Fate of Vietnamese asylum seeker children hangs in the balance

EXCLUSIVE: Fate of Vietnamese asylum seeker children hangs in the balance
Shira Sebban 16 March 2017, 3:30pm

Vietnamese asylum seeker children in Indonesia2

‘What will happen to the 12 children caught up in this saga? At worst, they will be returned to Vietnam, where their mothers risk longer prison sentences as repeat offenders under the Vietnamese penal code.’ (Image supplied)

I HAD BEGGED THEM never to try to reach Australia by boat from Vietnam again. Through an interpreter, I had warned them about our country’s tough border protection policies and we had made it clear that any money raised was to be used to feed, clothe and educate their children in Vietnam.

They had agreed, sending messages of gratitude, or photos of their children with their new school supplies, each time we transferred a few hundred dollars from the online crowd funds launched last year.

So when they embarked on their second attempt to seek asylum in Australia, they did not tell us.

All we knew was that they had disappeared from Facebook and were no longer answering their phones. Concerned, we asked their lawyer, Don An Vo, to find out what happened.

Imagine our shock to read his announcement that three failed asylum seeker families, including 12 children, had fled Vietnam again and were heading for Australia.

As it turns out, they never made it here. Ten days into their journey, the engine failed, their boat hitting rocks and beginning to sink. Rescued off the Java coast by Indonesian authorities, they have since been interviewed by the UNHCR and are applying for refugee status in Indonesia.

Tran Thi Thanh Loan and her four children made headlines last year when she lost her appeal against a three-year jail sentence imposed by the Vietnamese government for helping organise an “illegal departure” to Australia in the family-owned fishing boat in March 2015. Her children, aged 4-16, were set to be forced to leave school and live in an orphanage, their father, Ho Trung Loi, having already received a two-year sentence. He is not due for release until April 2017, although that now appears out of the question.

The Vietnamese authorities have said “he will never be released unless we return,” Loan said from the Indonesian motel where she and her children are staying.
Loan continued:

“At first they told him we died at sea because the boat sank. He nearly went crazy with grief. Then they put him in solitary confinement, refusing to let my sister visit or send him food or medicine. She had to bribe them to see him and only managed to say we are safe before the police took him away. They told the family he will be punished for ‘my mistake’ and so we believe he may be beaten.”
Loi has since been moved to a harsher prison in the Vietnamese jungle, where he is forced to do hard labour and is not given enough to eat, Loan alleged.

She accused the Vietnamese police of “terrorising” her extended family, preventing them from operating their fruit stall:

“I’m worried the police will destroy their only source of income as pay-back and to ensure they have no money to help me and provide for my husband.”
Pressure had been mounting on Loan in the weeks leading up to her decision to flee. Also among the group of 18 asylum seekers is mother-of-three, Tran Thi Lua, who last year too lost her appeal against a 30-month jail sentence for helping organise another “illegal” departure to Australia in July 2015.

While the two women had been granted a temporary reprieve, they were both facing imminent, lengthy sentences.

“They asked what would happen if they went back to Australia,” Doan Viet Trung, president of Vietnamese human rights organisation, VOICE Australia, said.

children in Indonesia1

The children in Indonesia (Image supplied)

He added:

“I told them they’d be sent back or detained indefinitely. Lately they expressed fears that when in jail they’ll be beaten badly for speaking out, officials have threatened them so. I told them they should record the threats to show their fears are grounded. Lua told me she had recorded something.”
Both women had also told their lawyer Vo they would rather commit suicide by jumping into the sea than be jailed in Vietnam. Lua had already spent ten weeks in prison in 2015, before being charged, which had traumatised her, describing being beaten and sworn at by female guards, who forced prisoners to drink, wash and cook with filthy water.

The Vietnamese court has now revoked its deferral of the two women’s jail terms, so if they are returned, they will go straight to prison.

Since mid-2016, I have been in regular contact with both women, having started online crowd funds to help their families, who were among 113 Vietnamese asylum seekers intercepted in three incidents by the Australian Navy over the past two years. Assessed at sea and found not to warrant protection, they were forcibly returned after the Australian Government received written assurance from its Vietnamese counterpart that returnees would not be punished. Several members of the three groups have since been incarcerated.

Last December, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton signed a formal agreement with Vietnam’s Public Security Minister Colonel General To Lam to return “Vietnamese nationals with no legal right to enter or remain in Australia”.

What will happen to the 12 children caught up in this saga? At worst, they will be returned to Vietnam, where their mothers risk longer prison sentences as repeat offenders under the Vietnamese penal code. At best, they could be detained in legal limbo in Indonesia, unable to work or study.

An apparently hopeless choice made by increasingly desperate parents in the face of Australian intransigence, with fewer options now available to asylum seekers in what certainly seems to be a harsher world.

https://independentaustralia.net/australia/australia-display/exclusive-fate-of-vietnamese-asylum-seeker-children-hangs-in-the-balance,10117

You can read more by Shira Sebban at shirasebban.wordpress.com.

