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A Year Among the Boat People, My People

“The man who looks for security, even in the mind, is like a man who would chop off his limbs in order to have artificial ones which will give him no pain or trouble.”

—Henry Miller

A part of every society is invisible, human beings of flesh and blood who live before our eyes and yet, as Ralph Ellison’s protagonist in Invisible Man states, we refuse to see them. We hand them our credit cards at supermarket check-outs, fill our stomachs with vegetables that grow on their farms, wave at them in the street when we need a ride. We encounter them all the time, yet they remain invisible to us.

They become visible when the wall that separates us from them cracks open and we hear their voices roar across public space. Those moments are rare but memorable: invisible Americans enjoyed a moment in daylight when Barack Obama won the presidency, the invisible French when Nicolas Sarkozy lost the election, the invisible Egyptians when the world media turned its cameras on Tahrir Square.

Iran is no exception. To the middle-class denizens of metropolitan areas in Iran, a large portion of the society is invisible, no matter how far to the left on the political spectrum you are, or how concerned you are with the rights of the underdog. That wall hardly cracks. And when it does, we respond in confusion. Who are these people? Where have they been? 

We are occasionally bestowed brief glances, often thanks to mass uprisings, which tend to force faces onto TV screens that we would never see otherwise. For me, those encounters came about serendipitously. I got to spend a year with a small number of invisible Iranians an ocean away from home, in Australia.

*

“I have been working for an NGO that helps out refugees,” said Ali. I ran into him on the sixth floor of the School of Languages and Cultures at the University of Queensland in Australia. Ali and I were the only Iranians in the building. Every time we met, we talked.

“People at the NGO are looking for a volunteer who has experience teaching English.”

“I’m happy to help,” I said and immediately changed the subject, with that insincere mix of reluctance and politeness that dresses up evasion as acceptance.

It was early 2013. I’d come to Australia a little more than a year earlier. My nerves had reached a breaking point in Iran. I felt I had suffered my share of the world’s misery and deserved a break.

Ali understood this and didn’t insist. We parted ways, but the conversation stayed with me.

The move to Australia had come as a huge relief, as if a great weight had lifted. But, as is often the case when the pressure recedes, I found there was something lacking in my life, a space that needed filling. Three years of working on a PhD thesis was not going to fill it. I needed more. Ali had offered me a clear way to retrieve my relevance in the world, and I had stupidly passed.

Later that same day, I tracked him down. A week later, I was standing in front of a class of about forty refugees, ready to start giving English lessons.

*

I was a reluctant immigrant to Australia.

The categories of immigrants in the world are numerous and growing: internal immigrant, economic immigrant, political immigrant, refugee, etc. It won’t hurt if I add one more. 

Reluctant immigrants, in my lexicon, land somewhere between refugees and deliberate immigrants. Reluctant immigrants would have stayed wherever they lived had they not been under enormous pressure. They have that in common with most refugees. Yet, unlike refugees, when push comes to shove, reluctant immigrants have access to enough resources to get a job offer or university admission from a western country. They are privileged enough to obtain visas and purchase plane tickets. They don’t have to take the risk of traveling by foot or on rickety boats. They share these advantages with deliberate immigrants.

Before the summer of 2009, I had never considered leaving Iran. I worked as an editor at a decent publishing house, wrote a weekly column in a newspaper people cared to read, had written a few books, had an apartment, many friends, a partner. Then hell broke loose, Middle-East style.

Three days after the 2009 presidential election, three million people showed up in Azadi Street and held a silent march to protest the outcome of the election. That event marked the beginning of the Green Movement. Political unrest blew through the country like a hurricane. I was among the affected. The newspaper I wrote for was shut down. The publisher I worked for was shut down. Hardly a week passed without hearing that friends had been interrogated, colleagues arrested, acquaintances turned fugitive. Like thousands of other young Iranians at the time, I decided to leave.

I researched how to apply to university programs abroad, hastily put together a proposal, and sent it off to a few places in Australia. My partner at the time had Australian citizenship, which made it easy to move between the two countries. The University of Queensland accepted the proposal. Within a few months, I’d gone from someone certain about a future in Iran to a reluctant immigrant.

