Customers of Sydney bank teller Asif Haideri come and go, never suspecting he is much different to them. Those who he strikes a conversation with are shocked, he said, to learn he is ethnic Hazara from Afghanistan and was once kidnapped and tortured by the Taliban.
“I’m a bank teller and people talk to me every day,” Asif said. “When I say I am from Afghanistan and I came to Australia two years ago, they are shocked. They say, ‘really, I thought you were born here’. I say, no, have you heard of boat people? I am like them. They are shocked.”
The response to this revelation often confuses Asif’s customers. He said people tell him they thought asylum seekers, like him, only came to Australia to seek welfare payments. “I tell them they are wrong,” Asif said.
Asif turns 24 in January, almost two years to the day since he first arrived in Australia. His story is in many ways typical of the journey to Australia taken by asylum seekers from Middle Eastern countries, as well as unique for all his own individuality.
Asif first fled Afghanistan with his family when he was nine. They lived in Pakistan and Iran over the next six years, before Asif fled alone when he was 15 to England, where he found refuge for the next six years. Asif attended college and worked and now speaks with an accent that is more the Queen’s English than typically Australian. But then, in 2011, Asif was told he must go back to Afghanistan because it was now safe there.
“I have no family in Afghanistan any more, they all live illegally in Iran,” Asif said. “But despite this, I was told I must go back to Afghanistan. I survived a bomb blast a few weeks after I arrived in Kabul and then I was abducted.
“I was tortured and was going to be killed. I was with one other person and we managed to escape. That is why I came to Australia.”
After his escape, Asif began the journey through Asia to Australia. Once he arrived in Indonesia, Asif attempted four times, he said, to travel to Australia to seek refuge by boat but failed each time when his group was stopped by authorities. Then he decided to come by plane.
“I then decided to take the plane to Australia,” Asif said. “That was still organised by a people smuggler, and was very difficult, but I decided I had no other choice. When I arrived at the airport, I said I am from Afghanistan and I’m here to apply for a refugee protection visa. I was taken then to detention in Villawood. I was there about one year. Then I received a letter from the Minister granting me a bridging visa to live in the community.” Asif is currently employed at a credit union in Sydney. Because he came by plane, rather than boat, his bridging visa allows him to work while he is here. But that job will end soon and Asif said that his precarious visa situation meant employers were reluctant to take him on.
“It’s difficult not knowing what is going to happen to me,” he said. “I don’t know where I’m going to be in six months. I can’t plan for the future.”
Asif has found some solace in sharing his story with the public. For whatever time he has in Australia, he hopes to educate people about the circumstances of people like himself who are seeking a safe place to live.
Asif will join two young speakers from refugee backgrounds to share his experience at SSI’s Speakers’ Series event on November 11, The strength of youth: young people and their refugee experiences.
“I will tell people about the skills, knowledge and creative talents that refugees bring with them to a country, and that they are not only as people see them,” Asif said.
Date: Tuesday November 11, 2014
Location: SSI Auditorium, Level 2, 158 Liverpool Road, Ashfield
Admission by donation. RSVP: refugeeyouth.eventbrite.com.au
SSI Online Communications Coordinator, Callan Lawrence, 0478 156 491 or 02 8799 6746
SSI Communications Officer, Rekha Sanghi 0422 304 578