From Iraq to Woomera: The Story of Dr Amir

By Susan Owens
02 Feb 2002
Australian Financial Review

Desperate to escape working on Saddam Hussein's microbiology and genetic engineering programs, Dr Amir Al-Obaidi sought refuge in Australia with the help of people smugglers. Here, he tells why.

Amir Al-Obaidi, 49, has known heaven and he has known hell. A man who spent 11 months incarcerated in Woomera's notorious refugee camp, he started life as a privileged child, the son of a wealthy, scholarly Baghdad family. He attended an elite school, won a scholarship to Bristol University in the UK and later enjoyed an international reputation for his work in microbiology.

Amir had picked a field of speciality in a country that had a special interest in it. Yet things did not turn out well. Iraq's President, Saddam Hussein, hand-picked the country's leading scientists for a new academy of microbiology and genetic engineering and named Amir among the chosen. This was a chilling prospect. He decided he must leave and the Australian Embassy in Jordan accepted his application as a skilled migrant but imposed a crippling proviso: a five -year wait. He could not wait. Instead, he would leave Iraq and join the boat people.

Arriving in Australia, a policeman greeted him: 'Have you heard of Woomera?' 'No,' the doctor replied. 'Then God help you.' He would find hell in Australia, a land where he saw the promise of paradise. Amir's story cannot be told in its entirety. He has left Woomera and is living in Adelaide, but his wife and two children are still in Iraq. If a job application is successful, they may be able to apply to join him. The process could take five years.

'People looked at us as ignorant, dirty, illiterate, bad people,' says Amir of his experience at Woomera. He had come a long way from the days as a young graduate of Baghdad's College of Veterinary Medicine. Back in 1976 the world was full of opportunity, not deprivation. For although he was conscripted into the Iraqi Army he was surprised to get official permission to accept a scholarship to Bristol University for research in veterinary public health.

Amir and his family lived in Bristol, from 1986 to 1989. He won his PhD for work on campylobacter, a bacteria which carries infections from animals to humans. The diagnosis of campylobacter is now so accurate, due to his work, that it is better understood than salmonella.

Ignoring his university supervisors, who encouraged him to stay in England, Amir returned to Baghdad. 'My first mistake.' His taxi driver, learning he had returned from Europe, said: 'Do you mind if I insult you? You are mad to be back.' Even his family, although pleased to see him, pitied him. Of the thousands of academics who left Iraq in the '90s, few returned. His brother had left for Vienna in 1992, his sisters were in Holland. He was conscripted into the army a second time in 1988, but eight months later the Ministry of Higher Education employed him as a microbiology research student, at his old university.

To his astonishment, Amir was to find that what seemed to be an innocent academic position had become highly political and on an international scale. The university attracted the attention of UNSCOM, the United Nations Special Commission, which was charged with overseeing the dismantling of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

'My problems started when Richard Butler, who was head of UNSCOM, arrived. I was the youngest member of staff and I spoke English. The UN doubted everyone working in microbiology. 'They asked for the details of our work with micro-toxins, bacteria, new methods of increasing numbers of bacteria, new cultures. They were interested in anthrax. I said I did not work with anthrax, since it was dangerous and prohibited by law, by the UN.

'The dean did not like me talking to the UN. I had no choice but to answer their questions. They would come during a lecture and ask what I was holding in my tray. I'd say, 'Bacteria, salmonella, E. coli', whatever. I said I had a private lab that I worked in in the afternoon because my salary was not enough to live on. All my work involved research on micro-organisms which cause clinical symptoms, like meningococcal; diseases which are passed from animals to children and the elderly through chickens or other foods.

'The men from the UN were always escorted by the President's security and intelligence men. One day nine cars and three groups of specialists came to my private lab. I found that terrifying, I simply used the lab for diagnosis. The UN didn't seem to believe people in Iraq, like everywhere, get viruses which have to be identified.'

Amir felt the pressure of being under such surveillance and his unease deepened when a Government intelligence officer came to tell him somebody would always be watching over him. When he was offered a senior post with the President's new scientific institute, he felt the pressure even more. 'It is not proper for me, considering my wife in Iraq, and now new threats from [President] George Bush, to elaborate on what I believed I would do in the President's new institute. I simply had to go.

'My way of leaving was unexpected. In 1999 my wife became ill. The doctors, who included Saddam's doctor, agreed she had to leave the country for an operation on her back. Women must not travel unaccompanied, so here was my chance. We packed a car and drove to Jordan.'

But Jordan was no solution. The Ministry of Health there had orders not to employ Iraqi scientists. 'I could not provide for my family without an income.

'My wife said, 'We'll go back to Iraq and you'll find your way as a refugee and we will follow.' The last time I saw her was September 12, 1999, when they drove back to Iraq. I was desperately sad, afraid of an unknown destiny, but I had to look forward. I would become what Australia calls a queue jumper.

'A Jordanian friend took me to a smuggler, a Mr Ayad. He was an Iraqi Kurdish student living in Malaysia. He asked for $US2,500 ($4,922) for a plane to Malaysia and a boat to Australia.

'I flew from Jordan to Kuala Lumpur in December 1999. A lot of refugees were on the plane. In Malaysia the Egyptian smuggler took our passports. He stamped visas for Indonesia. It's called the 'potato technique', because they use potatoes to make the stamp. We went by ferry to an island in the north of Indonesia. This island was a terrible place, full of bad people, prostitutes, smugglers, drug dealers, thieves. We were put in a bad hotel and were in the hands of the Egyptian smuggler, who called himself only Hussein.

'Hussein was the same man who sent the boat that drowned 350 people. We should have had the same destiny, ours was the same kind of boat although Hussein showed us pictures of a beautiful white cruise ship.

