In Seeking Asylum: Our Stories, a new book from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC), each chapter starts off with a name. Nadira, a Uyghur woman from East Turkestan, shares her story; Flora writes a beautiful poem about what it’s like to experience migration, and Ghofran, the book’s cover star, details her pathway to helping others through education.
Danijel Malbasa, one of the people profiled in the book, fled the Croatian War of Independence with his family, moving to a refugee camp in Serbia when he was a child. At 12 he moved to Australia where he marvelled at everyday beauty, such a blue sky or birds.
“We didn’t have birds in Yugoslavia,” says Malbasa. “They just disappeared. Freshly cut grass, the shopping centre fully stocked, those sorts of things were a real shock to me.” For a long time, life was about fitting in, losing his accent, adopting a new one, getting through school and university. But in recent years, Malbasa has decided to own his refugee identity.
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“There’s a real juxtaposition of eating smashed avocado and drinking a flat white in the safety of Melbourne while thinking of war,” he says. “It can be a very visceral experience when you’ve had your feet in both worlds. Very few people get to experience that and then the question is: do you share it or do you not? If you do, you take on a lot of responsibility.”
The ASRC took a holistic approach to the project. Every potential story went through a selection committee with the aim that each one would be diverse in terms of country of origin, narrative, gender and experience. All contributors were remunerated for their work and given the ability to consent or withdraw consent during the project.
Alan White, fundraising and marketing director at ASRC, says people seeking asylum are “weaponised” in modern-day media discussion and political debate. “There is an interesting discourse that paints people and their stories in a different light to the truth,” he says. “One of the best ways to combat that weaponising is to focus on the human story and the human side and the human narrative.”
Photographer Sam Biddle worked with the editorial committee at publisher Black Inc, and the contributors themselves, on the individual development of each story. He took their photos, but Biddle also helped scribe people’s stories, working with the person to edit or clarify meaning. For others, they wrote their stories independently and were offered help to expand their narratives.
Cover star Ghofran Al-nasiri, who was born in Iraq and left during the Gulf War aged 10, spent five years in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia before settling in Iran. When she was 20, she came to Australia with her husband and eight-month-old son.
In Australia Al-nasiri decided to pursue her dream of getting an education to become a doctor. “I feel that I have become a role model to inspire others, especially for women and especially if you are married,” says Al-nasiri. “There are women who now feel supported and can believe in themselves because I achieved my educational dream, and I am working and helping others, so they start to believe in themselves.”
Al-nasiri went on to complete a PhD and works as a lecturer, training biomedical students. “I always wanted to be a doctor who helped poor people, but I found that with teaching I am helping others. Doctors might be able to cure your body, but teachers can cure your soul.”
Barat Ali Batoor, a Hazara photojournalist whose family were forced into exile from Afghanistan when he was a boy, also shares his story. As an adult he moved back to Afghanistan, working as a documentary photographer. His story about the Dancing Boys of Afghanistan – boys who are abducted or sold as sex slaves – made it into the Washington Post. At that point, he had no choice but to flee.
“I started receiving death threats … when you have to escape to safety, you don’t have time to find safe passage,” says Batoor. “In some countries it is almost impossible to seek a visa for asylum, so people embark on perilous journeys and rely on people smugglers,” he says.
Batoor travelled to Thailand by air, and by road and boat to Malaysia then to Indonesia. He joined seven other asylum seekers waiting for a smuggler, for a boat they hoped would take them to Australia. The boat they boarded took on water and crashed on rocks on an island where they were picked up by Indonesian water police and taken to Serang detention centre, which they subsequently escaped.
“I got in touch with my mentor who was based in Brisbane and when they heard that I had photos that documented the journey, they got in touch with SBS. When the story aired [on Dateline in 2012], … all sorts of people campaigned to help in any way.
“I thought Australian people needed to see it because often the refugee topic or debate is just about numbers or written texts by politicians or the media, so I wanted to give them that human face as well,” says Batoor.
“Refugees and asylum seekers are human beings; they are our neighbours, they run cafes, provide food to the community and help others in many ways,” he says. “This book can give a very small idea about how refugees are treated in our society … I hope it will play a role in changing the narrative.”