Running the gauntlet

Why would a boy leave everyone and everything he’s ever known to run for protection? And what if, when he did, he ran right into a different political wall?

Episode 2 / Zaki’s story

Words by Lauren Martin · Photography by Abdul Karim Hekmat

ZAKI HAIDARI RUNS MARATHONS in Australia. Forty, fifty kilometres, ‘it’s not an easy process,’ he admits. He doesn't say how it began, this running for hours a day. But he proudly recalls that crossing the finish line in his first race, raising thousands of dollars for children with cancer, ‘was a very rewarding moment’.

He also clearly recalls telling his mother, when he first arrived in Australia as a teenager, ‘I don’t have to run from anything anymore.’

He can still remember the place he left, his village where a mountain river flows, and playing as a happy child with a happy family who was 'there for me no matter what'. He remembers the killings that made his mother run with her remaining children to Kabul. But the Taliban found them there, too, delivering warnings – on Taliban letterhead – about him, the oldest surviving son.

So Zaki started running. Onto his first airplane. Through jungles. Into small, dark rooms, where he was confined, hungry, thirsty and very frightened. As he ran from Afghanistan, he was beaten, threatened, he made friends and walked for days and nights on end. He made it to the sea, where he was tossed until he went into shock in a broken boat, and then, finally, he made it to an Australian outpost called Christmas Island. He was blistered by the sun and wind. Tired.

Letters from the Taliban sometimes came on official letterhead.

On Christmas Island, there was no price on his head. Instead he was made a number, corresponding to the boat that carried him to Australian shores. And over the next seven years (and counting), he has run the course of Australia’s changing policies for those who fled here by boat, seeking safety. In this, the finish line, if there is one, is always moving further out of sight. 

'When I'm out and run for hours, I just think, “Oh, this part of my body hurts, that part of my body hurts – how I can make it more strong?"’ It clears his head. Sometimes in his dreams he runs and people shoot at his legs until he can’t go on. But when he’s awake and running, he can just think of nothing. 'Now, just, that's my thing,' he says of the marathons. Between his full-time work and many volunteer duties, he keeps running. 

'You underestimate how much you can do as a human.'

When life stops being ordinary

‘So, I belong to an ethnic group called Hazara, it’s one of the minority ethnic groups in Afghanistan that has been persecuted for over almost two centuries now because of our ethnicity, our religion, our values and beliefs. We have been denied our basic human rights,’ such as access to education and health care, Zaki says. ‘My grandfather wasn't allowed to go to school because of his ethnicity and because of his religion.’

'We are Muslim, but we are Shia,’ he says. ‘In a country like Afghanistan, you could be killed because of the way you practice your Muslim beliefs.'

Hazaras were sold as slaves in Kabul markets a century ago, and systematic discrimination endured long since. Law kept Hazaras from serving in the military, government jobs, and higher education, and in the rural areas they were denied public services. Physically distinct, with Asiatic features, the more secular, intellectual Hazara community grew more out of step as Sunni extremism took hold in the late 1990s, when the Taliban declared Jihad on them. Thousands of Hazaras lost their lives in mass killings.

Yet when Zaki’s father was a young man, before the Taliban, things were briefly better in Afghanistan for Hazara people. '[My father was] the first person in our entire family who went to school. It was a big deal for the whole family, and everyone was proud of him – and then he managed to get into university. He did medical science, and he became the doctor that people needed, and he opened his medical centre in the town that we were from. He was very well respected in the village. 

'He saved hundreds of lives, because [before his clinic opened] there were times the roads were blocked – people didn't get any medical attention, they had to travel to Kabul, but they couldn't go through – so they were dying with very basic sickness.

'His dream was to see his kids to go to university, and to see his kids get a degree and give back to the community, the way he was giving.'

When Zaki is a child, Afghanistan is a landscape of war. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, United States troops moved in and over years waged battle in shifting alliances with Afghan warlords, against the Taliban. Zaki’s village is surrounded by Taliban, but only when he leaves the village for high school does he fully understand that there is something different about being a Hazara boy. 

