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A Second Chance: The stories of Fawad Ahmed and Mohammad Ali Baqiri

Tuesday, 29 April, 2014

Words by Gajan Thiyagarajah
Photography by Arj Giese (Cricket Victoria) and Sarah Valle

I venture down from Union House to the picturesque sports grounds nearby on a cloudless autumn day, keen to watch the Melbourne University Cricket Club’s (MUCC) First XI compete in Victoria’s top ranked Premier League. Talented students of the university and local members of the public make up the team.

We’re in serious strife. Melbourne University’s top order has collapsed, throwing away all hope of making it to the finals. The number eight batsman and specialist spin bowler enters the arena, his team six wickets down. He bats more fastidiously than any of his colleagues and manages to save some grace, taking MUCC to a more respectable total. But this is not altogether surprising. It was only last year that the same man was playing in the United Kingdom, representing the Australian national team.

Australia’s humanitarian migration system, too, is in serious strife. Australia’s asylum seeker policies are a web of political inefficiency and human struggle that have led to a self-perpetuating cycle of anger and frustration, seemingly devoid of any realistic hope of a solution.

To reignite this hope, we need stories of success: examples that point to a potential way out of the situation we find ourselves in. This article features the stories of two men who have found themselves on vastly different paths to the same end: asylum in Australia. For one, it’s a story that is utterly unprecedented; for the other, it’s a tale that might be told by thousands of others who reach our shores in need of our help.

Following the retirement of cricketing great Shane Warne in January 2007, the Australian Test team went through 13 different spin bowlers in an attempt to find an adequate replacement. In late 2012 the National Selection Panel heard of Fawad Ahmed, a Victorian leg-spinner who had taken the domestic competition by storm. Intrigued, the selectors dug a little deeper to find that Fawad was a refugee now living in Australia.

In contrast to the media’s persistent stereotyping of refugees, Fawad arrived here by plane from Pakistan on a visa, before applying for asylum upon arrival. His application was rejected twice before he was granted permanent residency in November 2012.

Soon after, Fawad joined the MUCC with the help of club president Derek Bennett. Before long Fawad had made an impression upon the national selectors, who wanted him in the Australian team. A roadblock stood in the way, however; Fawad was not yet a citizen of Australia, as is required for any cricketer to represent their country internationally. So Cricket Australia began a campaign to have the federal government fast-track Fawad’s case. And in July 2013, Fawad officially became an Australian citizen.

A second story of success is that of Victoria University student Mohammad Ali Baqiri, whose journey goes back to 2001. That November, just three months after the notorious Tampa incident, the navy spotted a boat off the Australian coastline. It was on fire. Two hours after being made aware of the boat’s presence, the navy finally received permission to intervene and help those on board. For each of those hours, one person aboard the boat died.

On board was ten-year-old Mohammad, who had fled his home province of Oruzgan in Afghanistan, his parents not willing to risk his life by keeping him in a war zone. He, along with his brother and his brother’s family, had been on the boat for seven days since its departure from Indonesia. The navy told the boat’s survivors that they would “never be resettled in Australia”, and took them to Christmas Island. Here, they learned they were to be transferred to the detention centre in Nauru where their claims for asylum would be processed. Mohammad was so happy at this news that he was barely concerned that he had been wearing the same clothes for two straight months.

I was fortunate enough to talk with both Fawad and Mohammad—the former tired, sweating and smiling after his gallant sporting effort, the latter a fresh-faced young man not much older than myself, and having just finished his classes for the day. By all appearances, Fawad and Mohammad are your average Australians. No one could know of either man’s hardships without asking.

“The initial impression that struck me of Nauru from the plane after we were rescued,” Mohammad explains, “is that it was so small I could have walked around it in 20, maybe 30 minutes”. Because the temperatures on the island are so high, the majority of the population lives on the coastline, where the cool breeze offers some relief. Located right in the centre of Nauru, however, is the detention centre that housed Mohammad from the ages of 10 to 13.

The detention centre, where Mohammad estimates temperatures regularly reach upwards of 40 degrees, is surrounded by “pointy, white rocks, as sharp as knives” that trap in the heat. Unlike the respite offered by our air-conditioned homes, Mohammad and the other 1,200 occupants of the detention centre had only meagre army tents as shelter, inside which the stifling humidity made breathing near on impossible. Detainees spent much of the day outside, lining up for food or processing, their bare feet burning on the granite ground.