How asylum seekers are treated in the Australian court system- my latest article published in Eureka Street

Asylum seeker’s long wait for judgement day
Shira Sebban | 17 October 2016

https://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=50089#.WAXxbjJ7HXT

Close-up. Arrested man handcuffed hands at the back

Finally he is having his day in court. After 13 months languishing in limbo in immigration detention, he has been given the opportunity to be heard. Hopefully, it won’t be long now before his case is determined and his torment resolved.

Or so I originally thought. But in today’s Australia, asylum seekers are not treated the same way as you or me. Not only must they not commit a criminal offence, but ‘all adult illegal maritime arrivals’ have to sign a strict code of behaviour, which describes the high standards they are expected to maintain at all times.

It expressly stipulates, for example, that they not ‘engage in any anti-social or disruptive activities that are inconsiderate, disrespectful or threaten the peaceful enjoyment of other members of the community’. An ostensible breach, no matter how minor, can lead to the cancellation of their bridging visa and indefinite detention.

His trial date was set long ago. For months he has been agonising over its possible outcome. At the same time, he knows he is one of the lucky ones. Having ‘arrived illegally by boat’ in late 2012, at least his protection visa application is well under way — unlike later arrivals who have no chance of receiving such an invitation at all.

Moreover, assessed as ‘exceptionally vulnerable’, he has been fortunate enough to qualify for legal funding. His supporters — friends he made while living in the community or those, like me, who visit him regularly in detention — have cobbled together a suit, shirt and tie, belt and shoes, for his court appearance, replacing his detention centre standard-issue attire of tracksuit or t-shirt and shorts.

He scrubs up well, I think, when I see him for the first time — not as originally planned in the courtroom itself, but in the bowels of the building where, handcuffed and accompanied by two immigration detention centre guards, he has been confined for the second day in a row to a tiny cold cell behind glass.

I stand cramped with another supporter in the doorway, as his solicitor attempts to comfort him, assuring him that permission has been sought from the judge to allow him to come upstairs. After all, he is technically out on bail.

At least he is now in the courthouse. That morning as I rushed to meet him at the appointed time, he had called me from the detention centre. Apparently, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection had not notified the centre authorities that he was expected in court that day and so no provision had been made to drive him there.

His barrister having successfully obtained an adjournment to the afternoon, he is eventually accorded the dignity of sitting in the courtroom like a human being. But there is another problem: his lawyers have not even had the opportunity to confer with their client face-to-face until now.

In a humane gesture, the judge offers them the use of the courtroom, retiring to his chambers until they are ready to proceed. The rest of the day passes in a flurry of discussion — everyone is aware that the precious days allotted to his court case are fast slipping away. If a way forward is not agreed upon soon, a new trial date will need to be found, which, given the busy court schedule, would mean a delay until some time next year, while he continues to wait in detention.

By the end of the afternoon, a resolution has still not been reached and it is agreed that he will need to be brought back to court for a third day. His lawyers appeal directly to the guards that tomorrow he be escorted to the courtroom as the judge has requested, rather than confined to a cell.

‘You will need to put your request in writing,’ comes the reply. Despite the lawyers’ insistence that they have sent countless such email requests, it is apparent that unless the judge’s instruction is clearly stipulated, the all-powerful Immigration Department may choose not to comply. After all, the protections provided by Australian law do not apply to immigration detainees, even if they have not been convicted of a crime.

Meanwhile like any accused, it has not been easy to live with his fate hanging in the balance. For him, however, the stakes are even higher. While he knows he can only ever be granted a temporary protection visa, the court case has introduced yet another uncertainty. How will it affect his chances of being allowed to stay, if only for a relatively short while?

Only time will tell. For now, all he can do is wait.

 

Saving The World, One Life At A Time

Vietnamese refugees flee after the fall of Saigon in 1975. This image was taken from the ship USS Midway, and is part of the Mike Baxter collection.

Saving The World, One Life At A Time
By Shira Sebban

New Matilda, October 15, 2016 Asylum Seekers

https://newmatilda.com/2016/10/15/saving-the-world-one-life-at-a-time/

Social media may have changed the world, but it’s also made campaigning to make at least one life better a genuine reality, writes Shira Sebban.

I recently started an online crowd fund to help the families of two Vietnamese citizens, sentenced to jail for trying to seek asylum in Australia. Between them, they have five children aged 4-14, none of whom will be able to attend school without the help of Australian donors.

Mother of three, Tran Thi Lua, has lost her appeal against a 30-month jail sentence imposed by the Vietnamese government for helping organise an “illegal departure” to Australia in a fishing boat last year.

Lua’s case has been complicated by the subsequent arrest of her husband, Nguyen Long, by Indonesian authorities, who accuse him of fishing in their waters. He has been detained in Indonesia, his boat and gear confiscated.

Meanwhile, the father of the other two children, Nguyen Minh Quyet, who skippered the boat on its ill-fated Australian journey in July 2015, has lost the use of both his legs while detained in jail in Vietnam.

