True love in Nauru

The Monthly (Australia) - - FRONT PAGE - AB­DUL KARIM HEK­MAT

On 25 Jan­uary 2014, a new group of asy­lum seek­ers was brought to the de­ten­tion cen­tre in Nauru. Ashkan* went to the gate to greet the ar­rivals. He watched tired and con­fused men, faces tinged with sad­ness, stag­ger into the com­pound. A Trans­field em­ployee handed each one a pack­age that in­cluded sham­poo, a towel and tooth­paste. Read­ing the shock on one man’s face, Ashkan in­tro­duced him­self. “I was brought here five months ago – I know how you feel right now,” he said, press­ing the man’s hand. “If you need any­thing, I’m here to help, and show you around if you like.”

“My name is Nima,” the man replied.

Later that day, Nima, 27 at the time, and Ashkan, 23, met again in the com­pound. Nima – av­er­age height, with brown eyes in a chis­elled face – had been born and raised in Tehran, in a high-rise block of flats. Ashkan, who was taller, with deep-set eyes and a strong physique, had grown up in Ilam, a moun­tain­ous area of Iran bor­der­ing eastern Iraq. His Kur­dish par­ents had fled there from Iraq dur­ing the Iran–Iraq war in the 1980s. When the Kurds in Hal­abja joined with Ira­nian troops to fight against Sad­dam Hus­sein, Sad­dam re­sponded by bom­bard­ing Hal­abja, killing thou­sands. More than 100,000 Kurds fled to Iran, and in to­tal more than a mil­lion were dis­placed. Ashkan’s fam­ily spent three brac­ing win­ters in Ira­nian-run refugee camps where food, heat­ing and san­i­ta­tion were in short sup­ply. Those who re­turned to Iraq faced ex­e­cu­tion at the hands of Sad­dam, and those who chose to stay in Iran be­came state­less pari­ahs. Nei­ther Iran nor Iraq recog­nised them as ci­ti­zens when the war was over. Ashkan, like many Kurds of that gen­er­a­tion, was not en­ti­tled to hold a driver’s li­cence or buy prop­erty. He grew up treated as an out­sider, a threat to the Ira­nian state, and was not al­lowed to get even a high-school ed­u­ca­tion. In 2013, he de­cided to leave. With­out an Ira­nian pass­port, it was dif­fi­cult. He used the ser­vices of a peo­ple smuggler, who made him a fake pass­port, and he flew to In­done­sia.

From there, he hopped on a boat with 140 other asy­lum seek­ers. After a hellish three days and nights, the boat’s pump stopped work­ing, fill­ing the bilge with sea wa­ter, pan­ick­ing those on board. Some bailed out wa­ter, oth­ers prayed and cried, think­ing their boat would go into the sea any minute. Tired and scared bod­ies were strewn ev­ery­where. Even­tu­ally the Aus­tralian navy ar­rived, first threat­en­ing to tow them back to In­done­sia and then leav­ing, be­fore re­turn­ing re­luc­tantly to res­cue them.

Ashkan ar­rived on Christ­mas Is­land two weeks after Kevin Rudd’s gov­ern­ment de­clared that all boat ar­rivals would be taken off­shore. In Septem­ber 2013, he was among a group of sin­gle men who, with se­cu­rity guards grip­ping each arm, were bussed to a wait­ing plane for Nauru. On the plane, a guard was wedged be­tween ev­ery two asy­lum seek­ers, watch­ing their ev­ery move­ment, fol­low­ing them to the toi­let, even plac­ing a foot in the toi­let door.

After 15 hours on the plane, Ashkan spot­ted a tiny is­land in the mid­dle of a vast ocean. “I was fright­ened – the run­way seemed like a small street,” he said. When they landed, the muggy heat felt like a slap in the face. The bus to the de­ten­tion cen­tre drove through the pin­na­cles of rocks that phos­phate ex­ca­va­tions had left like tombs, and past cars that lay aban­doned by the side of the road. “It looked like a war zone from a movie.” A dirt track led to the de­ten­tion cen­tre, which had no rooms, beds or fans, just mil­i­tary stretch­ers lined up un­der rows of green can­vas, 40 peo­ple per tent. “For four or five days, I didn’t know where I was, who I was. I was not my­self,” Ashkan said. “I couldn’t sleep or eat.” There was a rough wooden hut in a cor­ner of the com­pound where peo­ple took show­ers. It quickly grew filthy. Each per­son was al­lowed to take a two-minute shower per day: after that they

were pulled out by the guard even if they still had sham­poo in their hair. De­tainees queued for hours for a tele­phone to call their fam­i­lies, and for lunch and din­ner, all in the scorch­ing heat.

