Worked as a freelance researcher/producer on this report on the response of refugee rights groups to Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s comments on Sky television on asylum seekers.
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.
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’ 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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
Gay Muslims in the West can face lack of acceptance within their families and their religion, as well as experiencing wider prejudice against their faith, fostering a complex and contradictory identity.
The first thing you notice about Sol Alliya Yoga is her gold sparkly fingernails. Her painted hands flutter to her face when her eyes become animated, reaching reflexively to comb through her dark cropped hair.
It’s been two months since Sol left her parent’s home in Punchbowl in Sydney’s south-west after her family struggled to come to terms with her homosexuality.
One night during Ramadan when her family was out for the nightly tarawih prayer, she packed her bags and called her friend to pick her up from her family’s home.
Sol, whose family hails from Indonesia, remembers the moment as a period of high anxiety but also exhilaration.
“I have stuff in the back, stuff in my lap and my heart is just beating really, really fast in the tiny Prius.”
For gay Muslims in the West the heartbreak of navigating sexuality is exacerbated by the complexities of religious and racial identity. Not only can they experience rejection from their communities, but also Islamophobia from the wider society, as well as feeling alienated from a gay subculture that exalts Anglo aesthetics and experiences.
“Why do you even like them anymore?”
Sol’s parents found out about her same-sex attraction after reading her diary.
Although Indonesian culture is open towards sexual minorities, where pop culture is saturated with openly gay and transgender celebrities, Sol’s conservative parents refused to accept their daughter was attracted to women.
Punchbowl is Australia’s Muslim heartland. Sol studied at the local private Malek Fahd Islamic School. Her parents regularly attended lectures of controversial Muslim group Hizb ut-Tahrir and carefully monitored Sol’s friends and movements.
After the diary incident, her parents took her to a Muslim psychologist who promised to perform “gay conversion therapy” and “cure” Sol.
“She told me how she converts all these gay people, and she’s like, I can quote: ‘Even people from Canberra drive all the way here so I can stop them from being gay.’ ”
After three sessions, Sol refused to continue with the therapy, but still clings to her Muslim identity and is open to a relationship with her estranged family.
She says there is an assumption that gay Muslims from migrant families automatically drop their cultural identities when moving in their wider “liberated West” circles.
“I find it so strange when people say once you leave your family you drop them forever and can live your own life,” she says.
Mainstream gay culture often fails to acknowledge the challenges faced by gay people of colour in navigating family relationships, faith and racism, Sol says.
“They really just don’t understand how strong the familial bond is with us. They just don’t get it. Like, why would you ever think about going back? Why do you even like them anymore?”
“Do you still love me?”
For another Muslim woman in Sydney – whom I will call Sana – carving out a space for herself in the queer Muslim narrative is a continuing struggle.
A self-confessed book nerd, she devours American Muslim reformist thinkers such as scholar Scott Kugle, feminist Amina Wadud and gay imam Daayiee Abdullah, all of whom advocate for queer inclusion from a pro-faith perspective.
“I couldn’t understand how a God I understood as loving would be so cruel to one segment of the population, especially if they can’t really change that,” Sana says.
For Sana, the internet has also been a refuge, a way to connect with other young people struggling to navigate a world of shame and secrecy. From Twitter to secret Facebook and Yahoo groups, online communities have allowed young gay Muslims to reach out to each other and talk about spirituality, identity and politics.
The 22-year-old acknowledges her road to coming out has been easier than for other young Muslims, who have been forced to leave home or live painful double lives.
“My experiences were nothing like people who have been kicked out of home and have nowhere to go, or others who were getting into marriages of convenience,” Sana says.
Growing up in the Sutherland Shire in Sydney’s south with an unconventional mixed-culture Indian-Chinese-Malay background gave Sana and her 17-year-old brother a sense of freedom. Unmoored from what can be cloistered ethnic and religious communities, she was spared some of the ostracism experienced by others, but she admits missing the sense of solidarity such groups engender.
Sana’s liberal family always encouraged her and her brother to question and engage with faith, but she admits to still feeling nervous in revealing her sexuality.