“The prison officers refused to allow him medical treatment,” his wife, Pham Thi Thu Thanh, said. “When I protested and demanded he be taken to hospital, they threatened to paralyse his arms if I would not shut up.”

While Quyet has also lost his appeal, he has been allowed to remain at home, cared for by his wife, until he is well enough to return to jail to complete his two-year sentence.

As an Australian, I feel morally responsible for the families of these asylum seekers, who were abandoned to such a harsh fate by our government. They were among the 92 Vietnamese intercepted in two separate incidents by the Australian navy last year.

Assessed at sea and found not to warrant protection, they were forcibly returned after the Australian government received written assurance from its Vietnamese counterpart that returnees would not be punished.

Several members of the two groups have since been incarcerated. Undaunted, Australian authorities have continued to return Vietnamese intercepted in the Timor Sea under the government’s Turn Back the Boats policy.

In the face of continued government intractability, it is easy to feel overwhelmed: what can one person do to help? For help I must.

True, in the current political climate, I often feel as if I am in the minority, with most Australians seeming to agree with our government’s stance, adamant that “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances under which they come”. Whatever happened to befriending the stranger?

Thanks to the generosity of some fellow Australians from various cultural backgrounds and walks of life, I was recently able to send $1,500 to each family to help pay for school fees and other expenses, only to discover that the donation had attracted the attention of the Vietnamese police.

mrs-lua-and-familyMrs Lua and her family, pictured in Vietnam recently.

“They keep coming to my house to ask me about the money,” Lua said. “They ask where it comes from, what it’s for, who sent it. I told the police that it’s from foreigners who feel sorry for my situation and decided to help me so my children can go to school.”

To make matters worse, she maintains that the police have now prevented her from going to the beach to dig for clams to sell at the market, which has been her only source of income since her husband was detained in Indonesia. “I asked them why people from overseas would help me, while the Vietnamese government does nothing to help and even causes more problems…. It makes me very upset that foreigners care so much, yet the government sees them as enemies.”

Lua is only too aware how her jail sentence will impact on her children’s future, depriving them of education and work opportunities. “In Vietnam if one person commits what is considered to be a crime, the whole family pays.”

Both Lua and Thanh are now too scared to talk to me, the police having come to their homes to threaten that if they continue to speak to people overseas who will say “bad things” about the government online, then both of them will be taken to jail immediately.

The police intervention, however, has made me only more determined to help these families. It all started two months ago, when I first decided to take action, running an online fundraising campaign in support of the family of another Vietnamese failed asylum seeker. More than a hundred fellow Australians contributed to raise over $10,000 to prevent four children from having to leave school and live in an orphanage.

The children, aged 4-16, had seemingly been condemned to a dismal future after their mother, Tran Thi Thanh Loan, lost her appeal for leniency on the basis of being their sole carer.

She was set to begin a three-year jail sentence following the attempt to seek asylum in Australia. Their father, Ho Trung Loi, was already serving a two-year sentence in a jail seven hours’ drive from the family’s home and is not due for release until mid-2017. Maintaining that no-one in her family could afford to look after the children, Loan was told they should leave school and go to an orphanage.

Unable to bear the thought of this family suffering even more, and not wanting to see them further torn apart, I decided to contact their lawyer, Don An Vo, in Vietnam via Facebook, to ask how much it would cost each month for the extended family to care for the children until their father’s release from jail next year.

According to Loan, the family originally left Vietnam because the state had seized their land, they had lost their livelihood due to Chinese incursions into fishing grounds, and also because of institutionalised discrimination against Catholics. While Australian authorities claim they were fairly assessed, she said a translator was not provided for the group, none of whom spoke English. They only realised they were being returned when they reached port in Vietnam.

Initially too embarrassed to accept help, Loan calculated her children’s living and education expenses to be around AUD$425 per month, or about $5,000 for the year. Within a few weeks we had raised more than double than amount, thereby ensuring not only that Loan’s children are well provided for, but also that their parents can get back on their feet once they are released from jail.

The good news is that following an international public backlash, Loan has been granted a temporary reprieve, her sentence delayed for one year until her husband’s release. Her lawyer has since put me in touch with the families of other failed asylum seekers.

I had never believed before that one person could really make a difference. But social media has changed that, as has the possibility of making personal contact with asylum seekers, whether online or face-to-face.

A drop in the ocean? Perhaps, but we cannot give up. For as the ancients taught, “whoever saves a life is considered as if they saved an entire world”.

My latest article on how asylum seekers are treated in our detention centres

Forging friendships in adversity

By Shira Sebban – posted Wednesday, 31 August 2016

They are a disparate, albeit tight-knit group. Laughing and chatting, they take up an entire long table, crowded together, as they eat their chicken curry customarily with their hands, the delectable aroma wafting through the air of the low security reception area.