Suddenly the teachers won't answer questions he asks. Hazaras are marked down even when they do the same work. 'Everyone is making fun of you because you look different, with the small eyes and a round face,' he says. 'But that wasn’t a big deal for me. I’m, like, whatever, going to the classroom, doing my studies, as my father was asking [me] to do.'

And he has his brother at school. 'His name was Ali, and he was…' Zaki’s voice trails off.  

'I had an older brother, which….'

He stops again. Apologises. Wonders whether to say. He takes a deep breath, closes his eyes, and keeps them closed. 'So, my brother finished high school – and I never saw Dad super-happy like that in his life, where he was very proud. Then, you could see that in him – it was like, “Yes! You made it, and you're going to university.”’

But. 'It's a shame to say, but Afghanistan is a country where being a university student makes you a criminal for the Taliban.'

The Hazara boys know about Taliban checkpoints. They know to dress inconspicuously on the bus between the village and the city, riding what’s known as ‘Death Road’, where attacks and kidnappings are not uncommon. Never to carry student ID. Zaki’s brother Ali is in his second year, and he knows the drill, maybe too well. Coming home for the summer holidays, he throws on a coat without checking the pockets. 

‘They found the ID in his pocket, and they just beheaded him on the spot. For being a university student. To teach other young people in the bus a lesson.’

'Losing my brother, it was a huge deal for our family, and for my father – because he didn’t just lose his son but also his dream,' Zaki says. 

'Still, he was telling me that he had me. You know, although we were going through a very tough time back then, he was hoping that I would go to university and I would finish it.'

The Taliban would have other ideas.

Zaki’s father felt impervious to the dangers that had claimed his eldest son. Maybe it was a kind of stubbornness, or pride – the same stuff that helped him overcome so many obstacles on his way to becoming a doctor. 

'Afghanistan is a very strange country, where if you're a doctor, if you're an educated man, if you work for government ... you're basically criminal. So if the Taliban find you – which they will, because you if you travel out of Kabul or other cities, they have their own checkpoints …' Zaki’s voice trails off again.

It is a year after his brother’s murder. Zaki is in Year 12. A US military ‘surge’ is petering out, emboldening the Taliban, whose abuses became endemic in areas under their control. The family is always reminding Zaki’s father, pleading with him to take extra precautions as he drives his van to the city with lists of needed medicines, written in English, and back with the stock. 

The van is stopped, searched. 

'Normally when they kill people,' Zaki says, 'they kill them overnight, brutally, and then they leave the body on the road the next day. 

'For my father, we couldn’t find any sign of him.'

The clinic sees patients no more.

  • Zaki: On searching for his father

    'In my dad's case, we couldn't find anything of him. Yeah, there was no trace of him. [We don't know] if he is alive or dead. We just hope that he's alive because we haven't found anything yet.'

It doesn’t end there. A doctor with English-labelled medicines must be allied with the enemy, according to the Taliban. That’s reason enough to go after the family, too. Even as they search for their father’s body, the family is accused of working for Americans, too, and a ‘guilty family’ has a higher price to pay.

'So, when they took my father away, they were sending letters and sending people, [demanding] for me to go to them,’ Zaki says. Mafia tactics, but more official; the terrorists of the Taliban have their own letterhead. Their message? ‘Like, they have to literally kill someone in the family, so the family is “cleaned up” then. And I was the oldest son.' Time to run. 

'My Mum had to move town… she was trying to hide me as much as she could,' Zaki says. 'But it didn’t take that long, even when we moved to Kabul, they found us. They were after me really bad.'

Zaki’s mother knew she couldn’t protect him forever at home. She set out every day, searching for a way to keep him safe, alive. 'She’s never been to school. She can’t read and write. But she is smart,' says Zaki. 'She knew that people go overseas and leave Afghanistan, so she was thinking that was the only option for me.' 

While she would have preferred to get him out in an orderly ‘legal’ way, she ran into a series of obstacles. Passports are hard for Hazaras to obtain, but Zaki’s mother doesn’t stop until she gets him one; one imagines bribes can help. Then she learns that the countries that receive refugees, such as Australia and the United States, generally won’t provide visas to Hazaras even when they have passports, because of the risk that they might claim asylum once they get there. 'She was upset,' Zaki says. Outrunning the Taliban, her time is growing short.

