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From Iran to Australia to limbo – a Melbourne refugee family’s story

Ali and Fatemeh told their story over Persian rice, chicken, Shirazi salad and doogh (yoghurt drink).

When Ali* decided to flee Iran with his wife Fatemeh* and their two-year-old son, he hoped for a safer life in Australia. What he didn’t know was that the journey would involve far more than just a boat ride. Over a delicious traditional Iranian lunch, they told Salvos Online writer KIRRALEE NICOLLE about their long road to permanent residency.

As a political activist who spoke against the Ayatollah Khamenei regime, Ali feared being reported, perhaps even by close family, and imprisoned.

This would leave him unable to protect his wife and child from repercussions and the strain of living under the regime. A confrontation with a concerned family member in a grocery store in 2013 left him terrified, and he quickly researched and discovered that it was possible to reach Australia by boat. He said he knew it would be difficult, but that didn’t matter compared to the risks they were facing in Iran.

“[Iran] is not good for [women],” he said. “And not good for the kids. I think [to myself it] doesn’t matter if I lost my life [trying to reach Australia].”

Within 10 days, without telling his wife the danger they were in to protect her safety, Ali packed his young family and fled with few possessions to catch a boat to Indonesia. He says the journey was both harrowing and beautiful. At one point, Fatemeh spent three days in a listless, semi-conscious state, and he wasn’t sure if she would survive. When she began to revive, they still had to make it through a 10-hour cramped bus ride in Indonesia, then a night-time voyage to Christmas Island, where they began four months in immigration detention. However, Ali smiled when he remembered seeing his wife remove her hijab on the boat for the first time in public. Fatemeh laughed at the memory.

“She walked out [with a bare head] in front of all these men,” he said. “I thought, wow!”

They were later transferred to the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation facility in Melbourne and then released as asylum seekers on bridging visas. They settled in Melbourne, and Ali, a truck driver in Iran, eventually began working in trucking again. Fatemeh found work as a cleaner, then as a carer in an aged care facility. Soon after they arrived, she also became pregnant with their second son.

However, their visa status remained uncertain for 10 years. It was not until this past May that they finally received Resolution of Status visas under the Albanese government’s plan to offer permanency to Temporary Protection visa and Safe Haven Enterprise visa holders. They had spent 10 years not knowing whether they would need to return to the country where imprisonment, death and betrayal felt like a constant and genuine possibility. Ten years of missing their families and having no hope of seeing them. Ten years with limited access to government subsidies and little hope of affordable further education for their sons. A whole decade of relying on charity to boost the small incomes they could make with such an unstable visa status.

When the new visa status was approved, they told their sons. What they didn’t expect was for the boys, aged 12 and 9, to be relieved. They had purposely never discussed visas with their children.

“They said, ‘Now we can go to university! We can buy a house! We can see Grandma and Grandpa!’” Ali said. “We didn’t know they [had so much] stress.”

For Fatemeh, life in Australia meant freedom to dress how she wanted, find work, safely give birth to her second child and, in 2019, she was enrolled as a soldier at The Salvation Army Farsi Faith Fellowship at Brunswick. She now proudly wears her uniform each Sunday.

“I love The Salvation Army,” she said. “I love being a soldier.”

But for both Fatemeh and Ali, PTSD from their experiences has been a long-term companion. They have woken many nights with frightening dreams, and their days have often been filled with stress about visas, financial strain or the wellbeing of their families in Iran.

But with the reality of their good news still sinking in, Ali said it still wasn’t time to rejoice. Instead, they would wait for all their friends whose status remained uncertain to receive permanency first.

“We [will] wait until everyone gets their visa, then we will celebrate,” he said.

*Names have been changed.


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