Amir Sahragard believes he would be dead if it weren’t for the group of civilians who sponsored his passage to Canada after 6 long and harsh years in migrant detention centres in Papua New Guinea.
“The just thing that [kept] me alive in the last 2 years was this,” he informed BuzzFeed News.
“I’ve been mentally and physically sick and the only reason that I didn’t kill myself or that I’m still alive was this sponsorship process, because I didn’t have another option.”
Sahragard is among thousands who attempted to declare refugee status in Australia however were rather routed to overseas detention centres in the Pacific due to the fact that of their mode of transportation: boat. Under this extreme routine, individuals like Sahragard who looked for security in Australia by sea were rather subjected to harsh conditions and years of limbo.
But Sahragard is likewise among the fortunate ones. He discovered an escape, and not simply to another centre on the Australian mainland, however to Canada — where refugees avoided by Australia are progressively putting their hopes of flexibility.
Sahragard, now 28, started his long journey in 2013 when he left his house nation of Iran. Anxious about his household, who stay in Iran, he won’t discuss why he left the nation.
His next stop was Indonesia, where he boarded a ship he hoped would bring him to Australia, where he might state refugee status. The ship was filled with households and other single guys, some that he was familiar with as they awaited the ship to leave.
They were at sea for 4 days. “The boat was like a scary movie,” Sahragard stated.
When the ship came to the remote Australian area of Christmas Island, it was obstructed by the Australian Navy. Officers brought them onto the island, taking whatever the asylum candidates had with them, Sahragard stated.
Sahragard and his shipmates were processed, provided medical examinations and brand-new clothing, and informed they’d be sent out to an overseas detention centre. After being bounced around to numerous substances, Sahragard stated he was asked to sign a paper that would move him to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. At the time, Australia was paying the federal government of Papua New Guinea to take migrants and hold them in a center on the island.
Sahragard didn’t sign the paper, however was sent out “by force”, he stated. Guards put him on a bus, then an airplane, and half a day later on he landed at the Manus Regional Processing Centre.
The scene there, Sahragard stated, was “the worst thing that I [have] ever seen”. Some individuals were ill, others didn’t have clothing, and everybody was frightened.
“I was alone and like 21 years old and I’d never seen things like that and everything was by force, so I didn’t have any choice,” he stated.
He was put in a little space with 3 other guys and 2 bunk beds, in a substance called Foxtrot. Again, he was mixed around, often to camping tents, often to centers that did not have a/c and were sweltering in the tropical environment. Eventually, he landed at a substance called Mike. It would become his house for 4 years.
At Mike, detainees were allowed to utilize the web as soon as and have 2 10-minute call weekly. They had access to laundry and a mess hall, however were likewise based on abuse and violence by residents and guards, Sahragard stated.
In February 2014 a riot broke out. A good friend of Sahragard got struck in the confront with a stone and his eyes were bleeding. With the lights out, Sahragard attempted to look after him and await a medical reaction. It was turmoil. It was tough to inform who remained in the fray — residents, authorities, guards — and he noticeably keeps in mind the odor of the bullets being fired. Another buddy was shot in the butts.
After the turmoil, the detainees were collected outside, he stated, and beaten.
“They beat people with whatever they had. They had rods, iron, everything like that,” he stated. “They were simply attacking and beat[ing] individuals and when they collect us in the backyard they stated ‘you can’t remain in our country, this is our country, this we run it and you can’t do something that we don’t want you to do’.”
For a month after, the detainees resided in the mess hall without access to phones or the web, according to Sahragard. When he lastly went back to his space, he saw a bullet hole that went directly through 2 walls.
At this point, he wasn’t sleeping, and his days were filled with fear, tension and the pain of not having the ability to do anything or make any choices for himself. He was likewise shedding pounds and getting alarmingly underweight.
They were not being fed effectively, he stated, and no one was cleaning up the substance. Detainees were continuing to rebel with appetite strikes.
In 2016, the PNG Supreme Court stated the center unlawful. Detainees were all of a sudden able to sign out for the day and leave the substance. They might go shopping in Lorengau or swim in the ocean, however it wasn’t any more secure exterior. The residents were hostile to the migrants and would rob and attack them, leaving some individuals with long-lasting neurological injuries, he stated.
Soon he was moved to Hillside Haus, another center on the island. This one had hot showers — a high-end Sahragard didn’t even understand he’d missed out on.
“It was like rich that I could have hot water for shower. It’s really funny when I think about it but it was something that I really was missing,” he stated.
In all this time, there had actually never ever been a twinkle of hope of going out. Sahragard plainly wasn’t going to make it to Australia, and even the NGOs like UNHCR, Red Cross and Amnesty International that were on the ground in PNG hadn’t had the ability to assist him go out. He had actually not gotten refugee status in PNG, for worry he would be stuck there permanently if the claim was authorized. But staying as an asylum applicant provided a big concern: he was not permitted to make an application for resettlement in the United States under the refugee swap offer struck in 2016.
Finally, in 2017, Sahragard become aware of a Syrian refugee who made it to Canada through a personal sponsorship program. In Canada, a group of residents can raise funds to bring a refugee to the nation and offer settlement support when they show up. He handled to get in touch with volunteer refugee supporters who aspired to assist him.
In 2018 he sent his application and started the long waiting procedure to get authorized. At that time, speaking with the volunteers assisting him was the only thing keeping Sahragard going.
“The in 2015 [in detention] was the hardest time for me,” he stated. “I was actually frightened and I could not sleep [for] months, and can’t consume, and it was the worst time.”