'One day she comes home and she was – she was happy but she was really sad. I’d never seen Mum in that situation, where she was happy and she was crying and she was giving me hugs. She was telling me that she found these people smuggling out of Afghanistan. And I was like, “Yeah, that's good.” And Mum, she was like, ‘“No, they are saying that it's very risky. There's a 90 per cent chance that you will die before getting to a safe country.”' Bad odds, until you run them against your chances with the Taliban. 

Are asylum seekers who travel to Australia without a visa ‘jumping the queue’?

There is no ‘queue’ for people seeking asylum. There is a common misconception that if refugees just waited in camps overseas, they would eventually be resettled, but people fleeing harm do not always get to choose where they travel to. There is also no guarantee of resettlement. Fewer than 1 per cent of the world’s refugees are resettled annually.

For these reasons, international law states that if a person enters a country without a visa seeking asylum, they should not be treated as illegal or be subjected to any disadvantage.

For more information see the Kaldor Centre’s factsheet on resettlement. You may also be interested in this Refugee Council of Australia analysis of global resettlement data from 2004-2018.

The night before the journey begins, his mother coaxes him to close his eyes. But Zaki stays awake to watch his young brothers and sisters and his mother, possibly for the last time. 

'We didn’t know which country I was going to, I didn’t know who I was meeting. The only thing  shared with my Mum was: “We’re taking your son to a safe country, it costs money, it could cost his life.” That’s it.'

He is 16 years old when a man comes and takes him away from his family to the airport.

What ‘fleeing’ looks like

The journey is physically and psychologically harrowing. For every zig-zag of progress, payment of one sort or another is due. 'I don't know what these people could do to me. So I was sitting there and I was thinking, “What am doing here? Where am I going? What will happen next?” I was exhausted. I was scared. I clearly remember, I was really, like, panicking and I was shaking when I was in the airport... even now I still think, anything could go wrong, you know.'

He makes it through the flight, through customs, and outside into India, where he is taken to a house and put into a small, dark room. He longs for his mother. He wonders if he’ll die here. 'Then they open the door, and they took me out of the room and I couldn't see, my eyes were like, “The light!” The men were saying, “Okay, we're going to the airport.”’

He makes it next to Malaysia. The room is better and there is another Hazara boy there. They long for their mothers. 'These people are coming and taking me, and I have no idea who they were, or why I was going with them, but they were sort of taking me around. Every country, I would deal with different people. They did say the Malaysian police are really, really bad – like, if they catch you, you can’t escape, they will deport you back to Afghanistan. And for me, I knew if I was deported back, that was it for me, you know, I was gone.'

He is not gone, though. 'They came like at midnight,’ he says, describing people who crowded them into cars, then forced them to walk through the jungle. ‘That was like a very, very horrible few days. We didn’t have proper food and water, and they were saying, “If you can’t walk, we just leave you here, and these people are really scary, they will just come and take you away and they will just kill you.” So you had to catch up with the group, and you had to walk really fast.'

He makes it to Jakarta. He can call his mother briefly. 'We didn't have time to explain everything. Just, “Yeah, hi, I'm here,” so Mum could pay more money to them.' Both mother and son were crying.

There had been whispers, but in Jakarta he finds out he will be going to Australia. He knows no English and nothing about Australia, least of all its political furore about the boats, one of which he soon will board. As that boat launches, Zaki is told that within 24 hours he will be in Australia. Instead, he is at sea for five days and nights. Engine broken, food gone, water emptied, sharks circling. Terrified. He longs for his mother. He thinks he’ll die here.

For Zaki and other people in Temporary, stories from the sea share so many commonalities. When they are rescued, as Zaki explains, 'It’s kind of like in the movies when you go to prison. They take your picture on a white background... they gave us a [boat ID] number and a small whiteboard and they take a picture ... and then they took us to Christmas Island,' a far-flung dot of Australian territory in the Indian Ocean.

