Going to a foreign country for the first time can be scary. I want to put that fear into perspective. I met a guy from Afghanistan while I was in Melbourne earlier this year. In the course of our conversation I asked him about how he had ended up in Australia. He had a fascinating story to tell.
Photo by DVIDSHUB
How does a refugee from a war torn country make it to Australia?
My wife and I met Ali in a cafe in Melbourne’s trendy Fitzroy district. He was sitting by himself and, as my wife and I were sat near him, we struck up a conversation.
Before I tell you Ali’s story, I want to remind everyone of the amazing times we live in. For most of us, a couple of weeks salary will buy a plane ticket to the other side of the world. There are thousands of blogs and websites to help you find a place to stay, plan sightseeing trips and get a feel for exactly what you can expect.
When you arrive, you can be certain there will be plenty of English speaking people to serve you at restaurants, hostels, train stations and for virtually every important interaction you will have. Your credit and bank cards will be widely accepted so you won’t have to bring much cash.
There are abundant internet access points so you can keep in touch with family, and you can even make unlimited free video calls to anywhere in the world with Skype.
There are will be restaurants and cafes that cater to western tastes and if you are really homesick, rest assured that a McDonald’s or Starbucks are never too far away.
Travel is no longer difficult, unless you are someone like Ali.
Forced to leave his homeland for the sake of family.
If you have fears of traveling, consider what Ali went through.
Despite the poverty and the difficult conditions caused by the continuing unrest in Afghanistan, Ali was reluctant to leave behind the relative comfort of family and friends. In the end, he was forced to leave by his own father. The harsh reality was that Ali represented the best chance of a better life for the family as a whole and, to that end, he reluctantly packed his bag and left.
Ali set off for Pakistan with little money and few belongings. He had none of the things that many of us take for granted when we go abroad; no MacBook Air, digital SLR camera or smart phone. Ali was a real minimalist, in every sense of the word. Still, he made it to Pakistan and from there he was able to board a ship to Singapore.
Escaping to a better life is no Mediterranean cruise.
I asked him what kind of ship it was. He joked that it was just like the Titanic, with beautiful restaurants, live music and extravagant ballrooms. He then explained that it was a tiny, overpacked cargo ship that was thrown around so violently in the sea that he didn’t expect to live to see Singapore. A couple of years later, his cousin tried to make the exact same trip and sadly didn’t survive the voyage. The boat sank with everyone on board. Of course. it’s not the first time that ocean-going craft packed with refugees have been lost in unforgiving waters, and it won’t be the last.
Luckily, for him and his family, Ali did make it to Singapore. (Take a moment to check the Google Map below to see what a trip by boat from Pakistan to Singapore and then Australia entails. This is no Mediterranean cruise.)
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Now imagine what happens to refugees when they arrive in a foreign country tired and hungry, with little money and no return airfare. Ali was immediately detained by immigration, but at least he was getting three free meals a day and a warm place to sleep.
Singapore immigration held him in custody and repeatedly questioned him about his reasons for being in the country. After several days of saying that he was there on business, immigration finally relented and released him.
Escape to captivity: no one wants a refugee
It is sad indictment on our society that western nations built on liberal immigration policies, now largely shutter their borders from those who are most in need. Think of the countless desperate people that risk their lives just for a chance to do minimum wage jobs in a developed country. They are grateful for any opportunity. All they are looking for is a basic level of human dignity.
Back to the story
From Singapore, Ali managed to arrange passage on a tiny boat to Australia. It took all his money to get there, but his family had prepared for this in advance.
With animated hand gestures, Ali explained how the boat would be tossed around on the giant ocean waves, perpetually on the verge of capsizing. I can’t even imagine what it would have been like to be in cramped quarters with dozens of other seasick refugees hoping for a better life at the end of the journey.
Somehow the barely seaworthy craft survived the voyage and Ali finally arrived in Australia. Australia welcomed the refugees with open arms. Open long enough to arrest everyone and throw them in a makeshift detention camp. Ali spent more than two years separated from a life in Australia by a chain link fence.
A refugee liberated by hippies
According to Ali, he was finally rescued from the misery of the camp by a group of, in his words, ‘hippies.’ He said there was a commune near the refugee detention camp inhabited by a group of people who lived off the land. One night they came in and cut a hole in the fence and helped several people escape. Ali was one of the lucky ones.
He wasn’t clear on the details after that point, but he eventually received refugee status and was finally able to legally work in Australia. For many years, he sent as much money as he could to his family who had since relocated to Pakistan. Apparently, there is a way to wire money by cell phones for as little as $10 per transaction. It used to cost a small fortune when the banks and loan sharks were involved, but some clever entrepreneurs figured out a way to do it without gouging the low income money senders.
A better world
When you are planning your life changing trip to the other side of the world, think about what Ali went through, and know that you will never encounter even a fraction of those hardships. We live in amazing times with unlimited opportunities to really make a difference in the world. Choose to be bold and do something about it. There are billions of people worrying about where their next meal will come from. We are lucky enough to not have those worries, let’s not waste that privilege.