Mohamed Ali Baqiri, 24, meets with me in a local park on a cold Melbourne Sunday afternoon to talk about his journey from Afghanistan, which brought him to be living here in Australia today.
He arrives five minutes early, jogging towards me with his athletic build, well-groomed dark hair, and almond-shaped eyes. I instantly feel welcomed, and as he begins to tell his story, it’s obvious that he is a man of strength and courage.
When Mohamed was two-years-old, in war-torn Afghanistan, a bomb erupted in front of him, leaving a red, shiny, zigzag shaped scar, that he still looks at every day. Afghanistan wasn’t safe for Mohamed and his family. Being Shiite Muslim and poor, they fled the country with the help of a smuggler. Mohamed, his two brothers and sister-in-law were smuggled onto a boat filled with 150 other refugees, with the promise of reaching Australia.
At the time, of course they were unaware of the risks involved, and all they knew was it was time to leave, and their only thought was to reside in a safe place they could call home.
“We wouldn’t of left our country if we didn’t have to; why would I risk my life to come to a land I know nothing about, to start again, why would anybody do that? We were looking for hope.”
Hope – a word that came up a lot in my conversation with Mohamed, because that was what Australia represented to him.
“How would you describe Afghanistan, in one word,” I asked.
“Violence,” was what he replied.
An intriguing and inspiring personality, Mohamed remembers how hard it was growing up in Australia as a refugee child, facing bullying and constantly feeling disconnected to the rest of the school kids. His patience and willingness to educate others about refugees is what keeps him happy today.
Spending the first three years of his ‘new, free life’ in a detention centre on Christmas Island, contributed to Mohamed now teaching students about life as a refugee.
“I go to different schools, my target is school kids, they are the future, if we let them know about what they’re doing there (in detention centres) there will be a shift, a change for sure. I want to be a voice for them so I can get them out of detention as soon as possible.”
Mohamed’s journey wasn’t an easy one; the cool, calm and collected man that sat opposite me had seen more violence and abuse than any war genre video-game could offer.
Whilst in detention, he witnessed the death of his friends, children sowing their lips together in an attempt to create a hunger strike and the dreaded ‘bathroom bucket’, which was shared with a horrifying number of people.
The basics that we take for granted, such as good food, clean toilets, and a comfortable bed, were all the things Mohamed had to sacrifice to come to Australia.
He opened up about the eight tormenting years he spent without his mother. He left her in Afghanistan when they fled; she stayed back to watch over the younger children.
“I was 18 when reunited with my mum and that’s a day I’ll never forget… she was in tears out of happiness, and we were basically like blocking the whole exit ways.”
Mohamed hopes to change the way we see refugees for good. With the prospect of becoming an immigration lawyer, he’s now studying at La Trobe University, he has high hopes to abolish offshore processing. Having hope that things will change one day keeps him motivated. His scars are a reminder to push for a better future for refugees and his determination, based on past traumatic experience, will not go unnoticed. – Report and photo by Zena Chamas