Statistically speaking, over 90 per cent of these 1,200 people would have eventually been found to be genuine asylum seekers.

Expecting to come to Australia and be rescued by the good people he’d heard so much about, Mohammad instead found himself in an environment of rampant mental illness and widespread incidents of self-harm and attempted suicide. He saw a woman die right in front of his eyes—something he’s unlikely to forget. It’s hardly a departure from the terror he’d left behind in Afghanistan.

While Mohammad and his brother persevered through these unimaginable living conditions, not everybody was able to cope with their newfound hell.

“They [the other boat arrivals] were reminded that there was no hope of them being allowed into Australia, and offered $2,000 apiece to go back to Afghanistan, with the promise of a job and settlement back there,” Mohammad reveals. “Over 100 people accepted the offer, and I know for a fact that they didn’t receive jobs or get settled again. Over 20 of those have been confirmed as being dead now, and several others have had to make the journey via boat again.” Mohammad notes, “Most of us knew that the only things for us back home were fear and death”.

After three years in Nauru—which included a three-week protest of their treatment, in which Mohammad’s brother took part in a hunger strike and others sewed their lips together—25 of those who arrived on the boat with Mohammad were given Temporary Protections Visas, granting them entry to Australia.

The emotional response of the cohort, rather than being one of joy, was that of sadness, even despair. “We simply couldn’t understand why we hadn’t received [the visas] immediately, what had taken so long,” Mohammed explains. He divides the hardship into two parts of equal difficulty—first, life in Afghanistan and the journey to Australia itself, and second, those few years spent in Nauru.

While Fawad Ahmed was able to avoid the experience of coming to Australia by boat, his journey was no easier. Fawad was forced to flee from his home of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan in 2010 after facing persecution from the Taliban. He had attracted the Taliban’s attention for his efforts in promoting secular education for women and girls with the Al-Asif Welfare and Women Development Organisation. “In my family my mother was at the head,” Fawad says. “I learned that if you can educate women, especially young girls, you give them the opportunity to provide for and educate the rest of society.” His involvement in cricket made him an even more pronounced target of the Taliban.

Since arriving in Australia, Fawad have struggled with some of the small things about adapting to life in Australia. Even the seemingly simple act of travelling on a tram posed challenges. The process of adapting to a new daily routine was made especially difficult given that his case was being processed—very publicly—at the same time.

Other areas of Fawad’s life have been impacted, too. “Occasionally there are conflicts with my prayer times but I recognise that this is not a Muslim country. I can adjust.” Fawad’s faith is hugely important to him, and has helped him get through some of the difficult times he has endured. “Religion is everything to me. I would do anything for it. My religion is very peaceful and I’m very happy with what I believe. Every human being should be happy with what they believe, no matter what their religion is.”

While Mohammad himself isn’t religious, his perspective isn’t too different from Fawad’s. “I’m supposed to be Muslim but instead I tend to respect all religions, and take the best out of each one,” he says. “At the end of the day we are all good human beings. Religion is like a pyramid—at the bottom we might be different, but at the top we’re the same in what we want and believe.”

Mohammad too has encountered difficulties in developing his new Australian life. “The first two years I was a bit depressed, trying to overcome different lifestyles and identities. I was always trying to balance Australian culture and Afghan culture, and it becomes quite a conflict on your mind, trying to choose one when they come to oppose each other. This is a challenge until this day. You often don’t know which way to go.

“I faced a lot of bullying when I was younger. We were let out of detention when I was 13. I was sent to a language school for three months, and then sent straight into year eight. I could barely speak English—I couldn’t even ask to go to the bathroom. I was totally isolated, I was being told to ‘go back to where I came from’, and I was just about to give up on my life.”

“If my country had been safe and peaceful, I wouldn’t have left it for another one where I needed to start afresh,” Mohammed explains. “I had no choice, it was stay or die. Why would I want to go through all of that trouble to be included? Surely that shows how badly we were in need?”

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Mohammad is desperate to see a humanitarian alternative to Australia’s current processing method, which he believes “neglects our international responsibility and goes back on the treaties we’ve signed by dumping our obligations onto other countries”. He speaks of the shame he felt as an Australian citizen when he heard of the Rudd government’s PNG solution, and urges the incumbent government to increase its intake from Indonesia, a country that isn’t a signatory to the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, and “doesn’t give a shit about refugees”.