By the time Nima ar­rived, the green tents had been re­placed by non­flammable, mice-in­fested white tents. The de­ten­tion cen­tre teemed with around 500 asy­lum seek­ers, mostly from Afghanistan, Iran, Sri Lanka and Pak­istan. They now had fans but still could not fend off the scorch­ing 40-de­gree heat. The men tended to stay in the crowded tents by day any­way, as there was lit­tle shade else­where.

In the evenings, when the heat dropped a lit­tle, the gaunt-faced men emerged, and Nima and Ashkan, who were in dif­fer­ent tents, sought each other out. There was noth­ing to do, so to­gether they paced the flood­lit com­pound, laugh­ing at the squeak­ing sound of their stan­dard-is­sue cheap white slip­pers on the sandy ground. They played cards and traded sto­ries, cau­tiously shar­ing more and more about them­selves. Nima re­vealed that he was gay, that he’d been ha­rassed by peo­ple who knew him, and gang-raped; that when his fa­ther had found out about Nima’s ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, he’d beaten him.

Ashkan replied that he was also gay.

Ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity car­ries the death penalty in Iran. Nima had run a suc­cess­ful busi­ness there as an en­gi­neer, but he’d fled to find safety from per­se­cu­tion. He ar­rived on Christ­mas Is­land on 7 Au­gust 2013, a week after Ashkan (although they did not meet there). He de­clared his sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion to an im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cer, ex­plain­ing that was his rea­son for flee­ing Iran – but he was trans­ferred to Nauru, where ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity was also il­le­gal at that time. Ashkan, by con­trast, had sought asy­lum on the ba­sis of be­ing a Kurd – not many peo­ple in Iran, in­clud­ing his fam­ily, had known about his ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity.

They spent more time to­gether, had meals to­gether, sup­ported each other. Sit­ting to­gether on Ashkan’s bunk a month after Nima’s ar­rival, Nima told Ashkan he was in love. Ashkan, heart ham­mer­ing – he had been in­fat­u­ated with Nima since he’d met him but never able to say it – placed his hand on top of Nima’s. “I love you too,” he whis­pered in re­sponse.

De­spite the op­pres­sive con­di­tions in the cen­tre and the ter­ri­ble un­cer­tainty of the refugee de­ter­mi­na­tion process, they had found each other, and that made it all bear­able. It gave them hope. A few days after declar­ing their love, they told cen­tre man­agers Trans­field, the im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cers, their case­work­ers and coun­sel­lors that they wanted to live to­gether as a cou­ple. “We love each other. We want to live to­gether and have pri­vacy,” they said. “We want to be moved into [Re­gional Pro­cess­ing Cen­tre 3] among the fam­i­lies.” The de­ten­tion cen­tre staff told them that as sin­gle men they couldn’t be moved among the fam­i­lies. Be­sides, it was il­le­gal to be in this kind of re­la­tion­ship in Nauru.

With no pri­vacy, they first had sex in the toi­let cu­bi­cle; they clutched at each other, kiss­ing and call­ing each other es­hgham (“my love”), try­ing to avoid the filth of the toi­let. They ti­died them­selves, flushed the toi­let and five min­utes later were back out­side.

They had avoided de­tec­tion that time, but it wasn’t long be­fore news of their re­la­tion­ship spread among the de­tainees. “Al­most ev­ery­one started writ­ing letters of com­plaint to Trans­field, say­ing that we were dis­re­spect­ing our cul­ture: ‘We are pray­ing in this tent, while they hug and sit next to each other,’” Nima said. When they were sit­ting on the same bed or walk­ing to­gether, they felt the hate­ful gaze of other de­tainees. “Dirty peo­ple,” one spat. Cen­tre man­age­ment took no ac­tion. Other de­tainees, in­clud­ing some who had shown them hos­til­ity, be­gan fol­low­ing Ashkan into the shower, de­mand­ing sex. “I was so scared, but when I com­plained to the se­cu­rity guards, they said they could do noth­ing.” Their ad­vice: “Stop be­ing gay.”

