How one Canberra family made a home for a boy from Afghanistan
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How one Canberra family made a home for a boy from Afghanistan

When Emma Adams gazes at the 20-year-old man seated beside her she sometimes can still see glimpses of the boy she first met in an immigration detention centre five years ago.

Abdul is defiant and proud, determined, a confident young man now finding his place in a world outside the barbed wire.

Emma Adams and Abdul Noori: "If we have some positive stories that this can work, then we can change what is happening for a lot of people."

Emma Adams and Abdul Noori: "If we have some positive stories that this can work, then we can change what is happening for a lot of people."

Photo: Karleen Minney

Adams, a psychiatrist specialising in the mental health of mothers and babies, was in Bladin detention centre in Darwin as an observer, a late replacement when another doctor couldn’t make it - just one more twist in a tale of love, family and hope.

Abdul was 16, an unaccompanied minor, who had fled Afghanistan. He’d survived an attack by a suicide bomber in his home town, was smuggled cross country to Indonesia, floated on the top of a petrol drum tethered to the side of the refugee boat because there was no room anywhere else for four days before the Australian Navy intercepted the boat.

Adams struggles even now to explain why, but there was just something about him that got under her skin.

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Unbreakable Threads: The true story of an Australian mother, a refugee boy and what it really means to be a family

Unbreakable Threads: The true story of an Australian mother, a refugee boy and what it really means to be a family

Photo: Supplied

An idea did too: surely any teenage boy would be better off staying with a family rather than locked behind a wire fence. She would get Abdul out. He would come and live with her family in Canberra. It couldn’t be that hard could it?

And so Adams and Abdul embarked on another journey. One that navigated the frustrations of immigration policy and bureaucracy, of welcoming a stranger into their home, of raising teenage boys - Adams and her husband Rob had three teenage sons of their own - of dealing with mental and physical health issues, of teetering, so closely at times, on the edge of despair.

Unbreakable Threads: The true story of an Australian mother, a refugee boy and what it really means to be a family is that story.

“There’s a lot of negative discourse about asylum seekers, queue jumpers, and the like,” says Adams.

“It takes away from the humanity of it and … if we have some positive stories that this can work, then we can change what is happening for a lot of people.”

It was never about politics

On March 15, 2014, Adams wrote a letter to then immigration minister Scott Morrison. She proposed that their home become an alternative place of detention and that Abdul’s case be reviewed and a decision be made on his refugee status as soon as possible.

“We would like Abdul to have the same opportunities for further education and care as our boys do,” she wrote.

A month later she wrote again, attaching more than 30 letters of support, including personal letters from her three young sons. Her youngest Toby, then 10, wrote “I want Abdul to live with us so when dad buys a pack of six hamburger rolls there will not be one left over.”

In late 2014 Morrison was struggling to get his Migration and maritime powers legislation amendment through the senate and he offered up a sweetener. If they passed the bill, he would release all the children being held in mainland detention centres and on Christmas Island.

Although torn over the wider ramifications the bill, Adams wondered if this was the legislation that would get Abdul out. The next question was would they let him come and live with her family?

Abdul, with Lucas and Toby, on a sailing boat trip. Now boat trips are fun; this boy has come a long way.

Abdul, with Lucas and Toby, on a sailing boat trip. Now boat trips are fun; this boy has come a long way.

Photo: Courtesy of Allen and Unwin

Three weeks later Abdul arrived at Canberra Airport and she took him home.

Adjusting to family life

It hasn’t been easy, they both admit that. It just didn’t get better once he was out, but they wanted to tell their story. Adams says she wanted it to be some sort of “insurance policy” for Abdul.

“He's on a Safe Haven Enterprise Visa now which means in three years he could be sent back to Afghanistan and if more people know his story it's going to be harder for the government to do that,” she says.

But Abdul gets annoyed at her when she says that.

“It’s not about that at all,” he says. “People need to know what is happening in their backyard.

“People are being tortured, it’s very inhumane and nasty, people need to understand and do something about it if they can.”

Adams doubts the new Prime Minister Morrison will read the book, but she says it was never about politics.

“It’s always been about family … fundamentally that’s what every human needs, that connection to others.”

Unbreakable Threads: The true story of an Australian mother, a refugee boy and what it really means to be a family. By Emma Adams. Allen and Unwin, $32.99.

Unbreakable Threads will be launched at Paperchain Bookstore, Manuka, on September 13 at 6pm.