Sayed Abdellatif’s daughters realise HSC dream but have university hopes dashed- as featured in the Guardian

Front page of the Guardian Australia site.

Front page of the Guardian Australia site.

The immigration department refused to allow Sayed Abdellatif to attend his two eldest daughters’ graduation ceremony.

The contest to arrive at the Year 12 formal in the most spectacular “wheels” is happily embraced by students at high schools across Australia.

For Sayed Abdellatif’s two eldest daughters, it was no contest at all.

The girls arrived at their school formal in a car driven by their very own Serco guards, “like minor royalty”, as the running joke among classmates went.

“Nothing,” the older Abdellatif daughter says, “could be further from the truth”.

“The formal was a struggle,” she says. Special permission was required, strict conditions and curfews imposed; celebrations held under the watchful eye of the omnipresent security detail.

But at least they were allowed to go. “Simple things that are normal for everyone to do, for us it is a struggle.”

The girls are the first students to graduate from high school while incarcerated at Villawood detention centre, a remarkable achievement for two young women who have spent their childhood in the shadowlands of societies all over the world, or held in immigration detention.

Sayed Abdellatif in 1997, aged 26. Supplied.

Sayed Abdellatif in 1997, aged 26. Supplied.

The local New South Wales government school they attended, each day under the gaze of their guards, was the first they had ever set foot in in their lives.

For the two eldest Abdellatif daughters – whom Guardian Australia has chosen not to name or photograph because of their age – school was a dream, a chance at a future, and an escape from a fractured past in which they had known neither peace nor stability.

“It made me angry to see kids who had everything … but they didn’t appreciate it,” the older daughter says. “But it was really challenging, especially learning a whole new language and studying in that language.”

The girls are in Villawood because their father, 44-year-old Egyptian national Sayed Abdellatif, is being held in indefinite detention on a historical Interpol red notice issued in his name, dating from a 1999 mass show trial of 107 men in Cairo. The trial has since been discredited as politically motivated and based on evidence obtained by torture.

The girls are in Villawood because their father, 44-year-old Egyptian national Sayed Abdellatif, is being held in indefinite detention on a historical Interpol red notice issued in his name, dating from a 1999 mass show trial of 107 men in Cairo. The trial has since been discredited as politically motivated and based on evidence obtained by torture.

The girls’ HSC results will arrive imminently, but any hopes of furthering their education at university have been dashed.

The eldest daughter says she put in a request, through the immigration department, to go to university. “But immigration said ‘no, you can’t go to university, it’s a personal choice’ [the request is outside the department’s remit]”.

You have no freedom. Your life is on hold. The more you think about it the more powerless you feel.
Elder Abdellatif daughter

The girls are in Villawood because their father, 44-year-old Egyptian national Sayed Abdellatif, is being held in indefinite detention on a historical Interpol red notice issued in his name, dating from a 1999 mass show trial of 107 men in Cairo. The trial has since been discredited as politically motivated and based on evidence obtained by torture.

A Guardian investigation in 2013 found the major convictions made against Abdellatif – in absentia – were erroneous, and that the allegations were never even made against him in court. That investigation led Interpol to take the extraordinary step of removing those charges from the red notice.

The remaining lesser offences, of membership in a terrorist group (Egyptian Islamic Jihad) and providing forged travel documents, were secured using evidence obtained by torture, court documents show. Abdellatif denies the allegations.

Abdellatif, his wife and six children, the youngest of whom is five, have been in immigration detention in Australia since 2012.

Abdellatif, his wife and six children have been held in detention for more than three years without charge.

Arbitrary detention of Egyptian asylum seeker and his family is ‘clearly disproportionate’,  UN human rights council tells Australia. 

 

In 2014, the immigration department recommended to the minister that Abdellatif be granted a visa and released into the community; in the same year, an assessment by the inspector general of intelligence and security made clear he was not a danger to national security; and in June this year, the United Nations said his detention was illegal, indefinite and arbitrary, and directed Australia to release Abdellatif and compensate him for his wrongful detention.
However, while Abdellatif and his family have been allowed to submit paperwork in application for visas, there has been no known movement towards releasing them.

