"Hope is torture. It has tortured me."
Every time I meet Ali (not his real name), he teaches me about hope. Its follies and dangers, but also its necessity.
Ali is a Rohingya from north-west Myanmar. The international community often regards his people as the most persecuted in the world.
To be a Rohingya is to be beaten, robbed, imprisoned, and erased.
Ali's teachers hit and berated him for no reason. Strangers in the street forced him to do hard labour. His abuse was arbitrary but also systematic: barred from uttering "Rohingya", let alone learning his language or history.
When he was 15, Ali fled for his life. For 12 days he sat in a small boat with 740 others. Such was his thirst that eight years on, Ali cannot sleep without a glass of water by his side.
Police, smugglers, disease, tigers and snakes terrorised him as he crossed Thailand. In Malaysia, Ali resolved to never board a boat again. And yet he did.
He set off from Indonesia in a rickety boat with children much younger than him. They were intercepted by the Australian navy, but days passed before they were rescued from the brink of drowning.
Ali spent 2013 in detention.
Now, on a temporary visa, he calls Canberra "home". Recently, when I discovered that Ali could apply for permanent residency, I exclaimed "That's great! Now you have hope!"
That's when he said it: "Hope is torture. It has tortured me."
From his journey, Ali learnt that misguided hopes, in humanity, law or faith, further exposed him to harsh realities. And false hopes only prolonged and exacerbated his suffering.
Thus, Ali is no optimist. In fact, the colloquial distinction between optimism and pessimism does not apply to him, because Ali's glass has never had much in it.
Despite this, Ali has hope. Patiently, he strives to build a life here, to protect his family who were displaced to Bangladesh, with the dream of someday reuniting with them. "Sometimes it seems unrealistic," he acknowledges, "but I need to have this dream."
Hope, notes Ali, should be embedded in reality. So too in the famous 2008 "Hope" poster by artist Shepard Fairey, Barack Obama is not beaming. Nor are his eyes glazed over. He is pensive and aware of the challenges and nastiness that await.
Ali's hope is full of grit. While being strong in faith, Ali learnt from a young age that he could not rely on a promised life if he were to endure this one. During his journey across south-east Asia he learnt about the price of things, weather systems, forming alliances and how to make do with only one shirt and one pair of pants.
He realised that the smallest misstep might lead to his demise, but also that his greatest efforts might amount to naught. The absurdity of existence is evident in Ali's guilt at surviving.
"Somehow, I have had better chances than others," he says. "I have met people smarter than me, better educated, and from better families. They tried to do the same thing as me: look for the same future. Where are they now?"
Lost at sea or in prison.
A Nazi death camp survivor and Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at the University of Vienna, Viktor Frankl, spent much of his life researching what keeps people going in the most trying, unjust and absurd of circumstances.
For Frankl, "hope" and "meaning" were made from the same stuff. He drew upon Nietzsche's saying: "Whoever has a why to live can bear almost any how."
Frankl argued that we develop our whys in three interrelated ways.
Firstly, meaning and hope requires action. It is made rather than received. Frankl was especially interested in acts that bring art to life. It might mean quilting, cooking, painting, singing, or building an outdoor deck. Almost any vessel of expression and understanding can give us hope, provided we earnestly invest ourselves in it.
Ali is thus determined to tell the story of his ordeal even though it is at times painful. "The Andaman Sea, the Burma-Thai border, is one of the busiest migration routes in the world," he says. "People have died, are dying, and will die there. We only see headlines. We never hear from these migrants. This is not only my story."
Secondly, for Frankl, meaning was derived from life's experiences, and especially our loving experiences. It can come from a leisurely walk that connects us with nature, but is especially powerful in our connections with others.
Meaning, like hope, fosters courage in ourselves and in those around us. Ali could not have escaped and survived on his own. A handful of cousins and friends drove him on when he was resigned to death. He too encouraged them through their despair. He often describes himself as "lucky" to have them.
Just as important to Ali's hope is his devotion to his family, who risked everything so that he might be free.
"My greatest worry," he reveals to me, "was that my parents would not know how I died and would forever wait for me."
Thirdly, meaning is attitudinal and emerges from our engagement with suffering. For Frankl, the shock of crashing into barriers and learning our limits could spur inner strength and self-awareness.
"Every single minute has been interesting," says Ali, reflecting upon his ordeals. "It is a big life experience. It makes you different. Wiser. More resourceful. You find out what you're made of."
With hope, we can face the stark realties of 2020 and beyond, acknowledging that while we cannot avoid suffering, we can strive to make it meaningful.
- Kim Huynh teaches refugee politics at the Australian National University and hosts ABC Radio Canberra's Sunday Brunch program, which features Ali's story.