The guards joined in the abuse, telling Ashkan and Nima they couldn’t hold hands while walk­ing in the com­pound, couldn’t sit to­gether on one bed – or “we’ll call the Nauru po­lice to come and take you to prison”. A lo­cal

se­cu­rity guard prod­ded Nima’s back­side with a metal de­tec­tor. Again, the au­thor­i­ties took no ac­tion. Nima, fright­ened of the ha­rass­ment, stopped walk­ing alone or go­ing to the toi­let by him­self, and wanted Ashkan by his side at all times.

One day, when Ashkan was sick, Nima went to break­fast alone. An­other de­tainee sat next to him, pulled his erect pe­nis out of his pants and de­manded sex. Nima left the din­ing hall, re­pulsed and pan­icked, and re­ported the in­ci­dent to the Wil­son se­cu­rity guard, an Aus­tralian, stand­ing at the door. Noth­ing hap­pened.

Nima changed his ap­pli­ca­tion to a spousal visa, hop­ing that if Ashkan was recog­nised as a refugee, Nima would get a visa as his spouse. A few months later, their lawyer asked them to at­tend an in­ter­view. Through an in­ter­preter, the lawyer ad­vised them to “hide [their] re­la­tion­ship from the Nau­ruan public, po­lice and gov­ern­ment” if they wanted to be re­leased to­gether. They were shocked. Fear­ing that they would not be able to be to­gether if their re­la­tion­ship was not recog­nised, they re­fused. “Why should we hide from them?” Ashkan asked.

Sev­eral weeks later, in late July 2014, Ashkan was recog­nised as a refugee. His lawyer told him that he must leave the de­ten­tion cen­tre. He was to live in the com­mu­nity in Nauru. Ashkan in­sisted he would only go if he and Nima could go to­gether, but the lawyer said this was im­pos­si­ble, as “ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity is il­le­gal”. Force could be used, Ashkan was told, if he did not leave vol­un­tar­ily. A few heavy-set Wil­son se­cu­rity guards stood by, one ges­tur­ing con­fir­ma­tion that they would force him out. “Please give me a few min­utes to col­lect my be­long­ings and say good­bye to Nima at least.”

“Hope­fully they will bring you soon,” he told Nima, ex­plain­ing he had no way of re­sist­ing the or­der. They hugged and kissed and Ashkan put his pos­ses­sions – three shirts and two pairs of jeans – into his bag, watched by the guards. It was time to leave. He slung his bag over his shoul­der and the guards es­corted him to the main metal gate. Nima fol­lowed, plead­ing with the guards not to sep­a­rate them.

When the main gate clanked shut, Nima’s heart broke. “Don’t take him away, don’t take him away! I love him!” His cries woke up other de­tainees, who came out to find him rolling in the dirt, in tears and shout­ing. With­out think­ing, he grabbed a rock and be­gan smash­ing him­self, so hard that he split his head open. Se­cu­rity guards called an am­bu­lance to take him to the clinic.

Ashkan heard the com­mo­tion but didn’t know what was hap­pen­ing. He asked the guards, over and over, why they had sep­a­rated him from Nima. “Just do­ing our job,” one replied. The rest watched him in si­lence. They gave him the key to a tiny room in “Fly Camp”, along­side the other sin­gle male refugees. He threw him­self onto the sin­gle bed, cry­ing and scream­ing.

In the clinic, a dis­tressed Nima found him­self ly­ing alone on a bed with his head swathed in a ban­dage. A few hours later, the se­cu­rity guards es­corted him back to the de­ten­tion cen­tre. He went straight to Ashkan’s empty bed, found some of his hair on the cush­ion and col­lapsed in tears again. Se­cu­rity guards looked on.

Nima felt es­pe­cially vul­ner­a­ble with­out Ashkan there. After a guard stopped him from slash­ing his wrist with a ra­zor, he was put on sui­cide watch. Two Wil­son guards, notebooks in hand, fol­lowed him ev­ery­where, even to the toi­let and shower.

