For Those Who've Come Across The Seas
Riz Wakil is not a local here.
Riz Wakil is, in the surfers parlance, a blow-in. In his case the term is literal, as ten years ago Riz left his homeland and sailed here. Riz Wakil is a boat person.
He also owns a printing business in Sydney that employs three people, has a wife and two daughters (one just six days old), and soon he will receive a surfing lesson by the man who has vowed to 'turn the boats back', the opposition leader, Tony Abbott.
The surfing lesson was planned by community action group, GetUp!, when Abbott recently auctioned off his surfing services to charity. GetUp! raised $16,100 and put forth their candidate, Riz, for the lesson. I spoke to him at his workplace in the week leading up to the election.
Swellnet: Where are you originally from, Riz?
Riz Wakil: I'm from Afghanistan. Ethnically I'm Hazara. Hazara's are one of the minorities in Afghanistan and we are located in central Afghanistan. We don't have any borders with neighbouring countries...no coastlines either. I grew up there until 1999. That was the year that my father decided that it wasn't safe for me and he organised for me to leave Afghanistan.
Why wasn't it safe?
At that time the Taliban were controlling most of Afghanistan. There was a genocide against the Hazar population. We believe that 62% of our population has been killed in a systematic genocide.
I was 18 when my father decided it wasn't safe for me. At that time the Taliban was looking for young males to fight on their side so I did not have much option. I either had to go and fight alongside them or against them, and my father decided it was not safe for me to live in Afghanistan anymore.
What did you know about Australia?
To be very honest I'd never heard of Australia. My father organised the trip for me and we had some family friends in Denmark that promised to look after me. So my father was planning to send me to Europe and I'd make my way to Denmark. So when I was in Pakistan I was still under the impression that I was going to Denmark. But down the track something changed. Getting into Pakistan was easy but to get out you need travel documents. A passport was provided and my travel documents took me to Indonesia. It was there that I first heard about Australia.
(At this point of the interview we were interupted by one of Riz' customers. Surprisingly, it turned out to be the local Liberal candidate picking up a job - promotional merchandise to be used at the election this weekend)
We got here to Australia on the 5th Novemeber 1999. That was when our boat was intercepted at Ashmore Reef. We were then towed from there to Broome and put into Curtin detention centre.
How many people were on the boat?
73 people including myself. The majority were Afghani's, with ten Iraqi's, including one whole family. When our boat was intercepted we were very happy because when we were in Indonesia we heard a lot of people had lost their lives making the journey to Australia, and the fishing boat we were on was leaking. It was very scary. When we got to Australian shores we were very, very happy.
When we got to the detention centre it was a very good sense of security. Compared to what we were fleeing there was no comparison. We didn't have any fear that someone would bomb us tomorrow, or this evening something horrible would happen to us or our family.
Problems started down the track. After spending a couple of months in the detention centre people started getting desperate because they were not getting any information on how long they would be in the detention centre. Then people started to go on hunger strikes and sew their lips together. People were trying to commit suicide, and people were having mental health issues because of the long term detention.
At that stage I just knew I had to do something to keep myself busy otherwise the circumstance would effect me as well. So, what I did was offer my assistance to keep myself busy in the kitchen preparing food for the detainees. I was given the opportunity to help the staff. It was a desperate attempt to keep myself busy.
At one stage there was a big demand from the detainees that we should have English classes. Because a lot of people began to be recognised as refugees and granted temporary protection visas so they felt they had to improve their communication skills while they had the time and opportunity inside the detention centre.
Why didn't you apply for citizenship or even a temporary protection visa in Aghanistan?
Unfortunately things are not as easy as some people think that they are. There is no processing centre in Afghanistan so there is no queue. Also, there is no processing centre in Pakistan, or Iran, or Iraq. In all these troubled part of the world there is no queue to join.
I used to get very upset when people asked me this question and when people called me a queue jumper. But now I think that they just dont know. They don't know the reality on the ground. I explain it like this - if a house is on fire, the fire brigade do not ask people to line up in a queue and wait for their turn to come out through the door. They tell people to smash a window or break down a wall to get away from the fire. That's exactly the same scenario as us. People who are desperate they dont have anywhere to go. The so-called queue...it does not exist. It does not exist in Afghanistan. That's the reality about the queue.
Myself, like others, deperately needed protection to live a life of freedom. That's the case with the majority of boat people.
Once your refugee status was approved how did you set about finding work?
When I tell you that people in the detention centre put their jobs at risk to help us it is true. Some people used to bring us books to learn English, or anything they thought would help us to get on our feet in the community quicker. I am very thankful to those people who helped us.
My first job was in a shoe factory as a process worker. I used to cut the soles of the shoes. I worked there for six months before I got an opportunity to work with a printing company in Granville. I told the guy who owned the company, 'I'm from this background. I don't know anything'. But he came from Lebanon himself, he was an immigrant so maybe he felt something toward me? He helped me a lot and I worked with him for nine years before opening my own business just before Christmas last year.
And now you're lined up to receive a surfing lesson from Tony Abbott, are you looking forward to that?
Well...the surfing lesson...I've never surfed before so hopefully I won't drown.[laughs]
Can you swim?
Yes, I do swim. I do swimming in swimming pool but I've only been in the sea a couple of times and I dont think I'm very good at it.
What do you plan to say to Mr Abbott?
The idea is to talk to him about the other side of the picture. To try to explain the situation and the circumstance which drives these people to leave their loved ones, their families, their kids, their parents behind and risk their life to come to Australia.
The Howard government had the toughest policies against asylum seekers in the world, yet still it did not discourage people to come to Australia. No matter what they will come. And Tony Abbott is now promising to go and act like a cowboy with his tough policies. So I thought it was a good idea to go and talk to him about how I was forced to flee Afghanistan and I am hoping to be able to get him to change his postion.
What if, God forbid, Julia Gillard was a surfer and you were to receive a lesson from her, what would you say to her?
Exactly the same thing. Neither side of politics see the refugee situation as a humanitarian problem, or even a human issue. They just look at it as a political opportunity where they can press this panic button and they can scare people. Although boat arrivals are less than 1.5% of refugee arrivals in Australia - and Julia Gillard acknowleges that - but still they are more than happy to involve themselves in this boat people bashing in an election year to try to scare people.
The refugee issue has lost it's human face. Both sides are in a race to the bottom. I believe there are real alternatives. You dont have to lock up people. You dont have to spend this ridculous amount of money to lock these people up in desert camps.
There aren't that many of us. Australian people have dealt with the flow of refugees in the past. After the Second World War many refugees came. Then after the Vietnam war many Vietnamese came and Australians treated them very respectfully. We just want the same respect.
Postscript: Riz got to his feet first time...