*

If you are an Iranian man, chances are you don’t get to leave the country until well into your twenties (compulsory military service, financial strain, concerned parents, visa regulations, etc.), and when you do, you probably hit Dubai and Istanbul first. They are nearby and don’t require a visa. Then, if you survive the bureaucracy of European embassies in Iran, you might be allowed to feast your eyes upon the marvels of the old continent. Most of us are never that lucky.

That was my traveling history at that point. By the age of thirty, the longest flight I had ever experienced lasted less than six hours. When I got aboard a gigantic Brisbane-bound Boeing 707 at Dubai airport in the last days of 2011, I had little idea how one might fare in a metal cylinder that swims steadily through the air for fifteen hours.

As the plane prepared to touch down in Brisbane, I was still deep in the trance-like state of the long-haul flight. Shortly before the landing, a video came on and threw my sleep-deprived mind into a paranoid state.

It was a brief informative piece about the entry procedure. It laid out the draconian measures that Australian customs would take should you bring in an apple, a bag of spice, or a scrap of animal skin stretched on a musical instrument. In the video, beaming airport personnel took careless passengers out of line and led them through a dark door, for they had brought an apple into the promised land. The soft voice of the narrator warned my fellow jetlagged passengers that they could be next.

These measures didn’t disconcert me so much as the uncanny gentleness of the video, the exaggerated smiles of the personnel, the velvety voice of the narrator. The aesthetics of the video embodied a disparity I encountered in Australia over and over again: the concomitance of hospitality and suspicion, openness and paranoia, cordiality and xenophobia. In Australia, opposite attributes never fail to find ways to cheerily coexist.

An Iranian friend who happened to live in Brisbane at the time picked me up from the airport. We hit Coronation Drive, cruised along Brisbane River, and arrived at the suburb of St. Lucia. I was instantly enamored of my new city.

Brisbane sits under a pure blue sky, laced for most of the year by ivory white clouds, all edged in gold by Australia’s unfailing sun. Beneath this patchwork, the Brisbane River snakes through the city in sharp bends and twists. For a Tehraner, Brisbane is unbelievably tidy, enchantingly quiet, and conveniently under-crowded. At the time, it offered plenty of what I badly needed.

I plunged into my PhD project, set up a strict routine, and adopted a priest-like lifestyle. But it didn’t really work. As a reluctant immigrant, I’d exchanged relevance for safety and security in a far-off land. I had compromised commitments to my home country for the opportunity to write an obscure PhD thesis only a handful of people would ever read. It felt cowardly, like curling into a ball to protect myself from the vagaries of real life. I desperately needed a reason to believe my presence in the world was not entirely pointless. Then I met Ali.

*

My first reaction to the class was surprise at its size, then surprise at my own surprise. Based on zero evidence, I didn’t expect to see so many refugees so interested in learning English.

There is no dearth of ludicrous stereotypes about refugees. In Australia, common ones are that refugees are lazy, reluctant to assimilate and learn English. According to these stereotypes, refugees want to ghettoize themselves and set up secret communities of dark-skinned people conspiring against their magnanimous hosts in strange languages. It feeds the belief that their whole journey is an impertinent jump in an imaginary queue. So many in Australia are convinced that refugees are too lazy to take a proper migration path and apply through legal channels. 

All the journeys refugees undertake to reach a safe place are hard, but probably none is as arduous as the odyssey to Australia. The ones who embark on it from the Middle East have to travel to Southeast Asia, then endure the demoralizing sojourn in the Indonesian camps and the hazardous sea trip to the Australian mainland. Merely surviving this journey is proof enough that they aren’t “lazy.”

Over years of teaching English, I never had a group of students as willful and persistent as the refugees in Australia. Most of my students were over twenty-five and had never studied a foreign language. A Farsi speaker learning English has to start with the alphabet, sounds, and basic pronunciation before even beginning to really learn the new language. Not exactly what the lazy would sign up for. Not to mention the unnerving reality of recent life in a refugee camp. Many of my students had been denied residency documents and work visas and had to work hard in the black market every day to make ends meet, with few prospects for a decent future. And despite all of that, forty of them had shown up in my class to learn English.