As for Ashkan, free­dom from de­ten­tion meant noth­ing while Nima was trapped in­side. He didn’t sleep. He didn’t leave the room. Night blended into day. A wor­ried case­worker tried to per­suade him to go out but he re­fused. “What I am go­ing to do there?” He was wor­ried about Nima be­ing fol­lowed into the toi­let, per­haps raped. He felt guilty about leav­ing him be­hind; he had been the stronger one, the pro­tec­tor. They spoke on the phone. “I miss you, es­hgham,” Nima said. “I want to be at your bed­side. I wish my love had wings to fly the fence.”

Nima asked to be al­lowed to see Ashkan out­side, but the guards re­fused. The cou­ple hatched a plan to meet up on the next “ex­cur­sion day”, which hap­pened once or twice a month, when refugees were taken out un­der heavy guard to watch the sun­set. On a small is­land lit­tered with quar­ries, there was not much to do ex­cept visit the beach.

When the day ar­rived, Ashkan and Nima rushed to­wards each other and em­braced tear­fully. Around them, the se­cu­rity guards formed a hu­man chain, in case they tried to run away – or throw them­selves into the sea.

They sat there, pressed to­gether, kiss­ing and hugging, sur­rounded by guards. The red sun sank into the sea. “Time’s up.” It had only been around 30 min­utes. Nima got back on the bus. Ashkan stared at their foot­steps in the white sand, putting his feet into Nima’s, zigzag­ging along the beach.

The sec­ond time, Ashkan waited with mount­ing anx­i­ety as the bus failed to ar­rive. He ran, a knot in his stom­ach, un­til he found the bus. The guards had changed the lo­ca­tion at the last minute. This time they had less than ten min­utes to­gether.

Ashkan was dis­ap­pointed after the sec­ond short re­u­nion. He thought he would prob­a­bly not get an­other chance to see Nima. After a month, over­come by worry and guilt, Ashkan swal­lowed 30 Panadol tablets. An­other refugee alerted nearby Save the Chil­dren staff, who called an am­bu­lance and rushed him to Nauru hospi­tal. He told the doc­tor not to save him. The doc­tor, a Nau­ruan, said his or­gans would be badly dam­aged if he wasn’t treated.

“When the doc­tor gave me hope, [say­ing that] he would do some­thing to help bring Nima, I al­lowed him to flush my stom­ach,” Ashkan said. He stayed in the hospi­tal overnight. Two days later, he learned that Nima had been recog­nised as a refugee and was soon to join him.

Ashkan bought gro­ceries and a bot­tle of wine to cel­e­brate Nima’s ar­rival. He cooked qormeh sabzi, an Ira­nian dish of meat, beans and herbs. The room was too small for any­thing but a sin­gle bed; they sat on it to have their din­ner.

They had noisy sex – free­dom! But they were given sep­a­rate rooms. A few days later, when an im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cer and a case­worker from Save the Chil­dren vis­ited them in Fly Camp, Ashkan and Nima asked to share a room with a dou­ble bed. They were told they couldn’t be­cause it was il­le­gal.

At least they were free. They wan­dered the is­land to­gether, sur­prised by the poverty, shabby houses, bro­ken win­dows and peo­ple walk­ing bare­foot over the rough and bar­ren ground. But here, too, they at­tracted hos­tile looks. One day, as they lay side by side on the beach, sun­ning them­selves and tak­ing pho­tos, a lo­cal Nau­ruan ap­proached them and asked, “Are you gay?” “Yes.” “You are bad peo­ple, you are dirty peo­ple.” The man closed his fists, threat­en­ing to at­tack them. “You are not al­lowed to sit to­gether here.”

Nauru has a pop­u­la­tion of a lit­tle over 10,000; ho­mo­pho­bia is rife. Slowly peo­ple be­came aware of the only openly gay refugees on the is­land. Some­times, lo­cal peo­ple threw rub­bish or swore at them. One day, as a mo­tor­bike passed, the driver punched Nima to the ground. Things got worse for Ashkan and Nima as more lo­cals learned of their sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion.