In Australia, though, the stories of the people on boats diverge. A new capriciousness begins.

What a difference a year makes

It feels like a finish line. Shower. Clean clothes. A bed – men in one compound, families and minors in another. ‘The next day, they gave us a telephone to call home. So, that was the second time I was talking to Mum, and it was super exciting – I told her that I survived, I don’t have to run from anything anymore. It was a very emotional call. I knew that I would survive.’ He would get to go to school, to give back, to fulfil all the dreams he’d inherited.

'So I was put with a family for the next day, and then they came and they said, "You have an interview." There were four officials. They came and took me to a room, they interviewed me from 3pm until 7pm. Very scary questions. They weren’t really friendly.’ 

Refugee Advice and Casework Service (RACS) senior solicitor Isobel McGarrity says identity interviews were often held with unaccompanied minors to determine their age and citizenship. 'They were often conducted by more than one officer and were notoriously interrogative,' she notes.

Zaki picks up the story. ‘They said, “You’re not 17 – this is your date of birth, we ask you to sign here confirming that this is you.” I’m like, okay, whatever – I was really scared by then.'

The boy, now a number, gets a new age. He’s 18 with the stroke of a pen and doesn’t see much difference, though in time he will realise it makes a huge difference. For now, he goes to the men’s compound. People get roused in the night and transferred to the even more remote Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, or to the small Pacific island nation of Nauru, places where Australia has just recently revived ‘regional processing centres’ (RPCs). It’s late 2012. Zaki waits and wonders what will happen to him.

Zaki stays in the men’s compound. The government says the ‘RPCs’ are ‘at capacity’. Or, as Zaki recalls it, 'They were telling us, "It's full now... as soon as we have room, we will send you."'

There is room in a detention centre in Tasmania, an island state of Australia.

Relocation while in immigration detention

Australia’s onshore immigration detention network is comprised of several detention centres, spread throughout the country. There is also a detention centre on Christmas Island where many members of the legacy caseload spent some time. This was closed in 2018, but was reopened in August 2020.

It is common for detainees to be relocated – sometimes with very short notice or by force – to different detention centres within the network. This makes it difficult for detainees to maintain friendships and relationships of support with other people in detention and community volunteers. Relocation can also make it difficult to stay in contact with legal representatives. When detainees have access to a mobile phone this is made easier.

For more information, see this Sydney Morning Herald article: The 8000 'forced movements' on Australian flights in two years

‘Even then they were saying, “This doesn’t mean you will be resettled in Australia, we are still waiting for more room [offshore].”’

Tasmanians come to visit and they are friendly. Zaki tries his English.

The Immigration Minister has the discretion to permit people to live in the community on bridging visas, rather than in immigration detention, while their asylum claims are being processed. A bridging visa allows you to stay legally in the country and access Medicare, explains RACS lawyer Alison Ryan, but ‘it can be cancelled, people can be put in detention. For asylum seekers, a bridging visa is seen as pretty precarious.’

Zaki is sent to Sydney with a bridging visa, $100, and accommodation for two weeks. 'We went to the burger shop and I was looking at the menu and the burger was costing ten dollars – I'm like, I have a hundred dollars to survive for 15 days!' The Hazara boy he met in Malaysia is still with him, and they decide not to eat that night. ‘It was a wise decision,’ Zaki says.

'We were rushing to find a place to live, because we were running out of time [at the motel]. And renting! We found out that renting in Sydney is, like, super intense,' particularly for young men without bank statements. 'It was hard for people to trust to rent a place for us.

'The weird thing about our visa was, like, we didn't have work rights... we weren't allowed to go to TAFE [vocational school] or college or university to learn English, or even to go to [high] school, which I was dreaming for.' 

He finally understands why it was deemed so important that he say he was 18 years old. 'In the community, if I was 17, I had the right to go to school, I had the right for someone to protect me – but then if I'm just an adult... good luck, I don't ask for anything.'

Once you turn 18, you’re pretty much on your own – everything changes, your housing, your educational opportunities.

