BY SARAH STEPHEN
Haydar al Rahal arrived in Australia on August 13, 1999. The immigration department has refused al Rahal asylum — not because he didn't have well-founded fear of persecution if he was returned to Iraq, but because he spent time in a third country, Syria. He has now exhausted every avenue for appeal.
"I've told them if I go back I don't have the right to stay in Syria", he told Green Left Weekly, explaining that the Syrian government would eventually deport him to Iraq. The Australian immigration department "told me that I can go to another country, but I have no money and no passport! Even if I go to hell, they don't care."
There are around 120 asylum seekers in the Port Hedland immigration detention centre, more than half of them Iranian. Others are from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Palestine, Sudan, Algeria, Vietnam, China and Turkey, as well as many from Afghanistan. Al Rahal is one of only two Iraqis in the centre.
He explained that it makes him angry that so many young people are locked up — most of the asylum seekers are aged between 16 and 33. "They are trying to destroy us", al Rahal said, referring to the immigration department's policy of detention without end. "One Afghan man has become crazy, but they don't believe him."
Asylum seekers in Port Hedland have "become like a family", al Rahal told GLW, "but the problem is that we are getting crazy. We cannot control our feelings. I am not like I was before. Sometimes, I get angry because of simple things. When the guards say good morning, sometimes I don't want to answer."
Now 31, Haydar al Rahal is one of the longest-serving prisoners in Port Hedland. Asked how he spends his days behind bars, he replied that in the past he used to sleep a lot, but now he has made a new program for himself. He wakes at 9.30am and has breakfast. There are no organised activities until lunch at 12pm, when he eats and prays. At 2pm, he goes to school to learn English for one hour. Al Rahal added that the detainees were unhappy with the teacher, who reads lessons straight from a book: "She never asks if we understand".
"Some of us try to learn how to use computers, but we have no teacher. Most of us had no knowledge of computers before we came to Australia. In Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, computers are too expensive."
At 4pm each day, al Rahal spends time in the gym or plays soccer. "I would be more crazy without sport", he explained. In the last six months, detainees have begun to be taken on excursions in small groups. "Sometimes they take us shopping or fishing. But I have to wait my turn for five or six months."
Very few people visit the detainees.
Al Rahal was 19 when he left his home town of Mosul, in Iraq's north, soon after the 1991 Shia and Kurdish uprisings against the regime of Saddam Hussein. The US government had encouraged the uprisings, then stood by as Hussein brutally crushed them.
One of al Rahal's supporters arranged a subscription to an Arabic newspaper, and he also receives GLW, so he is able to read about events in Iraq. "I am very scared about the situation in Iraq", he told GLW. "The Iraqi regime is gone, but there are still many problems. I don't trust the US. Everyone knows they want oil, that they want to control all Arabic countries. But if the US gets out, there may be a war between the Shia, the Kurds and others."
"I have many friends in Australia, and they told me it is a free country, and the people are very nice. When I first came, I thought I could get a visa, that I could work and build my future. I planned to get married one year after I arrived. All that is gone. I have lost many things", al Rahal said.
"There are many good people in Australia and they are fighting for us, but the decision is in their hands — if they want things to change, they must fight. They have to try to find a solution — why are we here? Why are we locked up?"
From Green Left Weekly, August 6, 2003.
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