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Thursday, 14 December 2017

S Success Stories

From a leaky boat to a thriving business

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Saeid Safavi still has the canvas bag a friend stitched together for him back in Iran, before he got on a leaky fishing boat with 300 other people bound for Australia.

The bag and its contents were the only possessions he brought for the long voyage over the Timor Sea. 

 

In the hold of the leaky boat, he clutched it like a life preserver; used it as a makeshift pillow to prop up his head at night.

 

The smell of the salt-stained canvas still brings back memories of those three weeks crouched on the floor with little food or water.

It now sits in the corner of his office in Port Pirie, South Australia, to remind him of the weeks spent on the "horrible ocean" and the years in detention before he won freedom.

It represents the hard work to gain Australian citizenship after his release and to build a successful restaurant that now employs 22 people and regularly takes out barista awards in South Australia.

 

As the world grapples with an ongoing refugee crisis, Saeid has been captured by painful memories and empathy for those fleeing conflict.

The images of Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach made him confront the other world his 6-year-old son, Rafael, could have been born into.

"This last couple of weeks, horrible news in the TV show, really always I'm watching, feeling and thinking about these people," he said

"Really I cry, believe me.

"These refugees are coming for a hopeful life, looking for future, these kids looking for school and good life for himself and he's now drowning in the water."

And as Australia prepares to welcome 12,000 Syrian refugees, Saeid wants it known they can make a significant contribution if given the same support he received.

"Refugee don't care, we have to escape, we have to survive," he said.

"These people, we need [them to] come into the community and encourage them.

 

"If the government can help these people and give them a hopeful life and support business and support them for jobs, I believe these people are good people."

 

 

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‘’These refugees are coming for a hopeful life, looking for future, these kids looking for school and good life for himself and he's now drowning in the water. ‘’

Life behind the razor wire

 

One of Saeid's persistent memories from that time is the constant violence inside the fence.

Detainees fought among themselves and with the guards; dealt with hangings and self-harm; reeled as people drank shampoo or cut themselves with razors. 

He blames this period for his brief stint on anti-depressants and the emotional issues that still affect him today. 

"We had a horrible life in the detention, lots of violence, lots of people suicide and lots of bad memories in the detention," he said.

"Everybody depression and looking for freedom and honestly, I'm really [having] mental problems in the detention. 

"Because [I'm] looking at all the violence, with nothing to do and no hope for life."

Saeid was inside Woomera for the hunger strikes in 2002, when some detainees sewed their lips together amid pressure from the Federal Government to accept a $2000 repatriation offer.

In another incident, protestors broke through Woomera's outer perimeter fence to free up to 20 asylum seekers.

As some of the escapees got into cars bound for a life on the run, Saeid clung to the belief he had nurtured through his time behind bars.

"My friend was calling to me [from outside the fence] he said 'come in, come with us,'" Saeid says.

"I said 'no I can't, I have a good case, I want visa freedom.'"

But holding on to the notion of visa freedom throughout the slow process of applying for temporary protection would take its toll on his mental health.

Saeid still has echoes of the stress he felt every time his lawyer called, his heart pounding from the uncertainty of whether the voice on the other end would bear news of repatriation or freedom.

He can still picture the indifferent case officer who played with his nails during a Skype interview and said to Saeid casually "I know you are no refugee".

"After two years I've been here, I get angry and I say to him 'this is my life, why are you so relaxed?'" Saeid said.

The incident marked the low point of his time as a detainee.

It has given Saeid an insight into the difficult future for those in offshore detention on Nauru or Manus Island.

"Please just to government don't put these refugees in the camps, because camp make it more damaging for these people," he said.

"Because in the detention it damages the brain and [it's] all depression and there's no hopeful life."

 

Guidance on the long path to obtaining a visa

 

Saeid is fond of lighthouses, a preference communicated by the many pictures and figurines that adorn his office.

They are his favoured metaphor for the hope God provides in an otherwise indifferent cosmos.

An unlikely alliance - one Saeid believes was divine intervention - became his distant point of light to navigate the dark sea of detention. 

Urged on by a church friend, Mary Brooks had been corresponding with and visiting detainees in Woomera as an everyday act of charity from her home in Port Pirie.

It was a chance encounter with Mary as she was visiting another asylum seeker that brought Saeid into her world.

"At that time I'm working in the kitchen, she saw me walking there very sad and depressed, she said 'come in, come in'," Saeid explained.

"I came in and spoke to her and she said 'would you like me to come visit you?'"

Although they only occurred every few months, Mary's visits constituted the first sliver of hope for Saeid during his time in Woomera.

She brought him cakes and letters and shared stories of daily life in Port Pirie, the small regional town about three hour drive away.

And perhaps most importantly, she offered help and support with his long application process for a temporary protection visa.

He had waited through the difficult period when visa approvals ground to a hold following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and then watched as other detainees were granted asylum.

After months of back-and-forth with the Department of Immigration and one failed application bid, Saeid received the crucial phone call from his Melbourne-based lawyer.

"I picked up the phone and he said 'well done, Saeid, well done - you are a refugee,'" he said.

"I'm crying, he's crying.

"I was the first single man out [of Woomera] after two years."

On his first day outside, Mary picked Saeid up from the bus station in Port Pirie and took him to her home, where she had prepared a bedroom with decorations and balloons.

"That was when I started my zero life in the beautiful small town, Port Pirie, absolutely lots of beautiful people in this town," Saeid said, beaming.

"This town really supported lots of refugees, welcoming me, and I believe the beautiful people of this country and human rights absolutely beautiful." 

 

Building a new life and business in a regional town

 

Saeid's first job outside the detention centre was work experience at a Chinese restaurant for two weeks, followed by a year-long stint as a dishwasher at a local hotel. 

It was a long way from the prestige of running a thriving fabric business in an Iranian market, but it was a start.

Around this time he began a courtship with Mary's daughter, Helen, his future wife and the mother of his son, Rafael.

When his father-in-law purchased a cafe Saeid began helping out in the kitchen and saving his money for a place of his own. 

He took out a mortgage to buy an old Protestant church-cum-bicycle shop in serious need of renovation, with plans of turning it into a cafe.

Months spent re-painting the flakey walls and asking favours from friends to help build benches and cabinets culminated in the restaurant opening in 2014.

Safavi Restaurant is now one of the busiest in town, and most customers who come in for their morning coffee stop for small talk with the former asylum seeker.

Barista awards lines shelves in his office on the top floor of the renovated building, and the canvas bag lives nearby on a bench built by a cabinet maker friend.

Looking over from his desk, Saeid said the patchwork bag still encourages him to work hard to repay the good will he has received in his adopted home.

"I keep there, and always I'm looking for this bag and this memory back to me because I'm thinking about how I was," he said.

"This [was] my life, one bag, and now I have a successful [business] 20 people employed. 

 

"I try hard again more and more to make a business and show [the] government refugees can do successful for this country."

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