'For me,' says Zaki, 'it was very painful. I was always getting up early in the morning and I was sitting in front of the house and [watching people] going to school with uniforms and stuff, and I was like, “Look at my life. I have nothing to do but sit and watch them.” I really wanted to go to school. It was the most painful thing ever to witness. Every morning you get up and have nothing in life to do, and these people could go to school... I was hating myself every day.

'And even though we really wanted to get a job, we weren't allowed to. So, we were kind of forced to sit home, do nothing, and get Centrelink every fortnight just to survive. And I was really bored. Everyone was bored.

'I said to my social worker, “I can't do this anymore.” He could see in my face that I might do something stupid…. I'm like, “I want to get out and do [something], and be with people.” I was isolated in a room, in a house with people who were having the same issues as me. You couldn't discuss anything, because everyone was getting to a breaking point.' 

Would you volunteer? 'Anything. Just get me out of here.' 

He begins volunteering two days a week, website uploads, nothing remarkable. It makes all the difference. 'That makes me, like, happy I'm doing something for people.' One thing leads to another. A journalist tells his story, it leads to an offer from an educational organisation. 'I'm, like, oh so happy… So I called Mum.' And this time, the tears they cry are happy ones. 

Study rights can be attached to bridging visas, provided an asylum seeker abides by a signed code of behaviour. A week after the good news from the college, though, comes the bad news: the English test. He fails. 'I barely could tell people what I wanted and stuff like that.

What is a bridging visa?

A bridging visa is a short-term visa that the Minister may elect to grant to a non-citizen while their final visa status is being determined. A person on a bridging visa may live in the community. Unlike people in community detention, they are not legally considered to be in detention.

There are various kinds of bridging visa, each with different terms and conditions. People in the legacy caseload are typically granted a bridging visa known as the Bridging Visa E, or ‘BVE’.

For more information, see the Kaldor Centre’s factsheet on Bridging Visas.

Zaki at his graduation.

'So they offered me another scholarship, for English classes, and I did an intensive English class for three months then I was able to pass the English test. I was studying like crazy! And I managed to get into college, and I had a choice [of subjects].

'I went with IT [information technology], because my older brother was doing computer science and he couldn't finish it. Well, this isn’t just for me, it was for Dad and for my brother as well.' 

Zaki earns his diploma and, a week before graduation, he is nominated for an award as well – he would be named 2015 NSW International Student of the Year. 'I was so happy, I called Mum and I'm like, “Mum, I'm going to my graduation ceremony. But I am alone. Like, I don't have you or my Dad. You guys were dreaming this – I'm going, I'm wearing the clothes that you were dreaming of, but I don't have you guys here.”

'I went to the stage with my clothes and I got my diploma certificate and I got a trophy … the biggest moment for my life. And I could feel, like, my Dad was in the room and my Mum, but not physically – like, I couldn't have them to give me a hug.

‘I think that was the best day of my life. I love that I did something not just for myself but for my family, and especially my Dad.’

Limbo life

Zaki keeps getting new bridging visas. One after another after another, over three and a half years. He wants to apply for refugee protection, but during this time the Minister for Immigration has barred anyone who arrived by boat from applying unless he gives them permission to do so. Zaki waits for permission.

‘We were free in a way, free to live not with security guards, but we weren't free mentally,’ he says. There was no certainty they would be allowed to stay in the community. ‘So our life was put on hold.’

'We didn't know if we’re getting another visa or not. Every six months when the visa expired, there was a gap between visas. Sometimes it could be weeks. So during this time we were panicking, because it happened when people's visas were expiring – they were coming and getting them away at midnight and putting them back to detention centres.' 

Every car that slowed on the road was a worry. Was it police? Immigration? It was hard to sleep, to relax. 'They will take us away,’ Zaki remembers thinking. ‘We had these moments all the way through.'

Zaki’s fear is not irrational. His bridging visa with study rights was conditional on signing a broad, vague code of behaviour, and people who breached it, even unwittingly, could be re-detained. The risk hung over everyone on a tenuous bridging visa.