“We need someone in power brave enough to stand up to everyone, to make a change,” Mohammed says.

“Despite what people might say, Australia is not a racist country. But we claim to be a multicultural one, and we are not living up to being the role model we should be. In every bunch of apples you have a couple of bad ones, and if you put those bad ones at the front and give them the power, it makes the whole lot look rotten.”

Much has been reported in the media about Fawad’s case receiving special treatment, because of the support he received from Cricket Australia. When I ask him if this made him feel at all guilty about his circumstances, he laughs and assures me otherwise. His plan is to instead take advantage of his situation.

“I hope I can use my experience and show others the right way and the right path when they’re facing persecution—anyone from any background, male or female, young or old, I’d love to help anyone that I can do something for. This country gave me a lot of honour and respect and I’d love to give something back. Being a citizen now, it’s my duty.”

Of playing for Australia, Fawad is rapturous. “It was unbelievable. I felt so incredibly proud—it’s left a great mark on my heart. Even if I never play for Australia again I’ll remember that moment forever. It’s been the best thing in my life.”

He has dreams not only of playing for his country again, but of making a lasting contribution to his community.

“I’d just love to do something for this people, our humanity. Maybe working with the university or in cricket or helping new immigrants—just doing something special. Perhaps doing what I can to help out back in Pakistan also.”

In 2013, Fawad not only came third in the Australian team’s Twenty20 Player of the Year award, he also was the recipient of the Muslim Sportsperson of the Year award.

“Winning that award was a big surprise and an honour—I didn’t even know there was anything like that in Australia!” Fawad says. “The most important thing about winning it to me was representing Australia’s multicultural communities. For so many children, their ancestors and themselves came from the subcontinent, and I hope this award allows me to inspire those children to achieve what I have in a few years.

“Obviously my life is much better now, and I have a future. The long years of waiting and struggling are over, so I’m in a place where I can build my family and enter a nicer side of my life.”

For Mohammad, the first step in finding a way forward is through understanding.

“Instead of getting caught up in the popular controversy and warped perspectives of the media and putting the blame on asylum seekers themselves, we need to bring the focus back to what they’re going through. Our government sends troops to Afghanistan and knows how dangerous it is over there, yet the people here still believe we aren’t genuinely in need. They aren’t being shown the true horror we’ve been through.

“I still have faith in our politicians. This country can do better, it can be better. Get all of the women and children out of those off-shore detention centres. Process them in centres in Australia if you must, but don’t try to send them back. Even better, allow people into the community and process them there. Give them working rights and let them make a contribution to society, to our economy. Allow them to send money back to their families in need, for whom they’re the main breadwinners.”

“[Detention centres] are a waste of taxpayer money. The amount of people that came to Australia by boat in 2012 was 12,000. Let’s compare that to people that overstay their visas: 50,000 to 60,000. We’re focusing our efforts on the wrong problem.”

Mohammad is now studying Law and Management at Victoria University, fulfilling an aspiration he’s had since before he left Afghanistan. He still remembers the first time he truly felt like an Australian.

“It was when I was chosen to give a speech at a citizenship ceremony. The great thing about this country is that anyone who puts their head to it can achieve absolutely anything. That freedom, the possibilities of education—those are the things I dreamt of while in detention. If I’ve been able to achieve so much in just 10 years when I didn’t know the language at first, imagine what I can do in 10 more?” he says. “There are so many asylum seekers more talented than myself locked up in detention now. Give them a chance to prove themselves. We talk about how everyone gets a ‘fair go’ in Australia, but that’s not the case at the moment. Like I said, this country can be better.”

Fawad Ahmed and Mohammad Ali Baqiri have never even heard of each other, much less met. But they are two of the lucky ones. They have been given a second chance in Australia and have overcome great suffering to remake their lives. Along with the untold stories of so many other refugees, Fawad and Mohammad represent the possibilities and potential being denied to the thousands of others being held in detention centres today, and the thousands more who will come here fleeing unimaginable horrors in the years ahead. Children who fantasise about playing cricket for this country; men and women eager to put their talents to use; and many more who wish to come here and learn what we can teach them.

Both Fawad and Mohammad recognise how fortunate they were to have been given an opportunity, and are totally committed to making the most of ,not only for themselves but also for the country that gave it to them.

All they ask for in return is that that country starts behaving like the one they once dreamed about.