Fifteen months passed. Then, Sahragard was informed he needed to get a medical examination, and he believed he may lastly go out. He was authorized for travel, landing in Brisbane prior to being accompanied onto a Canada-bound airplane by Australian migration enforcement.
Even when Sahragard saw the travel files, he still couldn’t believe it was happening. The disbelief lingered through the 14-hour flight, and through his arrival at the airport, where his sponsors greeted him by draping him in a Canadian flag.
It took weeks for him to truly accept what had happened. “I thought that I still might wake up and see that I’m in Manus or I’m still in Papua New Guinea in detention,” he said.
That was in November. When he spoke to BuzzFeed News in February, Sahragard had been settling into his new life in Toronto, first staying with an Iranian family who also came to Canada as refugees, and now renting his own room. He was attending college for English and making friends, but he was still plagued by the trauma of his time on Manus.
He has continued to sleep poorly, but was recently approved for Ontario’s public health care system, where he can access a family doctor.
Sounds are still a problem, too.
“There was a fire alarm in our building yesterday which really drove me crazy,” he said. “It was really scary for me because when I hear those things or the ambulance in downtown it really gives me stress and I get really paranoid about these things because of all the experience or the memories that I have.”
It’s getting better, day by day, but it’s still hard for Sahragard to imagine a future, of any kind, in any place, after spending most of his 20s scared, alone and detained.
“I live my life in a day for now,” he said. “[The present] is the only thing that I think of for now because I really don’t want to think about something that I could not reach. That would be really hard for me, and I’ve lost like six years of my life for nothing.”
For others — at one time Sahragard’s peers — Canada remains a dream.
Abdolah Sheikhypirkohy also fled Iran in 2013 only to be sent to Manus Island, and like Sahragard, the 2014 riot is one of his most traumatic memories. Local police arrested him and put him in a cell with almost 40 others, including six refugees.
“They beat me up, they punch me, they hurt me, cut my lips,” he said.
Over his six years in PNG, Sheikhypirkohy thinks he lost 12 teeth. For the first few years in detention there was no dentist at all. After three years, one arrived, but they had actually one solution for dental problems.
“They just pull it out. Not crown or filling or root canal, nothing. Just pull out. I don’t have many teeth now. I have problem with chewing,” Sheikhypirkohy stated. It was his missing and infected teeth that brought him to Australia for medical treatment in July 2019. He has been detained in a hotel in Melbourne since then.
He applied for private resettlement in Canada over six months ago. Like Sahragard, he had actually never applied for refugee status in PNG and could not apply to go to the US, where more than 700 people have been successfully resettled.
Sheikhypirkohy has written to Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau three times: to tell him about the situation on Manus, to send condolences about the Canadians killed when Iran shot down a plane flying to Ukraine, and to ask him to help get his application for resettlement approved.
Trudeau’s office replied each time to tell him there was nothing they could do. His latest request was forwarded to the Canadian immigration minister, and a representative emailed Sheikhypirkohy telling him where his application was up to and explaining the process.
Sheikhypirkohy was stoked to get the replies. “Even though he said he cannot interfere in the matter…at least someone answer, replied my letter,” he said.
“I said to myself, if my application get approval, I’m sure I’m going to be in the perfect country, that cares about people. Here they just call me, ‘go back to your freaking country, boat people’.”
Jafar (a pseudonym to protect his identity) has been trying to go to Canada from Nauru for the last two years. He was sceptical the plan would work at all — “in seven years, we had many news, many rumour, but nothing happen” — before hearing about the first flight to Canada.
His US application rejected, he has high hopes for Canada. “I saw on the internet about the Canadian prime minister, he is very humble. I see also Canadians, very, very good people. They are welcome to refugees, very incredible,” he said.
Sheikhypirkohy and Jafar may be waiting a while. The volunteer efforts that helped Sahragard reach Canada have ramped up. There are now dozens of people in Canada, Australia and the US organising to fill out applications, fundraise and ultimately free the men from detention. But so far, only 11 people have made it to Canada: a handful in 2015 and 2017, then eight more last year.
The process is slow: each application requires sponsors to prove they have thousands of dollars to support the refugee, and the Canadian government offers limited sponsorship spots each year. Now the coronavirus pandemic has paused resettlement in Canada entirely, though applications are still being processed.
The arduous process also means the groups helping to file the applications — Ads-Up, an Australian-North American group dedicated to helping refugees stuck on Manus and Nauru; the volunteer group Operation Not Forgotten; Canadian non-profit MOSAIC; and UNHCR — have to figure out who to prioritise. At the moment, that’s people still held offshore, those with medical conditions, and people who have no other resettlement options.
Still, the volunteers working to make it happen are committed to ending Australia’s offshore detention program.
“To get everyone off would be hundreds of submissions and millions of dollars,” said Ben Winsor, the founder of Ads-Up. “But that’s our ultimate aim.”
The softly-spoken Sahragard feels safe in Canada. But now he is dealing with a brand-new challenge: the pandemic. His classes have moved online and the social isolation is triggering traumatic memories.
“It reminds me of the time I’ve been in detention, because it’s the same situation, I can’t do anything.”
But he’s chosen to speak out — reliving memories he’d rather not — because he hopes his pals back in Manus can go out too.
“It’s really hard for me to talk about all these memories, all these things, but the only reason that I’m doing this is because I get the help, and I want them to get the help also, to have their future and save their life.”