Despite repeated questioning from Guardian Australia over several months, the immigration department has consistently refused to comment on his case.

Abdellatif’s wife and six children have been offered community detention, but they have refused to leave Villawood without their father and husband, fearful he will never be released.

They will endure detention together until it is over, they say, with all of its indignities and deprivations.

 

Sydney's Villawood detention centre. Picture: Flickr/ DIPB images

Sydney’s Villawood detention centre. Picture: Flickr/ DIPB images

Sayed Abdellatif cannot leave Villawood.

For his family, every move outside of its high steel fences – to school, to buy groceries, to doctors’ appointments – is made under the conspicuous escort of Serco guards.

This includes their daily visits through rings of security to see Sayed, housed in a separate high-security compound in Villawood.

The eldest daughter says the stress of separation, and the ongoing uncertainty over their futures, has cast a dark shadow over their school year.

She says she almost had a breakdown in the middle of her HSC trials.

“It’s like a rollercoaster. You pretend that everything is OK. Other days you lose it [and] just cry and scream.”

The girls say they can feel their family fracturing under the stress of their detention. Tempers flare often, and sometimes the children scream at each other, or sullenly retreat to their rooms.

“It’s just hard when everyone is in the same situation. [If] one of the family is feeling down, the whole family will follow,” the older daughter says.

The family survives by making jokes to lighten the burden but it doesn’t change the grim reality of a life in limbo.

“We make fun of everything. If you can’t really change it, then no point crying over it. But detention is still detention.”

The contrast between the relative normality of school – notwithstanding the ever-present security detail – and the capriciousness of secure detention is a daily struggle.

“It’s like you have two lives. When you come here [back to the compound] it’s like you are a different person.”

Villawood detention centre.

Access to computers and the internet has been sporadic. Picture: Flickr.

Motivation for school was often difficult to summon, the older daughter says.

“I always thought ‘don’t give up because it will pay off’. But some days I think ‘if it doesn’t get resolved, what’s the point of studying?’. ”

And studying in a detention centre was difficult: the girls had only sporadic access to a computer or printers.

The handful of desktop computers that sit in the communal area of Villawood’s family compound – among the young children running noisily amok and the ceaseless blare of televisions – are shared among dozens of detainees, and heavily restricted.

The younger daughter, who studied economics, says some websites she needed for her schoolwork were blocked, including her student emails that allowed her to access her marks and notes from teachers.

“It’s like a rollercoaster. You pretend that everything is OK. Other days you lose it [and] just cry and scream.”

“All economics websites are blocked. The RBA and the Australian banks are all blocked. That was very frustrating,” she says.

But school was an escape from those frustrations too, a release from the suffocating pressures of life in detention, and the uncertainties beyond. The two sisters say that often they found solace in schoolwork.

The Abdellatif family’s proudest moment this year was the girls’ graduation ceremony. But the occasion was bittersweet: the immigration department refused to allow Sayed Abdellatif to attend.

villawood

The girls’ exhilaration at graduating has been tempered by uncertainty around their future. Picture: Moyan Brenn/Flickr

“Since my daughters were young, I’ve always dreamed of seeing them wearing graduation gowns,” Abdellatif told Guardian Australia from detention. “I’m very proud of my daughters for their achievements, but I was also so disappointed that I was denied [permission] to join my family to see my girls graduate.”

The girls’ exhilaration at graduating has been tempered by the uncertainty around their future. Even after their HSC, the sisters have been regularly returning to school, seeking the routine and stability it provides.

They dream of going to university next year. The younger one knows already that she wants to be a lawyer.

But their continuing detention makes that an impossibility.

The young women watch their friends make plans for the future: for study, for travel and adventure.

“It’s like you can’t do anything with your life. You can’t plan your life and what you want because someone is controlling it,” the older daughter says.

“You have no freedom. Your life is on hold. The more you think about it the more powerless you feel.”

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