I had dinner with a refugee, and here's what I learned

May 19, 2016
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Asiya Amin* is a 20-year-old Somali woman who is frank, forthright and lays down the law like a High Court judge. We are eating dinner at her place and I better eat up. I have been warned.

But Asiya is no judge; she has been stripped of the right to make the most basic decisions. She is one of the 267 asylum seekers, including 54 children and 37 babies, brought to Australia for medical treatment.

High Court decision on Wednesday February 3, 2016 dismissed a challenge that was made regarding the legality and constitutionality of offshore detention. This has left Asiya and the other 266 asylum seekers facing potential deportation to Nauru or Manus Island.

For Asiya, community detention means subsidised housing and basic healthcare, $225 a fortnight, and not a lot of decision-making.

“They [are] controlling me still… If I want to go somewhere I have to remember, ‘oh I have to call Immigration and tell them, ten days’ notice,’” says Asiya. “I can’t work, I can’t help my family, I can’t study [but] people are so desperate to be even free.”

I ask if she regrets coming here, but she gives me a look that says: No. You eat, I’ll explain.


“[The militia] are inside the civilian people. The government will respond to them and will destroy the civilian people.”

Asiya delves straight into the fray, explaining the civil war between militants masquerading as Muslims and the Somali government.

Asiya’s childhood was a childhood in transit, squatting in Mogadishu and retreating to rural areas to escape the beleaguered capital city. She recalls one time when a bomb exploded next door.

“My mum will be in one room and I’ll be in a different room and my brothers will be in a different room so we don’t die all together.

“When we opened our door all we see is blood coming from the other [neighbours’] door. Ten people died at the same time. Blood just dripping out like water.”

Only the youngest family member survived. She was roughly two weeks old. Asiya was thirteen, waiting for her father to join her and her stepmother at a refugee camp in Djibouti, when...

“Someone said, ‘your dad died in Somalia.’ I was like, ‘[My] dad died? What happened to h–?’ ‘Someone killed him.’ Simple.”

Her father drove a government employee to work. An insurgent shot him for it. Simple.

It is hard to deal with the death of your father. It’s harder when you are kidnapped by his killers.

My mum will be in one room and I’ll be in a different room and my brothers will be in a different room so we don’t die all together.

Between 2010 and 2011 Asiya’s family were living in a community controlled by the militia. They harvested young people – girls made good wives or domestic slaves, boys made good soldiers. The policy was pay up in cash or in children; if you don’t give, we’ll have to take.

They put Asiya to work as a nurse at a hospital in the desert.

“The people who killed my dad are the ones I am working for now… And what they say is ‘you’re gonna be here with us forever.’”

But six months later Asiya and nine other women escaped. When they reached Mogadishu, government soldiers greeted them with blows to the belly. Seven women, Asiya not included, were pregnant. The soldiers maintained their rationale: “that’s a bomb, not a baby.”

“The ones that we run away from and the ones that we came to for help are just the same,” Asiya laments. “Where am I supposed to go?”

After approximately three years of side-stepping threats from the militia, consumed with the guilt of putting loved ones in danger from mere association, Asiya made her way from Somalia to Indonesia, where she boarded a boat bound for a country she’d never heard of.

She entered Australian waters in a state of delirium. Seasick, homesick, comatose.

Despite attempts to ban media access to detention centres, information about the degradation of mental health survives the censorship. I naïvely ask Asiya if, during the fourteen months she spent on Nauru, she noticed if anyone attempted to commit suicide.

“You mean anyone?! Everybody does! Like every day. You see five year old kids attempting suicide.” She sighs. “That’s the end. [When] five years old wanna die.”

But for those in Asiya’s position, a resettlement package is not a viable option.


Asiya spent the better part of 2015 in Sydney’s Villawood Immigration Detention Centre before attaining relative ‘freedom’ at the beginning of the year.

The first time I visited Villawood I was endlessly confused. But I came to realise that the immigration system is inherently – and intentionally – confusing.

According to refugee advocate Bobbie Waterman, the Department of Immigration “operate like the bloody secret service.” Covert measures like the 2015 Border Force Act have been criticised for intensifying a “culture of secrecy.”

“People don’t feel like they can get on top of it because [Immigration] keeps people in this constant state of anxiety.” Waterman is referring to detainees, but this applies to anyone attempting to grasp the situation.

I can’t work, I can’t help my family, I can’t study [but] people are so desperate to be even free.

Isobel Blomfield, one of several students who helps detainees manage their visa applications, admits “we usually feel pretty disempowered as students, being at the in-between phase where we’re not qualified as a professional but are continually pushing for change.” However, “having a group of people to extend compassion [to detainees] on a weekly basis is invaluable.”

Ian Rintoul of the Refugee Action Coalition believes "there's no doubt that public opinion is shifting” but thinks politicians are more effective at “fearmongering” – employing loaded rhetoric to fashion ‘the refugee’ as a threat within the Australian imaginary – than disquieted citizens are at countering their narrative.

“The government try to prey upon the idea that there is not enough to go around.” He echoes the ABC’s findings that we spent over five times as much as the UNHCR devotes to all of South-East Asia on offshore processing from 2014 to 2015.

The Greens intend to put $500m of the $2.9bn that could be saved from closing offshore detention centres towards their plan to increase Australia’s refugee intake to 50,000, with 10,000 admitted via a ‘skilled refugee’ scheme, shifting the asylum seeker stereotype from ‘problematic’ to ‘full of potential.’

Nothing has changed – that is the problem. Australia continues to abuse human rights; Asiya continues to feel as if she is hanging in limbo while Turnbull, Dutton & Co. decide if it is in the nation’s interest to ship her off our shores.

Rintoul asserts, “You have to constantly disprove the myths of the government.” And constantly prove that more and more people are sick of watching players from both major parties flex their muscles and fumble with lives.

*Names have been changed due to privacy concerns.

Zoe Stojanovic-Hill

Zoe is an Arts Student and a tea-lover with a passion for alpacas, ugly streets and endless rambling.

Image: John Englart, Flickr Creative Commons license