A broken man begs to see his wife
3 November 2001
SYDNEY The tea is served, strong and syrupy, in little cups. Outside, kids play with shopping trolleys in the street. Inside, the two-bedroom flat is quiet, except for the sound of a Koran recital on the stereo and the man retching in the bathroom.
The man, Ahmed Alzalimi, eventually stops vomiting and sits down on a Persian rug, his back against the wall. His eyes, deeply lined and swollen, stare at the floor. Four boxes of tissues and three ashtrays are scattered around him.
Two weeks ago Mr Alzalimi lost his three daughters, Imman, 9, Zahraa, 7, and Fatima, just 5. Despite their mother's frantic efforts to save them, the girls drowned at sea while trying to reach their father and Australia in an Indonesian fishing boat. The disaster claimed 356 lives.
When the news reached him in Sydney last week, Mr Alzalimi stopped eating for five days. He also stopped drinking. ``Drinking water reminded me of my children drowning," he told The Age through an interpreter. ``It reminded me of the water going down their throats."
After the five days, Mr Alzalimi, 38, collapsed in front of his friends and was taken by ambulance to hospital. He was released after a day and returned to the flat he shares in Sydney's outer west with his brother-in-law Mohammad Almousawi, 33. Mr Almousawi lost his 24-year-old wife Sundus Alfaris in the Java Sea.
They are devastated. ``I feel like I hate life," Mr Almousawi said. ``I have no hope to continue my life."
Mr Alzalimi saw the pictures of his wife Sondos Ismail - Sundus' sister - in the nation's newspapers last week, her mouth stretched in grief after her 19-hour ordeal at sea. The Iraqi refugee has not, however, seen her in the flesh for two years - not since he left his family in Iran while he sought a safe home for them in Australia.
Mr Alzalimi craves his wife now more than ever, but under Australia's strict visa rules for refugees, he is barred from returning if he leaves this country. He cannot bring family members to Australia.
Sitting in a refugee camp in Bogor, Indonesia, Sondos Ismail has at least a three-month wait for her case to be processed. Kemala Ahwil, external relations officer in Jakarta for the the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said yesterday that there was only one protection officer determining the refugee status of the boat's 45 survivors.
Mr Alzalimi's only hope of a quick but temporary reunion with his wife lies in the hands of Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock. The minister has the power to intervene in exceptional circumstances, and could allow Mr Alzalimi to visit his wife and return to Australia. Although Mr Ruddock intervened, against departmental advice, to grant a visa to the Iraqi father of a New South Wales Liberal candidate in 1998, the minister's spokesman said yesterday he could not comment on whether a similar exception could be made in the case of Mr Alzalimi until he had received an application. ``The man hasn't even applied," the spokesman said.
If Ms Ismail is found to be a genuine refugee and can prove her links to Mr Alzalimi, the Department of Immigration would ``consider" letting her come to Australia.
Allowing all survivors of the disaster to come to Australia would be wrong, the spokesman said, because ``hundreds if not thousands" of asylum seekers would decide to risk their lives on unseaworthy vessels. It was also unfair to people in other tragedies and those dying of starvation in the world's refugee camps, he said.
If someone had told Mr Alzalimi about the minister's discretionary powers then he might have asked someone to put pen to paper for him, but he and Mr Almousawi have received no advice.
``There has been no information, we have no idea what to do," said Mr Alzalimi, a teacher who fled Saddam Hussein's regime after two friends were executed and his parents tortured.
Like 2500 to 3000 refugees living in Australia, Mr Alzalimi and Mr Almousawi were caught up in the Federal Government's recent changes to refugee visas.
Overnight on September 27, many of Australia's refugees who had not yet applied for permanent residency lost that right and will remain on temporary protection visas.
These visas mean they will never be able to bring their families to Australia; if they leave they cannot come back; they have no access to the settlement services, including English lessons, provided to refugees who enter Australia with proper documentation. They are less likely to be get employment and have limited access to social welfare.
``Perpetual limbo" is how advocates describe the situation of refugees who can never be granted full residency rights. Mr Alzalimi and Mr Almousawi agree. ``I feel like nothing here in this society," says Mr Almousawi, a university-educated Islamic scholar. ``My family is away from me, I haven't got a job ... I can't go anywhere."
The men fled Iraq in 1991 and sought refuge in Iran. When things did not improve in Iraq they decided to come to Australia because they knew it was a country with obligations to refugees under the United Nations Refugee Convention.
The men flew in 1999 to Malaysia and then to Indonesia, where they were approached by people smugglers at the airport and in their hotel. They each paid a smuggler $US2000 ($A3900) to be delivered to Ashmore Reef.
They believed Australia would allow for the resettlement of their family. This was true, until the rules changed in September.
After five months and a hunger strike, Mr Alzalimi was allowed to telephone his family from Curtin Detention Centre, where the men spent eight months. They thought he had died. Mr Alzalimi said they contacted him when they arrived in Jakarta. ``Even when I advised them not to come, they take the risk and they come. And then they were hit by disaster," he said.
Mr Alzalimi believes the ban on family reunions will force people into the hands of people smugglers. ``For those people like us it is like a prison situation, because they have no right to be with their families. Faced with this, the families will have no option except to take the risk and come to Australia and this would open the door to the smuggler."
The two brothers-in-law have many questions left unanswered. They want to know who will search for the bodies of their loved ones. They also want to know why people keep calling them illegals.
``We love Australia. We came here because we thought the people believed in a multicultural society ... " says Mr Alzalimi. ``We have been accepted as refugees. The way we came was our only option, so why is this illegal? We opened our hearts to Australia, so why are we being treated like this?"