The chef sits among them, her long, green manicured nails gleaming. The loyal, indefatigable partner of one of the detainees, she visits him and their friends daily, bringing in the traditional Sri Lankan Tamil dishes, which she cooks at home so they can enjoy a communal meal … until she was banned from Villawood Immigration Detention Centre for a month. Her crime? Apparently, she was preparing such generous quantities that the men could not finish all the food. Reluctant to let it go to waste, they were trying to sneak the leftovers into their rooms, which is against centre rules.

“Never mind,” she tells me when I commiserate with her, “I’ll be able to get some rest now”. Over the next month she continues to prepare the curries as usual, only now giving them to a friend to take in on her behalf.

Once, arriving early, I enter the reception area to find myself surrounded by a sea of welcoming faces. I am accompanying their queen, after all, who is temporarily on crutches following surgery. This is her first visit after ten days convalescing alone at home, supported by nuns and church group volunteers: Having befriended her at the centre, they have been driving her to medical appointments and bringing her meals several times a week.

Apologising for not having responded to messages, she explains her phone was stolen, a thief having broken into her apartment. Still unable to cook, she has brought in three pizzas and a couple of small plastic bottles of coke for the detainees to enjoy, complying with centre requirements restricting the amount of liquid allowed.

A guard approaches. “Are all these people on your list?” she asks officiously. Detainees are only allowed into the reception area if their names are recorded on a visitors application form at least 24 hours ahead of time, with a limit of four detainees per visitor. “There are only two of you and there are far too many Indians in this room.” She gestures to the crowd of men waiting patiently behind the glass door behind us. “They’ll have to wait until someone else arrives.”

A few minutes later, she returns with the identity card of a Middle Eastern man whom I recognise. “Is he on your list too?” she asks. An affirmative response makes no difference – he still has to wait until the next visitor arrives before being allowed to join us.

One of the Tamil detainees has grown a heavy beard since my last visit. Normally impeccably neat, I originally did not feel comfortable asking this slender, soft-spoken man why he is no longer shaving, only to discover that this is his way of protesting: Try as he might, he has been unable to obtain security clearance to visit a lonely Sri Lankan friend, confined to a psychiatric hospital. The following week, the beard has vanished: a fellow detainee has told him his appearance is not appropriate in polite company, although permission to visit his friend has still not been granted.

Visitors and detainees alike, hailing from across the third world, gather to sing happy birthday to the queen’s partner. The church volunteers have baked a cake – cream sponge covered in hundreds and thousands – multiculturalism is alive and well in the detention centre too.

The young couple joins in the celebrations. They have been separated by the Immigration Department for over 18 months since he was detained, his temporary bridging visa cancelled for having ostensibly breached the Code of Behaviour.

Depicted as a promise to respect Australian laws and values, the Code, which “all adult illegal maritime arrivals” must sign, was first introduced in late 2013 to alleviate concerns that asylum seekers on bridging visas were allegedly committing criminal offences. It describes how they are expected to behave, expressly stipulating, for example, that asylum seekers not “engage in any anti-social or disruptive activities that are inconsiderate, disrespectful or threaten the peaceful enjoyment of other members of the community”.

In other words, unlike Australian citizens, an asylum seeker can be detained for anything from a traffic infringement to spitting in public or hosting a noisy party.

Once detained, it can take a long time for a case to go through the courts. Even if an asylum seeker is ultimately found to be innocent, they still need to apply for a new visa, involving an interview, more paperwork and indefinite waiting.

One day, hopefully life will resume once more – with one difference: the couple plans to take in at least one of the other men they have befriended in detention. As 19th century English Reverend Charles Caleb Colton said: “The firmest friendships have been formed in mutual adversity, as iron is most strongly united by the fiercest flame.”

About the Author

Shira Sebban is a Sydney writer and editor. A former journalist with the Australian Jewish News, Shira previously taught French at the University of Queensland and worked in publishing. She is also a director on the board of her children’s school.

Other articles by this Author

» Uniting the generations – November 15, 2013
» For the joy of it – June 24, 2013
» Making the most of life – May 22, 2013
» Living between the devil and the deep blue sea – February 21, 2013
» The life in our years – February 5, 2013

My article about helping the family of failed Vietnamese asylum seekers published in the Guardian

Australian immigration and asylum Opinion
We’re a disparate group of Australians doing the work our government won’t
Shira Sebban

When I heard that a woman who attempted to seek asylum in Australia but had her boat returned to Vietnam was about to be sent to jail, leaving her kids with no parent and facing life in an orphanage, I started a crowd fund

Mrs Loan and her youngest daughter selling fruit in the market
‘Tran Thi Thanh Loan earns a few dollars a day by buying fruit from local orchards, which she sells in front of her parents’ home.’ Photograph: Supplied by Shira Sebban

Wednesday 24 August 2016 15.27 AEST Last modified on Friday 26 August 2016 09.21 AEST
The four children of a Vietnamese woman, who will be sent to jail for trying to seek asylum in Australia, were set to be forced to leave school and live in an orphanage. But the Australian people have done something the Australian government couldn’t – or wouldn’t – and have raised enough money to ensure the children can stay at school and be cared for by relatives.

