From Ahwaz to Melbourne, Refugee Voices CEO, Ahmad Hakim shares his story.
I have sought refuge three times in my life.
The first time I was escaping the Iran/Iraq war in 1980. I was one year old when my mother fled on foot with my five brothers and sister. The second was in 1996, after oil companies dried up the marshes where my family and ancestors had lived for over millennia. The third was when I was 22 and had organised a rally for fairer educational opportunities. After friends were executed for their involvement, I had to leave my family and friends to seek safety.
In Syria, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Australian officials granted me refugee status. However, after a year of no news from Australia, I (and many like me) started to worry. Our situation worsened when Syrian government officials started working with Iranian officials to capture us and send us back.
Scared of being forced to return, a friend and I paid a bus driver to take us to Amman, Jordan. At the border, we hid under the bus – supporting our body weight for an hour as we waited for guards to let the bus through. When we eventually got to the Australian embassy, our story and papers were checked. But, despite having Australian visas ready to go, we had to be questioned by Jordanian security. Again, we expected this to take an hour. Instead, we were blindfolded, taken away and questioned endlessly for ten days.
After those ten days, we were blindfolded, handcuffed and put into a car. I had no idea what was going on. All kinds of possibilities ran through my head as I was taken out of the car and moved into a building. When I could finally see again, I realised I was in the airport. Unclean, unshaven, hungry and in cuffs, I was handed over to an UNHCR official to go to Adelaide, Australia. Thankfully, I was given some food and a razor in an attempt to look a bit more presentable on the plane.
The first time I saw Australia was from the plane's window; I thought everything looked very organised, clean and green. At first, I felt surprised because Adelaide was so quiet and everything closed at 5 pm, and that’s when things just get started in my country! But I decided to adapt to the culture. I first studied English, and then a teacher called Tim Wilson helped me enrol in an Australian workplace program in hospitality, which included work experience at the Adelaide Convention Centre. I did one week there as a kitchen hand, and at the end, I said to the head chef, ‘If an opportunity comes, let me know.' Then I started calling them, and they kept telling me, wait, just wait. Finally, one day I got a phone call asking if I wanted to come for an interview! Tim helped me practice for it, so I did very well, and I got the job. They were thrilled with me, and later, I became a chef.
Then I met the woman who was to become my wife. We bumped into each other near a café one day, and it turned out that our paths had crossed in the same kitchen I had been working in all those years. She had been doing her work placement in the pastry section while I had been at the grills. She remembered the Mesopotamian dishes I cooked for staff lunches. She was a teacher but also a chef, so we started talking about cooking. And things went from there.
Later, after we were married and had our first child, my wife said to me, ‘Why don’t you go to university?’ I felt my English wasn’t good enough, but she encouraged me to study hard for the entry test. That test was more difficult than I imagined, and even the Australian boy in front of me started crying! But I answered what I could, and guessed the rest of the answers, and after a while, I got a letter saying I had done well, which really surprised me! Next, I was accepted into the University of South Australia to study International Relations, which was a big moment in my life because this subject was my passion. At first, it was very hard for me, especially the writing. But in time, I got better. And after graduation, I decided to do my Honours on Australian foreign policy.
I had always envisioned Australia as a fair and multicultural society where everyone was valued. But as I lived and worked in the country, I found it harder and harder to have a positive experience. For example, I've approached organisations working on refugee issues to bring about more humane refugee policies. Still, instead of having meaningful input, I am often tokenised and asked to tell my refugee story for fundraising events.
That’s when I realised there are not nearly enough people like me. People who have lived experience of seeking asylum and are now working to shape refugee policies, programs and campaigns. So I decided to form Refugee Voices, a refugee-led community organisation building capacity for people from refugee backgrounds to run campaigns that shift policies affecting them.
I am very proud of the work that Refugee Voices is doing: snap rallies, #WordsOfKindness, leadership programs, sharing stories, community meetings, fundraising and educational resources. We have great support from everyone and a great team of volunteers across the country, but I hope that our organisation is no longer needed shortly. I hope Refugee Voices can change the policies affecting us and that the whole of Australia will see us and treat us as the human beings we are; with dignity, respect and kindness.