Updated: Sep 14, 2020
In recent weeks, Melbourne has been placed under sweeping new restrictions due to a high number of COVID-19 infections. These new restrictions have taken a heavy emotional toll. I’ve been working from home since March, so the number of people I interact with has been significantly reduced. Despite relishing the lack of commute, I’ve found working from home monotonous, and this has reinforced my need for meaningful social connections.
So, when Refugee Voices proposed interviewing one of the asylum seekers detained in a Melbourne hotel, I put my hand up immediately. I was longing to do something meaningful with this extra time, and I had read all about their incarceration due to the close proximity of the hotel to my house.
Ahmed provided me with the contact details for Mostafa “Moz” Azimitabar, a young Kurdish refugee who spent nearly seven years on Manus Island, before being brought to Australia last year under the now-repealed medevac laws.
Since then, Moz and around 65 other refugees and asylum seekers have been contained on the third floor of the Mantra hotel in Preston, an ‘alternative place of detention’. Due to the heightened risk of a COVID-19 outbreak, the government has forbidden them to receive guests or to go outside. So Moz now spends 24 hours a day inside the hotel, his only option for exercise being a walk in the corridor, stalked by the guards.
A quick Google search revealed multiple news articles and interviews with Moz from around the world. The more I read, the more anxious I became. I am not a journalist – I hesitate to even call myself a writer. How could I possibly question him on his circumstances?
I procrastinated. I postponed our initial interview, feigning excuses. I woke up at 2am one night, wondering what the hell I was going to say to him. Until finally, on a cold and windy Sunday, my guilt got the better of me and I made the call.
“I’m not a journalist,” I began, in an attempt to set the bar quite low from the outset. My first impression of Moz was that he seemed tired. No doubt tired of doing interviews, but also tired of having no resolution to his situation, despite having been recognised as a refugee fleeing persecution years ago.
I ask him about the conditions inside the hotel. “This is like a torture centre,” he says, “There is no sunlight. We cannot go outside; we cannot feel the sun. We can only look out of the window.”
To make matters worse, a recent proposal by Peter Dutton to allow the guards to confiscate the detainee’s mobile phones has got Moz worried. Without his phone, he fears losing his only means of breaking through the shroud of secrecy that the government has tried to throw over their detention.
“I believe there are many people in Australia who care for us. And this is one of the reasons that I can continue, because I feel comfortable when I talk to the people of Australia. I realise how you think of the plight of refugees, the plight of the people in cages.”
Feeling acutely aware of my own privilege, I ask Moz how he deals with the lack of freedom. What gives him strength? “I feel that loneliness is a friend of mine,” he replies. “I feel that it is always with me, it creates ideas.”
“And writing is a part of me, writing poems, writing about the plight of refugees. Because I know them. I am among them. It’s a kind of sympathy when I write. This is difficult to write about, but it is powerful. It gives me hope, it gives me the strength.”
Eventually, I abandon the notetaking and we both start to relax. For the next hour we simply talk. Talk about our shared love of food, his dreams of opening a restaurant one day, and how it was his sister in Iran who taught him how to cook.
We talk about his music and he tells me how he taught himself to play the guitar. We bond over the difficulties of being vulnerable on the page, of being a perfectionist. He describes his need to stop whatever he’s doing when the flashes of inspiration take over. I tell him he sounds like a true artist.
“I am strong like a lion… but I write like a turtle,” he says, jokingly.
Moz and I have spoken several times since then, and more than once he has told me it doesn’t feel like he is being interviewed. But this doesn’t bother me. Rather, it is reassuring. Because it means that he feels the same way I do. That a genuine friendship has blossomed. The kind of friendship that is not born out of circumstance or shared experience. Because I could never claim to have experienced anything like what Moz has gone through.
It is simply the kind of friendship that comes from two people connecting over common interests, mutual values and beliefs. Two people who share a similar outlook on life, despite the fact that our lives couldn’t be any more different. A friendship in a time when it has never been more pertinent to connect with others.
I didn’t want to write another article about Moz’s treatment in detention, his plight or the plight of others like him. We already know – and have known for years – that Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers is unnecessarily punitive.
There have been countless articles, documentaries, books and news reports detailing the government’s cruelty already. If such news (not to mention the global condemnation) has failed to move more Australians to act, to protest – I doubt anything I write will change their minds.
However, I can honour the man behind the news articles. I can give a voice to the human being behind the headlines. Because we must not forget that these are people, innocent people who have committed no crime. They are not myths or characters of fiction. They are people with hopes and dreams, histories and stories to tell – who have as much right to a peaceful and autonomous future as the rest of us.
During one of our recent chats, I asked Moz outright – why does he want to stay in Australia?
“If I leave this society, it is like another trauma,” he replies, “Because I will leave this family. I am a fighter, not a victim. I always say that my resilience is my strength. But behind this resilience I see the thousands of people who are fighting for us, and this kind of solidarity gives me hope. Because together we are going to break down this systemic racism.”
Like a lion indeed.