By Liam McLoughlin 03/11/2015
“I think detention is just slow dying” says Iraqi refugee Murtadha Ebadi. He would know. Only 30 years old, he’s already been forced into immigration detention in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Australia. Yet his experience in this country was “harder than anywhere else. The only one to make me feel like I was in jail was Australia,” he says.
Hardship has marked much of Ebadi’s young life. Aged only five, his father was killed by the Ba’ath party: “He was a normal man, a farmer. He said what’s right, what’s wrong about the government. People reported what he was saying. They imprisoned him and killed him after six months.”
In 1991, after people’s uprisings were crushed and Saddam Hussein was restored to power, Ebadi fled for his life to Saudi Arabia with his aunties, uncles and grandmother. Ebadi and his relatives spent two years in detention in Saudi Arabia and Iran before being resettled in Qom, Iran, home to many other Iraqi refugees. For six years he lived without his mother, two sisters and brother, until they were reunited in Qom when he was 11. He found temporary protection in Qom for his teenage years, albeit with a keen sense of loss: “I feel like I lost my childhood. I didn’t live normal.”
When Saddam was toppled in 2003, Ebadi’s imagination ran away with him. As a 17 year old he hoped there would be “no more trouble for the people. We will live normal like every country. But it was just dream. Nothing came true.”
He returned to Iraq only to find life was worse than when he left. Travelling from Iran to Iraq was like a journey back in time:“There was no power. Like 200 years I went back.” Iraqi politics had become more fractured and corrupt, “There were 270 political parties in Iraq, with different areas of control. They were stealing oil, hacking pipes,” Mr Ebadi says. The social and political uncertainty was so dire, widespread hatred of Saddam Hussein had morphed into a shared view of him as the lesser of two evils: “Now people wish for Saddam. Now we have 1000 Saddams. We don’t know who is friend, who is enemy.”
Ebadi’s new life in his homeland was precarious. “One day I didn’t go to work. I didn’t feel like it. That day my group of painters were shot at and two of my friends were injured,” he says. As a Shia Muslim he was forced to play a daily life and death game of ID checking in Baghdad: “I was asked for ID 10-20 times per day and there were police checks every 1-2km. We created fake IDs and had to be really careful. If Sunni place, show Sunni ID, if Shia place, show Shia ID.” Many of his friends fell victim to these ruthless checks: “Too many friends I have killed about the ID. They just forget. They search them and they find it and they kill them.” Fear was constant. “I felt fearful for my life everyday. It was a scary time. Baghdad was always scary,” he says.
Surviving in Iraq until 2009, Ebadi decided to escape this landscape of fear. Following a flight from Iran to Malaysia and a terrifying boat journey from there to Indonesia, his reward for the courage to seek a better life was yet more time in detention, this time in Jakarta. His release after two months brought him to the horns of a common dilemma for asylum seekers. Wait for years in Jakarta for an interminable UN process, or accept the offer of a people smuggler and venture on to Australia. He thought risking his life on the high seas was better than indefinite uncertainty.
He wasn’t so sure at several moments on the nine day boat journey to Ashmore reef: “On the second day, the water pump broke. Two days later, there was a small fire with the gas. After five days the food was finished and there was only water, tea and sugar.” In the last 24 hours the ship was taking on water and passengers were frantically bailing it out with buckets. “Sometimes I’m thinking we should not be alive. We were very lucky to be alive,” Mr Ebadi says. The three children, two women and twelve men on board had just about ceded hope: “In the last two days, looking at people’s faces, everyone give up. Don’t know where we were going. Indonesian driver lost his way.” On the 16th March 2010 the Australian Navy found the vessel and shipped the asylum seekers to Christmas Island, now the fourth time Ebadi would be forced into immigration detention.
The young Shia refugee quickly learned the island does not live up to it’s name: “There is nothing positive on Christmas Island. It’s a prison. No one cares about you. There are too many people, there’s nothing to see, it’s just bush around you.”
The relationship between prisoners and guards is tense. “The guards don’t trust you,” Ebadi says. He speaks of one man who felt a lot of pressure in his heart when exercising in the gym. The man asked the guards for help but they just laughed, and he died on the floor in front of them. Ebadi experienced this total lack of trust for himself. One afternoon he broke his ankle and asked for assistance. The guards denied him help and told him to wait to see the nurse at 9am the next morning. The following day “when the nurse saw me from five metres away she called an ambulance”. Still, Ebadi was stoic: “We have many pain in our lives so we don’t cry for a broken ankle.”
Ebadi could also see the intense psychological suffering of those around him. “Many people lost hope and suffered mental problems,” he says. Eight months into his stay on Christmas Island he acted out his empathy for fellow victims of Australia’s detention regime. He joined ten other asylum seekers on a nine day hunger strike when they heard the news of an Iraqi man who had hung himself in Villawood. “The government said we were eating and drinking, just not going to our rooms. So we sowed our lips together. We had no energy. It was a terrible experience. They promised they will change the way they look for cases. Nothing came true,” he says.
Partly as punishment for his activism, Ebadi was moved to Villawood in January 2011, where he was kept for nearly two more years: “Villawood was very terrible. It’s worse than everywhere.”
During this time he underwent an extensive series of immigration interviews, rejections and appeals which took his case all the way to the High Court, where he was ultimately successful. After 31 months in detention, the Australian government gave Murtadha Ebadi his freedom on the 11th October 2012.
Ebadi now lives a peaceful suburban life in Blacktown in the Western suburbs of Sydney, enjoying his work as a house painter most days. He regularly plays soccer with his mates, many of whom also have years of direct experience of Australia’s detention system. Ebadi enjoys his newfound safety, but is by no means clear of mental anguish: “Every day and every night I am worried about the people I grow up with. Just this last year in January I lost two of my friends, they killed. Two months after I lost another friend, he killed in Baghdad. 15 days ago, my uncle is killed as well. So this is Iraq. I don’t know what to say.”
In a policy area dominated by politicians who could never even imagine life in an Australian detention centre, let alone a life of fear in Iraq, Ebadi’s voice is one worth listening to. While our leaders wax lyrical about country shopping and queue jumping, Ebadi knows the reality: “Everyone wants to stay in their community. People who become refugees have no choices, they lost everything. We are forced to gamble with our lives.”
Ebadi also speaks of the crippling uncertainty that is the fate of asylum seekers in this country. “I have friend who has been in detention for five years. I have many friends without visas or with TPVs. They don’t know their future and are always worried about their future. The government has even sent back some people, Hazara people, who were killed,” he says.
Having spent so much of his young life being punished for seeking safe haven from persecution, Ebadi is something of an expert on the devastating effects of immigration detention on children.
If Ebadi could send one message to our political leaders, it would be this.
“I hope I see everybody out of detention but first is the children. They don’t have fault. They don’t know anything. You can give yourself hope as an adult, you will know there is a future. But you can’t as a child. It’s really horrible. It will stay in their minds all their life. It will change their personalities in the future. Maybe one day I forget detention in Indonesia, Australia. But I will never forget detention in Saudi Arabia and Iran.”
Murtadha Ebadi recently gave a public talk as part of an ongoing series of talks organised by People Just Like Us and The Refugee Council of Australia.. On November 18 in Parramatta and November 24 in Potts Point, Tamil, Syrian, Iraqi and Sudanese refugees will share their stories.