For refugees in Australia, resettlement first step in road


It has been almost 16 years since Riz Wakil stepped off a dilapidated wooden boat onto a remote northern Australian territory, ending 11 terrifying days at sea huddled up against 76 other asylum-seekers. Now Wakil is a father of two who runs several businesses – but the sight of hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing to Europe is a disturbing reminder both of what he left behind, and of how the risky journey was just the beginning of the challenges he faced in creating a new life.

"The incidents of the past, the suffering of my family in Afghanistan, that never goes away," Wakil, from the Hazara ethnic minority, told AFP in the diverse western Sydney suburb of Auburn. "And whenever I see something or read something related to that – doesn't matter if it is from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Syria, Iraq or any other troubled part of the world where people are forced to take the same journey and to make the same decision that my parents made for me – it stresses me out and is disturbing."

Although their new lives in a developed nation are a world away from the daily trauma of living in a warzone, refugees such as those fleeing the conflicts in Iraq and Syria face numerous challenges in starting a new life. Those who are flown into Australia – such as the 12,000 to be placed here to help relieve the crisis in Europe – are part of a formal refugee resettlement programme regularly hailed by the United Nations as one of the world's best. But asylum-seekers who come by boat like Wakil – alone without his family at 18 years old – often find the transition more difficult.

Wakil spent his first eight months in a detention centre before being given a temporary permit with restricted access to services and education which made him feel like a "second-class citizen".

Under increasingly harsh policies by successive Australian governments – which now include sending boat arrivals to Pacific camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru with no option of resettling in Australia – asylum-seekers in Australia find themselves in legal limbo.

Often with little besides the clothes on their back, they are placed on bridging visas that prevent them from taking full-time jobs, leaving them vulnerable to poverty and homelessness, according to the Australian Human Rights Commission. They also face community prejudice because they are often portrayed as "queue-jumpers" who have taken the place of more needy refugees.

Sydney-based orthopaedic surgeon Munjed Al Muderis, who fled Iraq in 1999, said he still met people who judged him because he arrived in Australia by boat. At a recent high-profile event, a "senior member of Australian society" had asked how the 43-year-old – who has met Britain's Prince Harry because of his pioneering work with amputees – came to be invited after he revealed he was a boat refugee, Al Muderis told AFP.

The man changed his tone after his wife revealed she had read about Al Muderis' life story in the media. "He realised I'm a human being, I'm normal, I can speak English and I can articulate and... I'm the guest of honour, not him."

At the same time, there has also been a backlash to the governments' policies, with protests supporting asylum-seekers taking place regularly in Australian cities.

Mastering the native tongue and finding a new job loom as key challenges for new arrivals, says manager Yamamah Agha from Settlement Services International, which helps up to 10,000 asylum-seekers and refugees each year in New South Wales state.

"Many of the refugees that come are very skilled... but may not have the paperwork or qualifications and because of age or language, it's difficult for them to be working in the same field," she told AFP.

At the same time, they still have to overcome the scars of war and loss, said the Refugee Council of Australia's Tim O'Connor. "You get into more complex areas like the psychological needs of someone who has been through a serious conflict, the potential trauma of losing family members and friends, and having to leave everything you've worked your whole life to achieve behind," O'Connor said.

Meanwhile, forming new relationships and explaining your situation can be daunting, said Wakil, who was sent away from his home in Ghazni province by his family amid persecution from the Taliban and the mujahideen. Some Hazaras he knew were afraid to introduce themselves as coming from Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 attacks, saying they were from South America instead.

And even if they are seen as a success story, refugees' dreams of family reunion are often thwarted if they fail to secure visas for relatives. Syrian-born Palestinian father-of-four and doctor Mousa Al-Ahmad, 46, told AFP his two brothers died in Syria and he was constantly worried about his elderly parents and sisters, who are in Damascus.

"How can I focus on my life here while my family is there suffering bad things?" the newly resettled refugee said.    (AFP)

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