'He said, 'You'll be happy when you get to Australia, you'll be processed within 45 days, be given permanent residency, your passport in three months then you can bring your families. The Government will pay you about $10,000 to start your life.' Everybody was very happy.'

On Christmas Eve December 1999, Amir and 285 other refugees left the small island, with their one small bag. They had been told to destroy their passports. 'We reached Java, north of Jakarta. For two nights, we were taken on a seven-hour bus trip to a different port then back to cabins because the weather was bad. On the third night Hussein decided the conditions were good and small rowboats took us out. People were struggling to get onto them; some had missed the last boat.

'It was dark, 2am. That was their trick. If I had seen the boat I would never have gone.

'People were crammed on the stairs, on the decks. There were two toilets in the form of two planks out over the stern, covered by a curtain. The smuggler prepared good food, French bread, canned fish, oranges, apples, Coca-Cola and lots of bottled water.

'The boat had three quite sophisticated devices guiding it through the seas and the pilot was talked all the way down by radio.

'When the sun rose we saw the terrible state of the boat and realised why we boarded at night. We saw terrible things in the sea around us, signs of a boat which had sunk. There were cooking pots, pieces of wood and clothing.

'The boat leaked. I spent a lot of time down below pulling buckets of water out. After 36 hours we reached Australia at Christmas Island. It was difficult to believe we had arrived at all, looking back at the boat. It was like a child's toy, mended with tape. I had this thought in my mind, that when I was a child, they used to show us news on TV of how the Vietnamese came to Australia by boat. My family thought they were crazy, we criticised that. And here I was, like one of the Vietnamese.

'On Christmas Island the police brought us meals prepared by a Chinese chef. They gave us numbers. Each number is preceded by the name of the boat, I was DON225. We were interviewed, they searched our bags, threw away perfumes and drugs but put valuable items in numbered bags. [emphasis added]

'I realised we were in trouble when we boarded planes on Christmas Island at midnight. It was not normal, police surrounded the plane. Onboard there were guards, who told us to obey rules. We were just criminals without the handcuffs and uniforms.

'We were transferred to Woomera at midnight. There were floodlights everywhere and 400-500 people inside. I was put in a room with 18.

'We stayed out of trouble for six months. Gradually, facing a difficult situation, isolated from the world, with no radio, television, telephone or contact with the authorities, stresses built up which caused demonstrations and the first riots. These people had come from war, torture, had seen friends killed and children raped.

'The situation was made worse with no phones. After four months one mobile phone was brought to the compound. When I called my wife, she sobbed. You can imagine the queues for the phone.

People were desperate to reach their families. The guards were tough, the temperatures reached 39 degrees. The medical checks were terrible and the nurses were ill-equipped. The food was unpalatable. A guard said he wouldn't give it to animals. Everyone got sick.

'The children had nothing. They played but their wounds were contaminated. I wrote to the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, as a scientist, about my concerns, but they didn't respond. Some had swollen lymph nodes, near the genitalia, which means the infection had spread. There were outbreaks of typhoid. I kept myself busy, starting English classes. I had weekly meetings with a wonderful priest, Father Tom Atherton. We talked philosophy.'

People speak of him now as the 'peacemaker'. Amir started English classes, mediated in arguments, and was a father figure to young men. But his release was slow, like that of other English-speaking detainees, who are useful inmates for the authorities.

'In time, the priests bought books for the children but with the first riot everything burnt out. Some guards were dismissed for beating people. A lot of young, single women had problems with molesting.

'A kind guard smuggled a small radio in and I would pass on the news. I was very sad. I controlled my emotions with prayer. These people feel hopelessness because they feel sorrow; sorrow because they left tormenting situations. They came to Australia to find relief and found a different sorrow.

'Violence is against the nature of these people who had witnessed so much horror. The hunger strikes and the lip sewing are because we were ignored.

'I got out with the help of Father Atherton, who arranged for a private migration agent to attend my interview. They listened to my story in silence. I was quickly released.'

After his release, Amir went to a backpacker hostel in Adelaide. He was given a temporary protection visa, a bank account and an allowance of about $220 a week. He cannot leave the country. In 30 months he can apply for permanent residency as a skilled migrant. If granted, he can apply to bring his wife and children. His son, Mouhtaz, is 19 and his daughter, Tamara, is 16.

He's been back to Woomera 26 times since he left to help his friends. He has new friends in Adelaide, a city he likens to Bristol. He spends time in a library, preparing job applications. He wants to join a petroleum company and use his skills to transform crude oil into petrol.

Then, no longer dependent on the Government for support, a card-carrying taxpayer, he can apply to bring his wife and family to Australia.

Last weekend, a new fence around the Woomera compound pushed the media a further kilometre out. This posse was the 1,500 asylum seekers' only link to the outside world. On Monday night, gathered at the distant new boundary, they listened to the detainees' howls, cries to the world, a sound barely distinguishable from the calls of the wild dingoes.

Nobody farms this soil, which was contaminated in the 1950s following British nuclear tests. The forgotten nearby village is largely inhabited by guards, who have taken over part of the only hotel.

Some of these men, mostly former prison guards, call detainee women 'donkeys' as they shunt them into queues. They burst into their rooms in the middle of the night, shine torches in their eyes and demand their identity number. Nobody has a name at Woomera, just a number.

The women from Afghanistan feel gagged, since nobody speaks their Hazara dialect to help them tell their story. Robert McDonald, a lawyer in the compound last Monday, said he saw women who had picked up short lengths of fencing wire, pushed it through their lips, torn blankets into rags and threaded this through.

Wearing costumes that cover them from head to toe, they sense that soon temperatures will again reach 49 degrees.

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