The mother of the children, failed asylum-seeker Tran Thi Thanh Loan, is set to begin a three-year jail sentence imposed by the Vietnamese government for helping organise an “illegal departure” to Australia in the family-owned fishing boat last year. Their father, Ho Trung Loi, is already serving a two-year sentence following the attempt to seek asylum in Australia – in a jail seven hours’ drive from the family’s home – and is not due for release until mid-2017.

Loan recently lost her appeal for leniency on the basis of being the sole carer of her four children, aged from 4 to 16. Maintaining that no one in her family could afford to look after them, she was told they should leave school and go to an orphanage.

“They have been crying a lot and clinging to me,” she told the Australian. “My youngest child keeps saying ‘Mummy, don’t go’. My older children are worried. They feel the pressure and are scared of having neither parent around. They have asked if they can be sent to prison with me.”

I could not bear the thought of this family suffering even more and did not want to see them further torn apart. So I decided to try and contact the family’s lawyer, Don An Vo, in Vietnam to ask him how much it would cost each month in order for the extended family to care for the children until their father’s release from jail next year.

The family was among the 92 Vietnamese asylum seekers intercepted in two separate incidents by the Australian navy last year. Assessed at sea and found not to warrant protection, they were forcibly returned after the Australian government received written assurance from its Vietnamese counterpart that returnees would not be punished. Several members of the two groups have since been incarcerated.

Mrs Loan's children with their new school purchases

The children of Tran Thi Thanh Loan, pictured with their new school purchases made from funds provided by a crowd fund in Australia. Photograph: Tran Thi Thanh Loan
According to Loan, the family originally left because the state had seized their land, they had lost their livelihood due to Chinese incursions into fishing grounds, and also because of institutionalised discrimination against Catholics. While Australian authorities claim they were fairly assessed, she said that a translator was not provided for the group, none of whom spoke English. They only realised they were being returned when they reached port in Vietnam.

Via Facebook and the help of a friend of the family’s lawyer, I was able to get in touch with Vo and Loan. Initially, Loan was too embarrassed to accept any help, but finally convinced by her lawyer, she calculated that her children’s living and education expenses amount to 7,000,000 Vietnamese dong per month, which is roughly equivalent to AUD$425, or about $5,000 for the year. But there was another complication – she did not have a bank account and would need to open one before I could send the first monthly payment.

There have been several reports in the media about these failed asylum seekers being sent to prison despite assurances to Australian officials they would not be punished. So far, the Australian government seems not to have done anything about this injustice. Indeed, Australian authorities have continued to return Vietnamese intercepted in the Timor Sea. That’s why I decided I had to step in.

I had never believed before that one person could really make a difference. But social media has changed that. Earlier this month, I launched an online fundraising campaign for Loan’s children, with the target amount of $10,000 in order to ensure not only that they are well provided for but also that their parents are able to get back on their feet once they are released from jail. We are well on the way to achieving our goal. We are a disparate group from various cultural backgrounds and walks of life doing the work that our government won’t.

Loan has told me that she and her children are currently living with her parents after her house was destroyed and land confiscated by the Vietnamese government. She earns a few dollars a day by buying fruit from local orchards, which she sells in front of her parents’ home until lunchtime. She moves to another site in the afternoon, for which she pays rent, in order to sell the rest at a lower price because it is no longer as fresh. The good news is she has just been granted a temporary reprieve, her sentence delayed for one year until her husband is released from jail.

“Your help and kindness has made me feel much more confident and less stressed now,” Loan wrote recently on Facebook. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart for helping my family.”

Article about refugees now on Eureka Street

Humanity meets bureaucracy on asylum seeker Fast Track
Shira Sebban | 14 August 2016

‘I just want to lead a normal life like everyone else in this room.’ Sobs rack his body as he pleads with the immigration officer on whom his fate largely depends.

Hand writes in notebook It is hard to believe that this nondescript civil servant has so much power. Clad in a jumper, briefcase in tow, he looks more like a suburban accountant than an authority figure.

Yet, under the Fast Track Assessment process now being used to clear the backlog of protection claims, he, or a fellow Australian Immigration and Border Protection officer, will most likely be the one to decide whether the trembling man seated opposite him will be allowed to stay, albeit temporarily, or forced to return ‘home’ or to a ‘safe third country’ where he has ‘right of entry’.

‘Should you be found not to engage Australia’s protection obligations, the government may share your biographical details with the authorities of your country of origin,’ the official intones.

‘If you give them information about me I will be killed,’ comes the chilling reply.

His support person can do nothing. She is not allowed to speak. Sitting beside the man she has come to consider a friend, she hopes that somehow she can give him the strength to endure this ordeal. As he strives to answer the probing questions about his tormented past, his growing distress is evident. He cannot help but relive the harrowing experiences of his youth.

‘Is this you?’ the official asks, thrusting a document in front of him. The photo is of a young, proud and handsome man. ‘You look very different now.’
The support person asks permission to leave the room to bring him some tissues. Upon returning, she sits there, hand over mouth in shock. While she has been visiting him in detention for six months, he has never told her the extent of his family’s suffering under the Iranian regime.