*

We met once a week. I had students ranging in age from twelve to fifty, some barely literate, some college-educated. Some knew basic English and some could hardly distinguish between the letters. Putting together a curriculum that served all of them bordered on impossible. At best, I would succeed in keeping them motivated, making them come every week to an environment where English is practiced. I could only marvel at the self-education methods they kept devising.

Mustafa, a twenty-four-year-old man from south Tehran who used to work in a grocery store, walked around Brisbane and eavesdropped. If someone spoke slowly enough for him to understand the words, he’d sneak up, listen, and write down in his phone what he heard. He spent the week figuring out words like “vondeful” and “kabaj” and “horafik” and “estabern,” and brought them to the class. I corrected the transcription to “wonderful” and “cabbage” and “horrific” and “stubborn,” and explained what they meant. He never forgot those words.

Alireza deployed the aural version of the same strategy. He recorded the conversations he heard in the street. Every night, he listened to them, mimicked the intonations, and wrote down the words he knew. By the end of every week, he had memorized a passage or two, which he recited in class, challenging me to unravel the mystery of meaningless sounds.

As a teacher, I did little more than set up a space and routine for practice. In return, they educated me about Iran.

I had come straight out of Tehran’s intellectual bubble, a typical middle-class lefty who likes to stick up for underdogs without ever actually talking to them. An ocean away, in Australia, I got to know people who had never been among my friends. I received far more than I gave. 

I taught that class for about a year. The number of students diminished over time. For some, ambiguous status corroded motivation. Some were frustrated by lack of progress in learning. Some moved to Melbourne or Sydney, where the black market was booming. But friendships survived. We frequently met while I was in Australia and stayed in touch after I left for Tehran and then New York. I spent hour upon hour listening to their stories. Recounting them is the least I can do.

*

The first refugee family I visited lived in Stones Corner, in one of the flats the Australian government reserved for refugee accommodation across the city. The family stayed in a two-bedroom apartment, scantily furnished with a sofa, a dining table, and a television. Signs of Iran were all over the place: narrow tea glasses, Nabat, a Persian carpet, the smell of southern spices and saffron. Five people lived in this unit: Siavash, his pregnant wife Mona, his brother Farhad, her cousin, and a young man they met on the boat. We drank tea, played cards, chatted about politics, and gossiped, as proper Iranians do. We sat around a dinner table laid out with yogurt, olives, and a pot of rice mixed with green beans and beef. I approached the pot first. A hand held my wrist: Farhad’s look was polite but serious.

“Amir agha, would you please wait until we do our prayers?” he said.

We all joined hands, and Siavash recited the prayers. “Bless us, O Lord, and these, thy gifts.” The family was from my own state of Khuzestan, so their accents made me feel very much at home. Then they engaged in a ritual I had only seen on TV: during dinner, they told me their story.

They were from a poor, small town a hundred miles north of Ahvaz, the state capital and my hometown. Siavash had an older brother the whole town respected, a teacher at the only school in town. He was described as an effortlessly charismatic young man with a penchant for altruism who knew how to build strong emotional bonds with children. Two years before the family headed out for Australia, the man took a trip to Ahvaz for work. Having said he would be gone a week, he returned after a month, and announced his conversion to Christianity. He immediately began proselytizing.

No one knew what happened in Ahvaz, and no one really cared. The man deployed all his charisma and charm in the service of Jesus. Public proselytizing in Iran is illegal, but he didn’t care. He invited people to Jesus in classrooms, among friends, in the family. Siavash and the other siblings converted first. Other family members followed. Over a short period, in a small, godforsaken town in the middle of scorched, war-stricken Khuzestan, one young man single-handedly established a Christian stronghold.

The news traveled. The police came and arrested Siavash’s brother. The family escaped to Ahvaz and flew to Dubai, where they met a human trafficker who promised them immediate citizenship in Australia. They believed him and got their tickets for Indonesia.

I learned that night that a big portion of my class had converted to Christianity. Another common stereotype about refugees, which I had believed until then, holds that Muslims convert to Christianity upon arrival to have a more compelling case. That is not necessarily true. Many of them already knew that the religion switch wouldn’t redeem their cases. Some didn’t even know it helped. 