In Fe­bru­ary 2015, while they waited on the street for a lift to go shop­ping, a group of five young Nau­ruan men be­gan swear­ing and throw­ing stones at them. They tried to ig­nore the men and move fur­ther away but in the end had to run.

Two weeks later, while they were wait­ing for a bus, a car­ful of Nau­ruan men drove past. One of the pas­sen­gers threw a cig­a­rette lighter at Nima’s feet and it ex­ploded, spray­ing frag­ments of some­thing on him. They re­ported it to their case­worker.

In July that year, around 8 o’clock one night, they were walk­ing back from the shops on a dark­ened route close to home when three lo­cals armed with clubs and a stick jumped out from the jun­gle. “Are you part­ners?” they asked. “Yes.” “Fuck gays, you make our home dirty,” and they at­tacked. Nima and Ashkan were knocked to the ground. A refugee pass­ing on a mo­tor­bike called the po­lice and am­bu­lance; Nima and Ashkan landed in hospi­tal.

From then on, they de­cided not to leave their rooms. But this was no safer. One night, a lo­cal tried to break in while they were in­side, shak­ing the door vi­o­lently. They re­ported the in­ci­dent to the po­lice. Noth­ing hap­pened. They weren’t al­lowed to sleep to­gether at night but would spend their days to­gether. A refugee who lived next door one day asked why they spent so much time to­gether. “We’re part­ners,” Nima replied. The man ar­gued with them and punched Nima in the chest. Other refugees stepped in to stop him at­tack­ing again. Some called them “dis­gust­ing peo­ple”; some said they “should be re­moved from the Earth”. For seven months, the cou­ple pestered the au­thor­i­ties to pro­vide them sep­a­rate ac­com­mo­da­tion, and even­tu­ally they were al­lowed to live to­gether in an­other camp, Ewa, where they re­main.

Through their lawyer, Anna Brown, from the Hu­man Rights Law Cen­tre, Nima and Ashkan doc­u­mented and re­ported all these in­ci­dents to the Aus­tralian im­mi­gra­tion depart­ment. A month later, the min­is­ter’s of­fice re­sponded that their safety was the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the Nauru gov­ern­ment, and asked them to be “ac­tive play­ers in the Nau­ruan com­mu­nity for the du­ra­tion of their time in Nauru”. Min­is­ter Peter Dut­ton did not ap­prove re­lo­cat­ing them to Aus­tralia. The let­ter ac­knowl­edged they had ex­pe­ri­enced “some un­pleas­ant be­hav­iour” but ad­vised them to

re­port the in­ci­dents to Nauru po­lice, and seek sup­port from Con­nect Set­tle­ment Ser­vices “on pre­ven­ta­tive mea­sures, in­clud­ing per­sonal safety strate­gies”.

I started speak­ing to Nima and Ashkan in April last year. They needed some­body to talk to who could speak their lan­guage (which I do), and we had shared ex­pe­ri­ences (I came here by boat in 2001 and spent five months in Curtin de­ten­tion cen­tre).

Ashkan and Nima were elo­quent, kind and in­tel­li­gent. They spoke pas­sion­ately about their love, and how they had missed each other when they were sep­a­rated. “We were like Layla and Ma­j­nun,” Ashkan said, laugh­ing, re­fer­ring to a 7th-cen­tury love story told by Per­sian poet Nizami Gan­javi in the 12th cen­tury. Like Romeo and Juliet, it is a tale of star­crossed lovers that ends in tragedy.

When I asked Ashkan why he had taken the pills, he said, “I was so [in­tox­i­cated by Nima’s] love. I wasn’t sure what I was do­ing … I tried other ways to get to him but was not suc­cess­ful.”

After the July 2015 in­ci­dent, Ashkan only went out with a case­worker, once a week, to buy gro­ceries. “We have been at­tacked so many times and sur­vived … We’re not iron men; we are made of bones and flesh like ev­ery­one else.”

Nima said he wanted to start a busi­ness in Aus­tralia. Some­times he asked about Syd­ney: where was the best place to live, and where did the gay com­mu­nity hang out. He said he liked sport, and wanted to know the best place to go surf­ing. I was sur­prised, and asked him where he’d learned to surf. He said he would learn. “I would like to go out, to do sport, and go swim­ming and run­ning, but in a place that’s safe. Not here,” he said, sound­ing hope­less.