“She asks a guard if he can see his psychologist, and fortunately, her request is granted. A fellow applicant was not so lucky: told after his interview that he was to be moved to Christmas Island, he slit his throat.”

True, he had shared memories of the Iran-Iraq War, recalling rockets and warplanes overhead and being bundled into an open car boot with his siblings as the family made their escape. His hometown of Khorramshahr in Khuzestan Province, located in southwestern Iran near the Iraq border, was devastated, the 1986 census recording no one remaining from a pre-War population of about 150,000.

He had told her that Ahwazi Arabs — the largest Arab minority in Iran, who reside predominantly in resource-laden Khuzestan — are marginalised as impoverished, second-class citizens. Their oil-rich and fertile ancestral lands are expropriated without compensation, and their water supply diverted and polluted, depriving them of clean drinking water, even though they live in one of the hottest populated places on earth.

But she did not know about the arrest, torture and public execution of family members; the beatings he endured — to the point that his own mother did not recognise him — and his jail sentence for fighting for his people’s political, economic and cultural rights; the hiding from authorities; his desperate escape when, helped by friends, he fled by plane to Malaysia and then by boat to Indonesia and on to Australia. By then, he no longer had a passport, Malaysian people smugglers having broken their promise to return it. He recalls the 14-day passage to Australia as a nightmare: seriously ill from the diesel fumes, he was grateful to be rescued by the Australian Maritime Authority and taken to Christmas Island.

As far as the Australian Government is concerned, that fateful journey deems him to be an ‘illegal maritime arrival’. Fast Track is expressly for the approximately 30,500 ‘people who arrived illegally by boat’ between August 2012 and December 2013. They are the lucky ones, who can still be invited to apply for a temporary protection visa. Those who arrived later will not be granted a visa at all.

The immigration official claims to know about the Ahwazi Arabs’ plight, and is more interested in whether he can provide ‘genuine, original’ documented evidence of his ‘identity, nationality and citizenship’. After all, this is probably his only chance to provide his protection claim in full.

Alternating between Farsi and English, he does his best to comply, producing a file, which the migration agent sitting next to him has helped to compile. He knows he is fortunate: only those assessed as ‘exceptionally vulnerable’ are now eligible for legal funding. When he has difficulty understanding, he relies on the translation provided by the interpreter seated at the end of the table. Coolly elegant, the young, sophisticated woman, originally from Teheran, seems worlds apart from her fellow countryman, with little in common aside from their shared language.

In contrast, the support person recalls having an immediate affinity with this charming, soft-spoken man whom she visits each week. Enriched by their friendship, she admires his resilience, his efforts to improve, learning English and updating his professional qualifications online. Yet, as he often reminds her, ‘You have the advantages of education and freedom.’

Finally, the interview ends. He is emotionally spent. The process has been respectful, if dispassionate, his story finally heard. Promising to send the required character references, he gets up to return to his room. The support person cannot leave him like this: he is too vulnerable, his reopened wounds too raw. She asks a guard if he can see his psychologist, and fortunately, her request is granted. A fellow applicant was not so lucky: told after his interview that he was to be moved to Christmas Island, he slit his throat. ‘There’s only so much a person can take,’ he explained while recovering.

Weeks pass in a flurry of activity as final documentation is supplied. Intended to process claims ‘more efficiently’, Fast Track only allows limited time to respond.

Gradually he stops asking for advice. Life returns to what passes as normal in the surreal world of the detention centre. He resumes his activities — exercise, reading, eating, sleeping — some detainees call it ‘time-wasting’ — while he waits in limbo.

Fear of uncertainty still troubles him: what if his application is refused? She strives to offer comfort: under Fast Track, he may still get a second chance, with some rejected claims referred for limited review by the recently established Immigration Assessment Authority. Hopefully, he will be recognised as a refugee and granted a temporary visa. Then he too will be able to realise his dream to live in freedom, if only for a short while. For as the government constantly reminds us: ‘Settlement in Australia will never be an option for anyone who travels illegally by boat.’

Shira Sebban is a Sydney writer and editor, passionate about exploring the challenges life throws at us through her writing. A former journalist, she previously taught French and worked in publishing.

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Fanning the Flames: My Portrait of My Grandfather just published on Biostories.com

Featured Essay

Fanning the Flames

by Shira Sebban

“How are you, Saba?”

“I? I am old.”

This question and answer routine would be repeated each morning like a familiar ritual when we would ring to check on the “Old Boy” as he was affectionately known, who still lived alone in a flat nearby.

I assume he appreciated our concern, although he never said so. Still we need not have worried … not then. Relishing the solitude that enabled him to read, think and write—so long as it was interspersed with alternate dinners at his son’s and daughter’s homes each evening—he was keen to preserve his autonomy for as long as possible.