They converted for other reasons.

But imagine yourself in the shoes of those converting upon arrival. You grow up Muslim in an Islamic country, where you rarely experience peace. Then you get on a boat and reach “secular” Australia, anticipating relief after such an arduous trip. You’re thrown into offshore camps and treated like a dangerous criminal. Then you come out of the camp, and many Australians, indoctrinated by Murdoch-owned media, regard you as a terrifying alien inclined to destroy their precious civilization. In the new land, the church is among very few institutions that will shelter you and respect you as a human being. You see the kindness, compare it to your previous experiences, and respond to its call.

*

Of all my students, I saw Hassan most often. He happened to live on Annerly Road, in walking distance from the campus. I dropped by his place a couple of times a week, enjoyed his ample supply of beer and weed, and listened to his extensive soliloquies. Hassan was a big, dominating young man with a rectangular face, small green eyes, curly hair, an unshakable desire for pleasure, and an unparalleled love of animals. When he started telling a story, no terrestrial force could stop him. His mind jumped among a vast range of subjects, constantly shuttling across time and space.

Of all things, he loved tattooing the most. Back in Tehran, desperate to apply his talent to actual human skin, he borrowed money and opened an underground tattoo parlor. He got famous fast, and clients flocked, drawing attention to the business. And then the police came and closed his shop. Hassan opened another shop. The same thing happened. This time, he was detained. After release, he worked at a real estate agency in west Tehran, during the westward expansion frenzy, and made a good deal of money, most of which he spent on parties and drugs. On the surface, his life was fine, but, as he put it, “a worm was growing in my head.”

A childhood friend of his, who had moved to Melbourne, started a Facebook page and littered it with photos of himself at the beach, a beer in one hand, the other hand turning meat on a barbeque grill, surrounded by bikinied girls. The worm, Hassan’s euphemism for jealousy, eventually took over. One day, he decided to go to Melbourne. Being a resourceful street kid from south Tehran, within a week he found a trafficker, sold his car, vacated his apartment, and caught a flight to Indonesia. Less than three weeks after making the decision, he got aboard a boat to Australia, his main goal to outdo his Facebook friend’s public hedonism. Two years into his stay, he hadn’t seen him. He hadn’t traveled to Melbourne, or even bothered to tell the friend he was here.

Hassan could hardly string together a single sentence in English, yet he knew more people in Brisbane than I did. At the time, he was juggling two girlfriends, a Vietnamese nurse and a Lebanese supermarket cashier. He knew all the Iranian refugees in town, the details of their relationships, their immigration status. That summer, he took a job on a farm outside of the city. Under the unbearable Brisbane sun, he worked long hours and returned to the city at the end of the summer with more money than my scholarship allowance. He bought a secondhand Ford Mustang to fulfill a childhood dream, and spent most of the fall racing around the streets of Brisbane and the Gold Coast.

From Hassan, I learned that refugees had established a surprising network of friends among those most left behind by Australian society, in particular impoverished white men and Indigenous Australians. One of Hassan’s close friends was a lonely, broke, white, alcoholic Australian. They had a strict weekly fishing routine. They would take the man’s dilapidated boat south on the Brisbane River and spend a whole day drinking and fishing. As the sun set, they cooked the fish on the riverbank and smoked weed. Most of this weekly ritual took place in near absolute silence. 

Hassan once took me to a house four of my students shared in Inala. The party was in a ramshackle Queenslander house taken over by cobwebs and mold. The walls were rotten with moisture and half-eaten by moths. We walked through to the back yard and sat around a fire with two Sudanese men, an Indigenous couple, and two other Iranians. The Sudanese soon left. Others came in and were soon gone. Someone showed up with a guitar and sang a bunch of songs in a language that I learned was Bosnian. Everyone brought food to share. Within an hour, I had tried dishes from five continents. A Vietnamese man, appearing to be a neighbor, came to the backyard, removed from a toolbox a screwdriver and a hammer, waved at the host to indicate he was borrowing the tools, and walked away.