She remembers breathing heavily when, at 19, she sat down to tell her parents. She recalls her father’s shocked face and the silence.
“It felt like eternity waiting for the reply. I think my first question was, ‘Do you still love me?’ Then my mum hugged me.”
She says the challenge is compounded by an exclusivist gay scene.
“I felt like they catered to white people or I had to constantly justify why I believe in God.”
Sana, uninterested in the mainstream gay scene centred around bars and clubs, dreams of meeting the right girl in a book reading or knitting club. But she says dating can be difficult in a world where she feels neither fully accepted in gay or Muslim circles.
“It’s still upsetting to know that you can’t really be yourself. You have to live as if your identities are mutually exclusive.”
“Just be proud of who you are.”
Ahmad found losing his religion both liberating and frightening. The 25-year-old says social and family ostracism played a large part in feeling he had no place as a gay man in Muslim circles.
Ahmad still remembers posting a Facebook profile picture with his partner and being the source of gossip.
Like Sol, Ahmad grew up in Sydney’s south-west, in Lakemba, among a large Muslim community. His religious Malaysian-born family placed a premium on Islamic education. At 20, some time after graduating from Malek Fahd, Ahmad went to Syria to study Arabic. It was there, he says, that a shift began.
He went to the Middle East anticipating a renewal in his religious zeal. Instead, what he found in Syria inspired him to take the road he had never imagined he would take – that of living as an openly gay man.
“I was expecting to go the Middle East and find the most religious people. Instead it was regular people figuring their life out,” he says.
The experience made him rethink his relationship with his faith and explore his gay identity. No longer feeling compelled to live a painful life fearing he would somehow give himself away – self-conscious of his demeanour and whether things he said “sounded gay” – Ahmad finally felt he could be free to be himself.
But the revelation did not come without a cost.
“I feel like I lost something,” he says. “I lost that certainty that comes with my religion.”
Growing up, Ahmad understood being gay was taboo. Homophobic comments were rife. He heard of gruesome punishments for “sodomites”, who were to be thrown off cliffs onto spikes for their transgressions.
“One day you get the realisation that all of that is you. That entire bag of homophobia falls on your head,” he says.
Even after his father found gay porn on his computer as a teen, his reaction was to pretend it never existed.
“I always thought I’d be a good Muslim boy. I’ll marry a woman and go through the mechanics of it,” Ahmad says.
But the double life, the stress and the pretending became too much.
Ahmad says family is still integral to his life, despite the tension his homosexuality causes. He now lives on campus at his university and has even brought his ex-partner home for Eid.
“I never imagined in a thousand years I would do something like that.”
He says the challenge for gay Muslims facing places where they experience rejection begins first with finding a place to celebrate and honour the beauty of being different.
“Just be proud of who you are.”
Lifeline 13 11 14
An asylum seeker at Villawood detention centre has set himself on fire and is in hospital with serious burns, sparking an investigation by the immigration department.
The male asylum seeker sought protection in Australia along with his family in 2010 and now has six children including a two month old infant.
The asylum seeker’s wife told Guardian Australia she was at a library with her children when she received a call about the incident.
“From what I’ve been told is that it is self inflicted harm and it’s a burn incident,” she said. “There was about 10% burns on his face right down to the left of his neck.”
She said the immigration department has not provided her with further details about the incident or events preceding it.
Her husband had been suffering depression since he was taken to Villawood in January 2015. He made a previous self-harm attempt while in detention.
“He has not seen or touched the newborn child,” she said. “He doesn’t want the kids to even see him in detention. He doesn’t want them to be a part of it.”
The family sought protection in Australia from the United Arab Emirates after arriving on a tourism visa by plane to Australia in 2010. They were refused a protection visa in 2010, and lost an appeal to the refugee review tribunal in 2011.
The man was taken back into detention following an unsuccessful federal court bid. His wife and children were also taken to Villawood detention centre in June 2015, but were released so she could give birth to her sixth child.
The family has exhausted most avenues of legal appeal for their protection claims in Australia.
“Why he did this is because he felt so helpless,” the man’s wife said. “Sometimes it’s too much. I cannot measure it anymore.”