Until well into his eighties, Saba (Hebrew for grandfather) would continue his exercise and diet regime, doing daily sit-ups and stretches, taking afternoon naps, munching on carrot and celery sticks, and preserving prunes in jars, which took up almost all-available bench space in his kitchen, be it at home in Melbourne, Australia, or wherever he was living overseas. I can still recall our family kitchen in London, filled to overflowing with my grandfather’s preserves, his snores emanating from the tiny bedroom next to the one I shared with my sister.

Not to say, however, that he lacked a sweet tooth. He could whip up a mean trifle and revelled in long smorgasbord lunches at fancy hotels, where he would indulge in chocolate éclairs and other treats, acknowledging his diabetes by popping a sweetener into the habitual tea with lemon he drank after every meal.

Lemons were so important to him that when he was asked to look after us as teenagers while our parents were overseas, he would dutifully arrive each evening for dinner and promptly disappear outside to water the lemon tree, which he believed would prevent the fruit’s skin from thickening. In the morning, he would depart for the peace and quiet of his apartment again, where he could spend the day in undisturbed contemplation.

Classical music was his constant companion, be it tapes he had made himself or the local classical music public radio station, with which he had a love-hate relationship, railing against the “moaning and groaning of illiterate so-called contemporary composers.” In one letter to the station, he urged such composers to test their claim to have popular support within the open market rather than “bludge on the public purse and coerce the people to listen to their incompetent noise-making.”

He was also partial to international melodramas, often joining the family in front of the television after dinner, when he would walk around jangling keys and loose change in his pockets during particularly tense moments. Keen to avoid confrontation whenever possible, he would burst into song—usually the old Russian folk tune Ochi chyomye (“Dark Eyes”)—whenever a family disagreement arose, which did not involve him.

Every so often, craving intellectual companionship, Saba would pack a bag, sling it over his shoulder, and head off overseas to Europe, his old home in Israel, or the United States, where cousins, who had survived the horrors of the Holocaust, were scattered. He would visit each in turn, and they would host family dinners in his honor and write him letters in English, Hebrew, Yiddish or Polish when he was back in Melbourne, sharing how they had delighted in his company.

During these trips, which could last several months or sometimes even years, he would commune with philosophers and historians at academic institutions in London, Boston, or Tel Aviv or on long walks through the Austrian Alps, even though he himself had not had a formal secular education and, to the envy of his grandchildren, had never even sat an exam.

He strove to cultivate a personal relationship with us from a young age too, asking for letters from each of his six grandchildren while he was overseas. If we were remiss in writing, he would remind our parents that we owed him a letter, and he liked nothing better than to respond to our questions, the more philosophical the better. I revelled in his attention—especially on the rare occasions when I was fortunate enough to join him on his travels—and placed him on a pedestal: my wise Saba could do no wrong.

Blessed with an inquiring and incisive mind, an insatiable desire for knowledge, and a photographic memory, he would peruse erudite tomes on a wealth of subjects in second-hand bookstores, sending crates of books back home, where he would autograph and catalogue them as part of his own library or distribute them as gifts to family and friends. As he explained in a letter to his daughter, “I will at least leave an inheritance, not in diamonds and jade, but in books, which were costly to me not only in money but in time and effort.”

I treasure that inheritance today, my study’s shelves arrayed with books my Saba gave me. The one I value most is his personal copy of The Book of Jewish Knowledge, an encyclopaedia of Jewish learning from the 1960s, which he presented to my husband and me during his last visit to our home, scraps of paper still marking the pages most important to him.

When bestowing a book as a gift, he would always include an inscription, ranging from a birthday wish or expression of love to an elaborate desire for social cohesion. The dedication on our last gift reads: “Wishing you success and a humane understanding of the kindness and social variety of others. Best wishes from an old octogenarian. Saba.” For he strongly believed that everyday human relations should be conducted with empathy, truth, and love.

During his travels, he would occasionally purchase a work of art for himself or as a gift. He thought that while art appreciation is subject to individual taste and values, “striving to enjoy art in all its forms” helps “a civilized person to cultivate a taste for aesthetics and so foster an understanding of beauty.”

As he wrote to my parents after buying them an antique Tibetan Buddha in Spain, “Art objects should serve as a means to inspire the most lofty thoughts. But should a collection serve only as an accumulation of wealth or to show off, to my mind it is wrong.”

The patriarch of the family, Saba would preside over gatherings, regaling the table with such passions as the problems of justice and of individual freedom within the rule of law. I recall many festive dinners where the extended family would gather around the long dining room table with my grandfather at the head expounding his views. No two dinners were alike, as he could be relied upon to present his arguments from multiple angles.

Fundamentally, he believed we all face a personal choice between leading an autonomous life of rationality, integrity, and dignity in the human world of ideas or a life of emotion, imitation, and subservience in what he termed “the domesticated animal kingdom.” As he wrote to a friend, “Does a man act out of rational argument or is man an animal whose elected shepherds know best what is good for him?”