If mutual trust is the core of community life, the people I met that night had such high trust in each other, hard to find in modern cities. Their fragile status united them, fortifying them against the Australian government. I realized that the gap between me and my Iranian students was wider than the one between them and their Sudanese neighbor. I had a visa stamped in my passport and got on a plane to get here. I had learned English early in my life and was granted a scholarship. We shared a birthplace, but the forces that sought to ruin their lives had never come close to mine.

What brings people together isn’t language. If anything, when times are hard, shared language can deepen divisions.

*

Over time, I learned more about people’s reasons for coming to Australia. Like everyone else, I knew many stories about political dissidents and journalists and persecuted homosexuals. In Australia, I saw very few of them. Most people had traveled for much more basic reasons, often because they’d fallen for the lies of the traffickers. Some, like Hassan, had traveled on a whim. They have been, and will continue to be, off the media radar because they don’t undertake the journey for headline-worthy reasons.

Take Shahin, a tall, middle-aged man with lush salt-and-pepper hair and olive skin. In his previous life, Shahin had made a fortune importing fabrics from Turkey and Bulgaria into Iran. He had a large boutique in east Tehran and a villa by the Caspian Sea. He used to spend half of every year traveling, and besides Farsi, spoke the odd combination of Japanese, Bulgarian, and Russian. One day, he realized that a faction of the Revolutionary Guard, which practically operated as an economic conglomerate, had become interested in the fabric he imported. He received threatening messages telling him to change his line of business, and ignored them. He went so far as to contact his people overseas to stop the encroachment of the Guards. But the Guards wouldn’t tolerate this kind of interference. They went after him and sued him with fabricated allegations. He continued to fight. The case went to court and, unsurprisingly, the verdict came out in favor of the Guards. Shahin appealed to a higher court, but by this time, he’d started to receive death threats. And so he fled and ended up on Christmas Island.

Or take Kayvan, a skinny young man with a melancholic demeanor and a pale smile. He had a decent job in Tehran Bazar, selling protein and other supplements for body-builders. But watching his sister growing up tormented him: a compulsory hijab for a six-year-old, followed by harassment and insecurity in the street. He made up his mind to sacrifice his life to save his sister. A brief search showed that Australia, along with the Scandinavian countries, ranked very high in terms of gender equality. Scandinavia is closer to Iran, but Australia is warm, which made it a more desirable destination. He found a trafficker and was seduced by the rosy prospect of easy accommodation and quick citizenship. He estimated he would be able to bring his sister over within two years. He moved.

The press tends to neglect these stories, partially because they too closely resemble the stories of other immigrants. Imagine a British or French or Italian man who looks around and decides he has no future in his homeland, and sees Australia as the smart option. Having made up his mind, he gets on the plane and travels there to see whether the image matches reality. A lot of people we know as refugees had the same motivation: they simply wanted to pursue a better life. But if you happened to be born in Iran rather than Italy, your path to the plane is basically blocked. The chances of you getting the visa are near zero. Even a solid invitation letter and a handsome bank account won’t cut it. It is astonishing so many people castigate refugees for not taking the “normal” path, assuming that refugees could have flown over rather than making the masochistic decision to get on a boat and risk life and limb.

The obvious reason, of course, for the relative ease of the British and Italian immigrant to Australia is race.

*

We laughed a lot in my English class. I went out of my way to keep the darker shadows of reality at the door, to make the class a sanctuary in which my students could momentarily forget the considerable challenges of daily life. But the ghost often slipped in to haunt us. I lost count of the days I’d walk home all five miles from class, weeping and shaking with rage.

On one such day, I tried to teach the word “although,” and asked students to begin sentences with it. Here are some of them: “Although I have no visa, I am hopeful.” “Although I can’t work, I am happy.” 

“Although I am depressed, I like Australia.”

My students welcomed the contingent hopefulness of “although,” a conjunction allowing them to articulate the possible. No refugee is allowed an unconditional dream, so they need a word that can harness realism to potential, to make it clear that hopefulness is not self-delusion, even if it can feel like a brief escape from reality. That guarded optimism kept them alive and determined. It still does.


©Amir Ahmadi Arian. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.


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