A spokeswoman for Department of Immigration and Border Protection said: “The department can confirm that a male detainee was taken to hospital yesterday 17 September 2015, following a self-harm incident at Villawood IDC.
“The individual is receiving appropriate medical treatment, but his injuries have been assessed as non-life threatening. The department is investigating the matter.”
The incident is the second time a person held in immigration detention has set themselves on fire this week.
On Tuesday Ali Jaffari, a Hazara man in Perth immigration detention centre, also set himself on fire and later died from his injuries.
In May 2014 a Tamil asylum seeker, Leo Seemanpillai, self- immolated after spending 18 months in legal limbo.
In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Hotlines in other countries can be found here.
My latest in ABC’s The Drum on the death of little Aylan Kurdi and government’s reaction to the Syrian refugee crisis. I haven’t reprinted the image- I think everyone has seen it already. Also here a great discussion on the debate around the publication of the distressing images.
The fact that the Government would pause in light of such a visceral tragedy to suggest that Australia should prioritise Christian refugees from Syria speaks volumes, writes Sarah Malik.
It was the picture that shocked the world.
A little boy lies face down on the beach. His still, lifeless body caressed gently by waves. His sandals are still strapped to his little feet. In his neat red shirt and little blue shorts, he could be sleeping or resting.
A Turkish police officer stands to one side, his shoulders hunched as if in prayer.
The discovery of Aylan Kurdi’s body on a Turkish beach last week cut a searing image in the conscience of the world. It tore through the ballast of politics, rhetoric and racialisation that continues to obscure one of the great humanitarian crises of modern times.
The little boy who perished along with his brother Galip and mother Rihan, one of 12 Syrian asylum seekers trying to reach Greece when their boat sank, represents the many thousands seeking safety and asylum as their country is torn apart by war and conflict.
The picture of the doll-like three-year-old on the beach has galvanised public opinion around the world, forcing even the Australian Government to outline its commitment to Syrian refugees. But the racialisation continues, with Barnaby Joyce calling for Syrian Christians to be prioritised in any asylum intake, a motion that has been echoed by Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
Australia was recently criticised in the New York Times for a military response to asylum seekers which is shrouded in secrecy. This has been combined with bizarre border security campaigns including thefarcical ‘Operation Fortitude’, a proposal quickly scuttled after widespread ridicule.
The campaign purporting to subject Melbourne residents to random visa checks underscores a Government that will take advantage of any opportunity to represent itself as the strongman protecting us from the ‘illegal’ hordes threatening to destabilise Australia.
The fact that the Government would pause in light of such a visceral tragedy, blasted into public consciousness in such horrific fashion, to make a subtle distinction on the kinds of Syrian asylum seekers it would be willing to consider is callous.
It speaks to the depths it will go to in order to stoke fears of the brown Muslim hordes threatening our pristine white borders.
It doesn’t take much to read between the lines of random visa checks and the prioritisation of Christians. People like us only, please.
The image of Aylan underscores the vulnerability of those fleeing, their powerlessness in the face of a political and military machinery that punishes and paints them as threats. It is a powerful image that threatens the curtain of abstraction, silence and othering that has come to characterise the rhetoric around refugees.
This otherising of refugees, the destruction of their humanity, allows travesties such as our detention regime, regularly exposed as rife with reports of sexual assault, violence, suicide and depression to continue with impunity.
When it becomes a crime for employees to talk publicly about what happens in detention centres with the passing of the Border Force Act, when refugees live in fear of speaking to journalists, with access a constant issue, the result is an abstraction. It is an easy to demonise an abstraction.
Aylan’s picture has blazed onto the soul of the nation the reality of the human. This child’s death must inspire us to look beyond categories of race and religion and towards a common humanity.
The most powerful threat to an abstraction is the power of the singular. A child just like yours, with blue shorts and sandals.
As Persian poet Rumi said:
Not a Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi or Zen, Not any religion… first, last, outer, inner, only that breath breathing human being.
This article was originally published on ABC’s The Drum (http://www.abc.net.au/thedrum). Read the original article here (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-09-07/malik-syrian-refugees/6755696).