Alternatively, he might have been keen to discuss what he had read that particular day which, given his eclectic interests, could range from a biography of Galileo Galilei, or the writings of Bertrand Russell, to biblical commentaries on Abraham, Moses, or Samuel, various newspaper articles, which he would mark for others to read, or even an account of the Shakers, a utopian Christian sect, some of whose former American settlements he visited and whose virtual demise fascinated him. Even while on an otherwise disappointing holiday in Tahiti, he derived enjoyment from reading daily doses from a volume of Albert Einstein’s essays, which he had happened to pick up at the Sydney airport.

Anyone brave enough to attempt an answer to what Saba meant as a rhetorical question would usually be met with a resounding “no” or, far less frequently, an “oh” in agreement (both words pronounced with a short ‘o’ sound) and a lengthy, passionate exposition of his views. Yet he did not lack for sparring partners.

“How do you know that you know?” “What do you mean by God?” Influenced by the late eminent philosopher of science, Sir Karl Popper, whose seminars Saba attended at the London School of Economics in the 1960s and who later became a life-long friend, Saba emphasized the importance of having a skeptical outlook on life and of continuously questioning one’s premises.

In contrast to his own childhood experience within an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Poland, he argued that parents do not have the right to impose religious beliefs on their children, as such convictions are open to doubt and “It is up to parents to guide the young ones with unquestionable honesty.” At the same time, he believed that an agnostic is still free to maintain traditions as an expression of cultural and communal adherence. He continued to attend synagogue fairly regularly into old age, always ensuring he had a book to read discretely during the rabbi’s sermons.

He vigorously opposed the use of force in disciplining children, arguing that physical punishment may “influence the child to look at the world as a society where reason is not a way of life, only force is the language of grownups. The child does not accept the beating as a consequence of being wrong, but rather reflects that grownups beat children because children are weak and cannot fend for themselves.” He was speaking from personal experience, his own father having used force against him. I never recall Saba raising a hand against anyone. For him, the power of persuasion depended on one’s choice of words.

Self-deprecating and able to converse with young and old alike, he cultivated a multitude of friends around the world. Academics and thinkers enjoyed the free exchange of ideas in his company, while students wrote him letters of appreciation for helping to clarify their thinking or correct their theses. People generously opened their homes to him and upon his departure, would write, requesting another visit. He maintained a rich correspondence with many who broadly admired his values and ideas, as well as the freedom of his chosen lifestyle, which he described as that of “a man divorced of daily responsibilities.”

Nevertheless, Saba always considered himself an outsider, and although his vocabulary was highly sophisticated, he was particularly unsure of his written English expression, writing drafts of important letters and texts, which were often corrected by his daughter.

He advised those around him to do our best to enrich our lives with, what he termed, “mental-spiritual interests.” As he wrote to my teenage sister and me: “Very soon, your holidays start and you have a swimming pool, books, a piano, cello and violin, what a rich life in front of you!” Whenever his children or grandchildren would ask his advice on our future studies, he would steer us in the direction of a great body of thought such as Science or Philosophy and encourage us to be creative and aim for excellence. He set an example by striving to learn mathematics at the University of Illinois in his fifties.

Yet, he remained highly critical of academia, which he considered to have largely degenerated into “coercive systems of education,” staffed by incompetent “charlatans” who felt immune from scrutiny. Careers were not as important to him as the sheer love of learning, although he certainly emphasized the need to work, which he averred to have learned from his father. In later life, he would often tell stories of his father—the last Jew to have a full religious burial in the central Polish town of Zdunska Wola—acknowledging that he had instilled in his children a love of Jewish learning, as well as an appreciation for the importance of being responsible for oneself and one’s actions. As Saba explained, “self-reliance and self-respect are important for self-fulfilment, which is the difference between man as a person and man as a domesticated animal.”

My grandfather always remained true to his principles—until, as he put it, he lost his “I”, Alzheimer’s disease ultimately robbing him of whom he was as a person. In my mind’s eye, I can still see him sitting in the middle of his room, endlessly twisting a Rubik’s Cube around in his hands. Up to that time, however, he lived as if he was on an insatiable intellectual quest. As he wrote to me, “Life is full of exciting curiosities, joy, and deep feeling for the world’s mysteries.” Integrity, autonomy, and family were among the values he held dear and are now those I strive to instil in my children.

Saba was my mentor and anchor, who showed me that I could do anything to which I set my mind. He encouraged me to stand up for what I believe in and not be afraid to admit I had made a mistake, learn from it, and move on. My children may not have the privilege of growing up in his company, but they can still benefit from the rich and courageous legacy he left behind.

Shira Sebban is a writer and editor based in Sydney, Australia, who is passionate about exploring the challenges life throws at us through her writing. A former journalist, Shira previously taught French at the University of Queensland and worked in publishing. She has served on the board of her children’s school for the past 12 years, including three terms as vice-president. Her work has appeared in online and print publications, including Eureka Street, Jewish Literary Journal, The Forward, Australian Jewish News, Alzheimer’s Reading Room, and Online Opinion. She is currently working on a series of creative nonfiction stories based on her mother’s diary, which the family only discovered after her death. You can read more of her work at: shirasebban.wordpress.com.