah we moved to northern suburb. It was a really hard process to find a house.
Why was it hard?
Because many of the owners, I can say 99% of them, they don’t like asylum seekers. Because we can’t work, we don’t have enough money. We don’t have history for renting house in Australia. Also agents, they don’t like to rent any house to us.
And also my mother doesn’t like any house. She really likes the house to be as clean as much possible.
She’s particular about that?
Did you go to a lot of inspections?
Yeah, in Greensborough, Lalor, Thomastown, Glenroy, Pascoe Vale.
How did you find this one?
Um, strange story. Actually when I spoke in the rally on refugee day, Palm Sunday, a guy came to me…because I say in my speech I said I’m Kurdish girl. He came to me and said we have a Kurdish community in Suburb, you’re welcome to come here.
And then I went there for Womens’ Day, 8th of March, and there I spoke, and then he found out we’re trying to find a house and then they solved it in a minute for us.
Until then you were looking?
For about six months.
Six months? Wow, ok. And then that happened within a day or two?
Just a day yeah.
And what’s the house like?
It’s a new house, actually, we’ve been so lucky. It’s a new townhouse, close to train station, to shops. Close to Kurdish community. Our house is in Suburb, and Kurdish community is in Suburb. It’s just two train stops.
When you say you have a community, does that mean you meet them often? What do you do?
Yeah, we have many celebrations. I really like to be there.
So they have events?
Are there people of your age?
No, most of them older.
And the funny thing is we can’t understand each other. All of them we are Kurd. But most of them are from Turkey, they are Kurdish but from Turkey. We are Kurdish but from Iran. And our languages are completely different – we can’t understand each other.
So you speak English?
That’s bad. But we have to. Because Kurdish people are from five different countries: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Azerbaijan, and Turkey. We can’t understand each other.
Any news from your father?
No. He’s living his own life.
Have you seen him since our last conversation?
You have? How often do you see him?
Every two weeks. Or, yeah…
Do you go to his house?
I went I think two times, yeah.
And what’s that like? Is he sharing, or is he living on his own?
Does your sister go with you? Or just you?
Your mother doesn’t…
“Since last week I understand I like African dance. I don’t know why.”
What do you do for fun?
Yeah, making candles, necklaces.
Yeah, and dancing.
What sort of dancing?
Any, just dancing.
Do you do any classes, or dance with a group or something?
No most of the time, with songs, myself. Just watching clips on YouTube and learn from them.
What sort of clips do you watch?
Most of them Latin.
Yeah, Latin dance. And since last week I understand I like African dance. I don’t know why. I was in a celebration, a women’s celebration.
Can you show me the clips?
[Laughs] Have you seen this clip? He’s a Persian guy in California, he’s a Persian groom actually. He’s doing this for his bride – it’s a surprise in his wedding.
[Video clip plays in background]
Yeah, he’s Persian, and he’s dancing with his group with three English songs and one Persian songs. It was 4 million [hits] last day, and now it’s 7 million.[Laughing]
Do you dance to this one was well?
What else do you watch?
I like those.
But many of them need partner.
Are there any you can do on your own?
I’m trying. But I can’t say I can. But for example…most of the time hip-hop is hard.
Have you seen, So You Think You can Dance?
Yeah, it’s the Australian version of the American one.
My partner loves it. She’s, like, watching it all the time.
But The Voice is more famous, I think.
Oh yeah, the singing one. Do you watch that?
Yeah. … Got Talent?
Australia’s Got Talent?
Yeah because I saw the Britain’s Got Talent, and America’s Got Talent.
So, you watch a bit of TV?
Yeah. And Facebook.
What’s your favourite?
It’s up to my mood, and my sister’s mood. She always likes to watch horror. And she forces me to watch with her. Like, Grudge.
Don’t watch that.
I think I’ve seen that one. There’s a Japanese one as well, right?
The Japanese one’s scarier.
“Even I didn’t tell mum. But it was 5am, I just woke up, and slowly I went out.”
Feeling the conversation’s at a natural endpoint, I turn off the recording device and start packing up. Niki remains in her seat. There’s something else she wants to talk about and she continues. I quickly turn the audio recorder back on.
My last excitement rally, my last one, was in Removed Detention. I was in that movement, have you heard about it? They wanted to…
Was than when they wanted to move some people––
Yeah, to Christmas Island. And we’ve been there for all the night.
You were there?
Yeah. Actually, last night…this event planned last night [the night before the blockade]. It was about 4 or 5pm. Actually after one hour they [fellow activists] were in front of my door. I told them I can’t come, sorry.
But after that one of my friends from detention – inside detention – we’re in touch, she was just crying and said, ‘Please just help us we’ve been crying all day.’ Still I have her message…
Even I didn’t tell mum. But it was 5am, I just woke up, and slowly I went out.
You snuck out on your own, without telling anyone?
How long were you there before the buses tried to leave?
I think it was 9.30 [when] the police came, and they were just trying to do something for SERCO officers. Because they wanted to change their shifts. Night shift with the day shift.
But they couldn’t go in because we were blocking [the gate]. We did not let anyone in and out – just the school bus. Actually I was there from 6am, but our friends were there from 6pm.
The previous night?
Yeah, all the night.
Was it cold that night?
Yes, freezing. It was freezing.
I saw a few of the videos and there were protesters getting in front of the buses…
Yes, exactly. Yeah. They had three gates…and I don’t know who was it, but one of the guys or girls, I’m not sure who was it, they used a big lock in one of the gates. And then we blocked the other two gates with our selves. Many of us have been there in that gate.
How did it end?
It was really stressful.
Um, don’t say this to anyone, but many of them redacted redacted redacted. But we’ve been in touch with them. They were saying the bus is coming. And we could block them till 11, I think. 11am. We were happy because police told us the flight is canceled – three times. But we didn’t believe them. But after that, they just went from that gate. They broke the lock, I think you saw that?
Yeah, I saw that. And some boy tried to get in front of it and got arrested, right?
Yeah, and then I think it was 11.30 and police called another officers, and said they would come and arrest all of you.
“And then my friends told me, just go – we are Australian citizens, that’s ok for us, but you just go.”
And then did you get into trouble with your mum for that?
Did she find out?
I told her, but when I was at the detention [blockade]. When I arrived I just sent a text message for her. But I knew if I tell her when I’m in house, she don’t let me go.
Yeah but for the last rally, I didn’t go.
Which one was that?
Refugee day. I really like to go but I…
What are you worried about?
My sister and my mother.
Do you think someone [the authorities] will recognise you?
Right now they recognise me. Because you can find my interview, or my speeches in those rallies.
That’s why we’ve been changing names, and covering faces. That’s why I was telling everyone, ‘Don’t give your real name.’
Yeah. But that’s fine because I can’t hide my face. There are many, many clips.
But it’s your life…
That’s fine. I’m happy still with that. But if I was alone, everything was completely different.
You’ve got to think about your family.
Birthdays under the regime
“When I asked Irene, my daughter, ‘What do you want for you birthday?’ She said, ‘Mama, I don’t want anything. Can we just get out from this house?’”
Exile and the Kingdom
“I ran away from Iran. I didn’t leave my country. ”