“Ev­ery­thing here is repet­i­tive – the min­utes, the hours, the weeks and the months.”

We cracked jokes and laughed about such things as for­mer Ira­nian pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad telling the United Na­tions Gen­eral Assem­bly in 2007 that there were no gays in Iran. But slowly the jokes dried up, and the calls grew fewer.

After a 23-year-old Ira­nian asy­lum seeker, Omid Ma­soumali, set him­self on fire in front of the vis­it­ing UN High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees rep­re­sen­ta­tive, I called to check how they were. Nima sounded very dis­tressed. “Omid is gone,” he said, choked with emo­tion. “He freed him­self from the tor­tur­ous world.” He said he’d be the “next” – “That’s how tired I am.” I didn’t know what to tell him.

In June 2016, Con­nect Set­tle­ment Ser­vices stopped es­cort­ing Ashkan and Nima out shop­ping, telling them it was “an or­der from above”. When I spoke to them, they had been out of food for a week, sur­viv­ing on bis­cuits and wa­ter. “Let us die here. We don’t feel safe go­ing out by our­selves,” Ashkan said with a hoarse voice. A fel­low refugee even­tu­ally bought some gro­ceries for them.

For weeks and months, Nima re­peated that he would take his life, that he was tired, that had noth­ing to look for­ward to. Around Septem­ber last year, he told me, “I am just a corpse.”

“He has gone mad,” Ashkan told me. “He pounds the wall, throws plates …” Since 14 Oc­to­ber, a psy­chi­a­trist and psy­chol­o­gist have vis­ited Nima weekly and recog­nised ma­jor de­pres­sion. He has been put on med­i­ca­tion. Ashkan sent me a pic­ture of Nima ly­ing on his bed, and an­other of his note­book-sized medico pack filled with an­tide­pres­sants.

Hope came in the form of news about the refugee swap deal with the US. Laugh­ing again for the first time in months, Ashkan told me, “Ev­ery­one is happy here. We are go­ing to Amer­ica!” A group of Ira­nian women next door be­gan learn­ing English. Ashkan put his phone on speaker mode; I could hear peo­ple’s voices, laugh­ter, gig­gling. Life. Both Nima and Ashkan got in­ter­views for re­set­tle­ment in the US.

When Don­ald Trump an­nounced his four-month ban on Mus­lims from seven coun­tries, in­clud­ing Iran, en­ter­ing the US, Nima said, “My hands and feet turned cold. I felt numb. Four months is a long time. Each day passes like a year here.” Then came the in­fa­mous phone call be­tween Trump and Mal­colm Turn­bull on 27 Jan­uary: the deal with the US was on shaky ground. The mood on the is­land turned sour. One Ira­nian tried to hang him­self at the de­ten­tion cen­tre. Aus­tralian Bor­der Force called a few refugees, in­clud­ing Nima and Ashkan, in the wake of the dis­cus­sion be­tween Trump and Turn­bull, as­sur­ing them that the deal was go­ing to get through.

“Our emo­tions fall and rise with any good and bad news,” Nima said. “We are hu­man be­ings. We have the same de­sires as ev­ery­one else. We want to live in peace and have free­dom. That’s not too much to ask. We aren’t toys for politi­cians to play with.”

They put in a joint ap­pli­ca­tion for US re­set­tle­ment and in their first in­ter­view gave de­tails of what had hap­pened to them on Nauru, of the abuse and ha­rass­ment they had suf­fered since be­ing ma­rooned there, and spoke of their love for each other. Two months ago they com­pleted their med­i­cal check-ups but were wait­ing for their sec­ond in­ter­view with US Home­land Se­cu­rity when the of­fi­cials sud­denly left Nauru, leav­ing them con­fused and doubt­ful about their re­set­tle­ment tak­ing place at all. They said they didn’t be­lieve in the deal any­more, and wouldn’t be­lieve it un­til they stepped onto the plane.

“Aus­tralia has killed our hope and bro­ken our hearts,” Nima told me, “but not our love.”

“Love will be vic­to­ri­ous,” Ashkan added.

* Names have been changed.

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