Seeking refuge and too often alone
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Seeking refuge and too often alone

Who are these much-discussed asylum-seekers who call Australia home, and what are their stories?

Meet Hazara man Ejaz Syed, 24, who fled Pakistan in 2011. He visited the SIEV X refugee memorial in Weston Park on Monday. Comprised of 353 columns, the memorial commemorates the number of lives that were lost when a wooden boat, 'SIEV X', carrying asylum seekers sank in 2001.

Walking past one column marked ''Hajaran Sobie, 10'' - next to what appears to be a family: ''Marva Sobie, 12'', ''Donya Sobie, 14'', and ''Zaynab Sobie, 31'' - Mr Syed quietly says, ''This is normal for me. I saw too many dead bodies. But I still feel sad for them.''

Ejaz Syed, 24 from Quetta, Pakistan, came to Australia by boat in 2011, he stands at the SIEV X (Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel X) memorial at Weston Park, reflecting on the 353 lives that were lost when a refugee vessel sunk in 2001.

Ejaz Syed, 24 from Quetta, Pakistan, came to Australia by boat in 2011, he stands at the SIEV X (Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel X) memorial at Weston Park, reflecting on the 353 lives that were lost when a refugee vessel sunk in 2001.

Photo: Katherine Griffiths

Mr Syed left behind his parents and six siblings to make the complicated journey from Quetta, Pakistan, to Indonesia, where he boarded a 15 by 4 metre boat with 71 other passengers.

''When I first saw [the boat], I thought, 'I will die in that','' he said.

Muqdad Manea Shaheen, 41, from Iraq came to Australia in 2011.

Muqdad Manea Shaheen, 41, from Iraq came to Australia in 2011.

Photo: Katherine Griffiths
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His father arranged for a man to organise his son's journey from Quetta, away from the daily rituals of extremism, bombings and Shia-targeted abuse.

Mr Syed left school at the age of eight to work in his father's shop. He explained how his routine trek to work involved passing a dangerous road on the outskirts of Quetta, where reports of targeted killings were commonplace. ''They just kill us because of our beliefs, because we are not like them,'' he said.

More than 1500 Hazara people have been killed in Quetta since 2000. Some of Mr Syed's friends and family, including two cousins, were among them; others were arrested, or simply disappeared.

''The situation was getting worse and worse every day,'' Mr Syed said. '' 'We don't want to see your dead body,' my father told me. He said, 'you have to leave here'.''

Thich Quang Ba came to Australia in 1983 from Vietnam. In 1984 he started up the Sakyamuni Buddhist Centre in Lyneham which houses refugees in Canberra.

Thich Quang Ba came to Australia in 1983 from Vietnam. In 1984 he started up the Sakyamuni Buddhist Centre in Lyneham which houses refugees in Canberra.

Photo: Katherine Griffiths

Mr Syed described how the small boat that he boarded in Indonesia had engine failure. 'It started filling up with water. After two hours, we lost all hope.'' Shortly after, an Australian navy vessel discovered the stranded Iranian and Pakistani men, women, and their crying children.

''They said, 'who the f--k speaks English?' One man came forward who could speak English, and they told him to 'shut the f--k up'.'' The men also told Mr Syed and the other passengers that they broke the law, and would go to prison.

For Mr Syed, the detention centre at Christmas Island felt ''just like jail''. After spending more than six months in three detention facilities - in Christmas Island, Tasmania, and Darwin - Mr Syed was resettled in Canberra in 2012. He now has permanent residency status, and is hoping to undertake further study.

''First, I want to better my English, and then decide what to study,'' he said.

They said, 'who the f--k speaks English?' One man came forward who could speak English, and they told him to 'shut the f--k up'

Mr Syed doesn't watch TV, because seeing news reports triggers stressful memories, but he heard about the government's PNG policy through Canberra's Hazara community.

He doesn't think it will deter asylum seekers from coming to Australia, and maintains that it would not have affected his decision to leave Pakistan.

''I said, and my parents said, leaving is still better than [Pakistan], even if they put you in jail. When people are living, they just thinking of how to survive.''

''Sometimes, when I miss my family, I regret leaving. But when I see and hear about the killings, I say to myself, 'it's better I'm not there'.''

Sadness and fear

Muqdad Manea Shaheen, 47, an Iraqi refugee who was resettled in Canberra this year, also said that the PNG policy was unlikely to deter people from coming to Australia.

"When you want to move, you compare the situations. If it's better, you go, even if it's to detention centre. Sometimes people have worse conditions," he said.

Mr Shaheen left Iraq as a maligned Communist Party member. He spoke in a quiet voice as he talked about his life in a small town in the Thi Qar province. His father was also a Communist, and he remembers officials from Saddam Hussein's government paying visits to his family home.

His family encouraged him to leave Iraq.

"My father taught us how to avoid problems," he said.

After stints in Jordan, Iran, and China, Mr Shaheen was settled in Perth in 2011. His brother is still in Perth, while his sister is in Sydney.

Mr Shaheen confessed that he was unhappy with his current situation, and is struggling to acclimatise to his new home.

"Never I felt happiness, just sadness and fear in Australia," he said.

Mr Shaheen and Syed are just two of the 779 people who have been settled in Canberra under the humanitarian program between 2008 and 2013. (This figure includes asylum seekers as well as refugees; when approached by The Canberra Times, the Department of Immigration was unable to break down this number).

Anxious to help

One man who is familiar with refugees and asylum seekers in Canberra is Thich Quang Ba, a Vietnamese Buddhist and Abbot of the Sakyamuni Buddhist Temple in Lyneham.

Mr Quang Ba is a refugee who fled Vietnam in 1983 after years of religious persecution. Two jail terms and a government order not to return to his Buddhist temple left him homeless. "I was forced to leave the order," Mr Quang Ba said. "The only way I could maintain my monkhood was to leave the country.

"I was offered a free seat on the boat from a Buddhist family.

"My boat was a small one; it held 42 people. We survived high wind, pirates, and engine failures to reach Malaysia. It took us seven days."

Of the 42 people on board the boat, only 10 were granted refugee status in Australia.

Mr Quang Ba settled in Canberra in 1984, and continued to practise Buddhism. Government funding helped him build the Lyneham temple, which opened in 1989. In the first few years after its inception, Mr Qang Ba would liaise with the Immigration Department to help house Vietnamese asylum seekers and refugees in the temple, helping them to find work, as well as providing food.

These days, there are only a handful of refugees at the temple, mostly from Iraq or Iran.

"I'm really keen to help asylum seekers and I really believe people in Iraq, Iran and so on are under persecution," Mr Qang Ba said. However, he maintained that not everyone who sought asylum in Australia was a refugee as defined by UNHCR standards. "I don't think that 100 per cent of these people are refugees," he said.

Mr Qang Ba said that the government's new resettlement policy would serve to deter boat arrivals. "It is politically clever, but not humanitarian."

For Mr Qang Ba, his time in Australia has been a happy one, and he is now a stalwart member of the Canberra community. Other refugees like Hazara man Mr Syed have experienced mixed receptions to their arrival in Australia.

''I know some people in Australia are not very happy with us,'' Mr Syed said. On a visit to Sydney, he saw graffiti on the back of a toilet door that read 'let the boat people sink'. ''I just think, never mind, let them to say that,'' he shrugged.

At last Saturday's rally for refugees in Woden Square, Mr Syed marched with refugee advocates to chants of ''Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here''.

''I was very pleased to see so many people supporting us. I was happy,'' he said.