Still, Zaki buckles down. His academic success is exceptional for any kid, but particularly extraordinary for someone in this ‘legacy caseload’, where the system has broken so many people. 

His achievements lead to a scholarship offer for a higher degree. He just needs a letter from Immigration saying he will be in the country for two years, enough to complete the course. 'I was like, a happy kid, you know? I have my diploma, I’ve got my trophy and everything – I'm like, “Wow, Immigration will be so proud of me. I achieved all this without any support.”

'So, I walk into the Immigration office.'

Zaki takes a number. Goes to the counter. Introduces himself. Your passport, please? No passport, sir. So why are you here? Zaki starts to explain. What’s your Boat ID? Zaki gives the man his number. The man goes away. 

‘He comes back and says, “I can't help you.” 

‘I'm like, “You didn’t even listen to me, what I need.” 

‘He goes, “No, I can’t help you. Just go.”

‘And I say, “This is my diploma, degree certificate, and this is my trophy. I went to college. I have these. I achieved this, and I need a letter from you to say that I will be in Australia for two years, because I think you didn't listen to me.” 

‘“I can't help you.” 

‘He pushed everything back to me and said, ‘’Are you going to go, or should I call the security?”

‘By then I was in tears, like, I was so emotional that he even didn't have a look at what I have and need, didn't listen to what I said. And I was very scared as well, and I was like crying, in front of families. I took a seat and [hear]... “Are you going to leave?” I'm like, “Yeah, just give me some time, I'm leaving.”

‘I was broken.'

The college calls. Zaki tries to explain and hangs up. 

'I was really down. Two weeks later, the college called me back, saying, “Did you get the letter, or what's happening now?” I said, “They didn't give me anything.” And they were super helpful – they said, “Do you want to do another diploma?” I'm like, “Yes!”’

‘If I have tomorrow I’ll be happy’

Three years pass. Cars pass without taking Zaki back to a detention centre. He calls his mother every night. He studies full time while the volunteer gigs multiply. Taking people food. Student ambassador. Filling out forms for new asylum seekers, helping at RACS – so, by the time Zaki is allowed to make his application for asylum, he knows how it could go, for better or worse.

For him, it goes the best it could. The decision-maker agrees that, as a Hazara targeted by the Taliban, Zaki has a well-founded fear that if he were returned to Afghanistan, he would suffer serious harm. He is found to be a refugee, at risk in his country of origin and needing Australia’s protection. But because he came by boat, he doesn’t get permanent protection. His protection is temporary, a five-year Safe Haven Enterprise Visa, a SHEV. 

The visa requires him to move out of Sydney, so he shifts to a regional area. It includes work rights, so, a week later, he has a full-time job. He knows how lucky he is that an employer will take him on and invest in his training despite the fact that his current visa will run out in 2021. 

‘In Australia I don’t have any paperwork that says I’m an Australian. But, you know, morally, and feelings-wise, I do feel like I'm an Australian.’

'My life has been in limbo since I was 16,' he says. 'People my age tend to have goals and dreams … what they want in five years, or in ten years. For me it's like, if I have tomorrow I'll be happy. 

'Living in Australia for seven years, it's given me a lot of things that I really appreciate. I feel like I am, you know, human – like you're a part of a community. In Australia I don't have any paperwork that says I'm an Australian. But, you know, morally, and feelings-wise, I do feel like I'm an Australian. I have some really amazing friends I couldn't have had – they're from a different ethnic background, they speak different languages, but I still feel like I'm a part of their community. You know, like, just a normal human being, which in a lot of countries you can't have.'

There are rewards. He keeps running. It’s just 'there's no finish, in terms of life perspective, for me. 

'Everything is temporary.'

Podcast: No right to work, no right to study

In episode 2 of Temporary, hear how Zaki negotiated hunger, renting in Sydney, and a restrictive visa, to become an award-winning student who still isn’t allowed to call himself Australian.

Zaki's story

10-Minute Law

A quick audio explainer on the legal stuff.
RACS's Sarah Dale zeroes in on the kids who came by boat, and why age mattered so much.