This article originally appeared in Right Now.
Through my work with young people from refugee backgrounds, I am privileged to meet many young people who have arrived in Australia after fleeing from persecution and discrimination. They all have such amazing stories and their strength and resilience is truly inspirational. These are some of their stories.
Mehdi is 24 and came to Australia from Pakistan. He is part of the Hazara ethnic group. He is currently studying English.
Right Now: Can you tell me about your experiences in Pakistan before coming to Australia?
I was born in Pakistan and I went to university there. The situation in Pakistan is that we are Shia Muslims. Some groups by the name of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Taliban were saying that Shias are not Muslim and not human. They wanted to kill us all.
1,200 people were killed in our area in Quetta. I have been saved from many incidents. Once there was a bomb blast at a religious celebration. The Taliban admitted to the blast and said they wanted to kill us. One of my friends was injured and another was killed so my mother said I have to leave the country. My Mum said that it would happen to me some day that I will be killed from a bomb blast. Because I was the only one to support my family and I was worried about getting killed myself I decided to come to Australia.
What did you know about Australia?
I didn’t know much. I have some friends on Facebook and I just heard that people in Australia have humanity.
It is better to die at sea then to die everyday at Quetta. I chose to come to Australia. It is a very dangerous journey.
How did you come to Australia?
I got a visa to Thailand and travelled there. I spent one night in Thailand then crossed the border to Malaysia. I stayed one night in Malaysia then travelled to Batam, Indonesia. I spent three days there then travelled by air to Jakarta. I was in Jakarta for four and a half months.
What was Indonesia like?
We didn’t do anything. We just waited. We didn’t work. We rented a house with some other people for four months. Then an unknown person called me and told me to come to the boat. There were other Hazara people there at the boat, as well as Pashtun people and Sri Lankan or Burmese, I don’t know.
Then we travelled for about 48 hours by boat and the Australian navy received us near Christmas Island.
What were you thinking when you saw the navy?
I wasn’t in a good condition when I saw the navy. I wasn’t feeling well. There were people who gave me a number on my wrist. I fell asleep. They took us to the detention centre on Christmas Island.
They did tests on us, medical tests, and then took us inside the detention centre.
What was the detention centre like?
They took us for an interview. They asked, “why did you come to Australia?” I told them about the situation in Pakistan. I was in detention for about 6 months. Then they accepted my refugee claim.
What were the conditions in the detention centre like?
It was good, they taught about living in the community. I really loved detention.
What do you think of Australia?
I like it. It’s a very good country. Here we have a lot of opportunity to do something.
What do you want to do in Australia?
I want to find a good job and go to TAFE to study auto mechanics. No one says, “why are you doing this?” or “don’t do this”. In Pakistan we don’t have that much opportunity. Here we are free.
Sajad is a 22-year-old Afghan Hazara born in Iran. He is currently studying Year 12 VCE.
What were some of your experiences in Iran?
The first thing which was really an issue was living there as a refugee. Even though I was born there I couldn’t be part of the country. There was racism and discrimination against Afghan refugees but at the same time I had a good education and friends. I finished high school. Sometime in 2007, because of the government changes, we weren’t allowed to work or study and we had to move away from there so we came to Malaysia.
How old were you when you went to Malaysia?
I was 18.
Who did you travel with to Malaysia?
With my family: three sisters, one brother and my parents.
What did you do in Malaysia?
First I was jobless because it was really hard to get a job there because I wasn’t allowed to work. The government didn’t allow refugees to work. But when the UNHCR talked to the government about these issues the government allowed some people to work, but didn’t give us a work permit card.
I worked as waiter, cashier, worked in the kitchen, that kind of work.
How long were you in Malaysia?
I was there for four years.
I had a lot of challenging times when I was living in Iran and Malaysia because, as you know, you are not living in your country. You are not allowed to work and you are not a citizen. I also had issues like learning the language.
Why did you come to Australia?
Actually, we didn’t choose Australia. UNHCR chose where we would go. UNHCR resettled us to Australia after processing our case. They had to certify our eligibility for refugee status.
What did you know about Australia before coming here?
Before I came I had my uncle here. We were sometimes in contact with him, but he moved a lot. I knew Australia is a multicultural country and I knew information about the weather.
What did you think of Australia when you first arrived?
I loved the city structure, the houses and the buildings. I love the weather – because in Malaysia it is one season. I was really motivated to start studying again, and get a part time job. The people here were really nice to me.
What do you want to do in Australia?
I want to finish year 12 and get a course in university to study engineering or architecture, something in construction.
Albert is 20 years old and came to Australia from Uganda one and half years ago. He is currently studying youth work.
Did you know anything about Australia when you came?
I knew the soccer teams and the rugby team. I knew it was the biggest island continent. And I knew about kangaroos.
What was your first expectation of Australia when you came?
I thought everyone would be nice, loving and caring but everything changed when I got here. Racism, discrimination and a lot of things changed my expectation of Australia.
Do you think racism is a big problem is Australia?
Yes, it’s the main problem.
Why did you come to Australia?
I came to Australia because it is a safe place to be. Uganda was not safe. Australia is a safe place apart from the racism.
What are you doing now in Australia?
When I came to Australia my plan was different. In high school I did science subjects and I wanted to be a doctor but since experiencing racism and discrimination here in Australia my plans changed and I want to be a youth worker to help other people who are experiencing racism, especially the African community.
Can you tell me an example of racism that you have experienced?
One day, when I was new to Australia, I was waiting at the pedestrian crossing to cross the road. Other people waiting started to cross the road when it was red, so I joined them. The police stopped me and gave me a fine, but they didn’t give the others a fine. That was my first experience of racism in Australia. I was only new and studying English in Australia. The police saw that I was black and from Africa and refused to let me off.
Another time, I was waiting at the bus stop. There were other people waiting as well, but the police only came up to me. They asked me questions like what am I doing here and told me I shouldn’t be here. I told them I was waiting for the bus just like everyone else but they only questioned me because I am black.
What was your life like in Uganda?
My life in Uganda was nice. Being here with all the racism makes me want to go back to Uganda. Because everyone there is like a brother and sister but the racism here is bad. It made me feel like going back.
To tell you the truth I feel sorry for the African people here because when the white people go to Africa they are treated like kings and queens. There is nothing like racism there because everyone is welcoming.
Why do you think there is racism in Australia?
I don’t know. According to what I understand it is because some small number of African people are making mistakes and they think everyone is the same. You can’t judge a book by its cover. They think because some African people break the law all African people break the law. But they don’t even know all the African people.