Putting to rest the ghosts of a Christmas Island past
In an attempt to prevent boat people making claims for asylum here, John Howard excised a handful of territories, including Christmas Island, from Australia’s migration zone in 2001.
But the boats kept coming. And by 2013, the trickle had become a flow.
Below, we spied one and then two Indonesian fishing boats on the horizon, which would be intercepted by the customs vessel Ocean Protector.
The fishing boats were towed out to sea and set alight to prevent them returning. Every now and then, through the sun’s glare, a smoke column was visible from the shoreline.
Asylum seekers were frisked before they came ashore. They removed their shoes, emptied their pockets, and were told they were in the custody of Australian authorities. Then, they were taken to waiting buses that ferried them to detention centres dotted around the island – one for single men, others for families.
On April 2, 2013, Kosar Kalantari stepped onto the pier at Christmas Island with her husband Eric Mohammadi and young son Hossain. They were sunburnt, trembling, hungry and exhausted after three days at sea on a creaking wooden boat. Kosar had thought she wouldn’t make it.
As a stranger ran her hands up and down Kosar’s legs, the young woman was oblivious to Wolter, who stood on the cliffs above, training his camera on her family.
In his photograph, which was published in Fairfax newspapers and websites across the country, Kosar and Eric stand mute, in the same clothes they have worn for three days.
Their little boy, 2½ years old and pot-bellied, looks up at his mother as if searching her face for clues about what is happening to them. He looks very, very small.
When Kosar, Eric and Hossain landed at Christmas Island, Australia was in the grip of a political crisis over border protection.
More than 3300 people had been intercepted on boats headed for Australia in the first three months of 2013, and Julia Gillard’s Labor Party was in a panic. The monsoon season, which had slowed the boats to a crawl from November to February, was over. Many more would soon be coming.
In late March and early April, Wolter and I spent a week on Christmas Island, reporting on the growing crisis for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. In that week alone, more than 1000 asylum seekers arrived.
The government was rattled, the opposition was ramping up its attacks on Labor, and hundreds had drowned trying to reach the safety of Australia.
Two months later, Kevin Rudd would wrest the prime ministership back from Gillard and in July he would announce that no asylum seekers who tried to make it to Australia by boat would ever settle in this country.
The people affected by the change would be used, in Rudd’s words, to “send a message to people smugglers around the world that the business model is basically undermined”.
Spirited and beautiful Kosar, her handsome husband Eric and sweet little Hossain were among the last boat people to have any hope of a life in Australia.
You might expect the family to feel like the lucky ones in a refugee lottery. You would be wrong.
A life interrupted
In late 2017, months after Kosar tracked down Wolter’s mobile number, she and Eric agreed to meet us for lunch at their new home in Brisbane’s outer suburbs.
Kosar, Eric and Hossain, now seven, have been in this house for about a week. An enormous fruit bowl groans under the weight of oranges, avocados, pears and tropical fruit, a testament to never going hungry again.
Eric, who suffers from crippling shoulder pain every time he speaks of the 17 long months the family spent in detention after landing on Flying Fish Cove, leaves most of the story to Kosar.
Kosar and Eric – born Ali – are from Ahvaz, a city of 1.1 million in the south-west of Iran. Kosar, who often goes by Kate in Brisbane, is Persian. Eric is Kurdish. The pair met after Kosar’s mother and sister were killed in a horrific car accident. Still numb with grief, she began to spend more time with this gentle man, whose sister had been a close friend of her sister’s. Soon, they were married.
Over time, Eric – a mechanical engineer by trade – built up his own business, trading in gold. The business was in partnership with the government, and the family enjoyed an affluent, middle-class lifestyle. But as a Kurd, Eric says, the odds were stacked against him.
His business was hit with a 45 per cent government-imposed tax. Then, it became a 50 per cent tax and 70 per cent. Finally, he received a letter from authorities accusing him of defrauding the government and ordering him to report to the police station in 11 days.
They had less than two weeks to abandon their old lives and find a way to get out of the country. It didn’t matter where.
“The first week we were looking to go to Germany, and the second week we found somebody to help us to go to Indonesia and then to Australia,” Kosar says.
A people smuggler in Tehran told them they must first buy plane tickets to Indonesia. He would do the rest.
The couple had days to sell their house, and everything in it. They sold their house for cash and didn’t collect the money until the day they were due to fly to Tehran, to catch a connecting flight to Jakarta.
At Jakarta, airport officials separated them from other travellers and forced them to hand over cash. “They said, ‘give us money; we know you’re going to Australia’,” Eric says.
One official scribbled on a piece of paper, and handed it over. It read: “$500 each”.
They thought they would be in Jakarta for five days. Instead, they found themselves trapped there for four months, while the people smugglers gave them one excuse after another.
Running out of money after buying tickets for a boat that never seemed to materialise, they had to sell their watches and jewellery, including their gold wedding rings. And the lies from the people smugglers kept coming.
“I’m going to organise the best ship for you,” one told the family.
When they finally saw the boat that would bring them to Australia, Kosar thought it was a shuttle that would take them to the real boat further out at sea.
“The wood creaked when you put your foot on it,” she recalls, shuddering.It had cost them $11,000.
There were 48 people on board, including the Indonesian crew. “One [was] maybe 15, 16 years old,” Eric says.
Frightened, the couple conferred. But they decided to go ahead. “We just need life,” says Kosar. “We don’t need money; we just need life.”
The waves were terrible. Hossain soon became ill. After a day, many more people were sick. They grew convinced they would die.
On the second day, they saw an aeroplane. They weren’t sure whether it had even seen them. On the third day, the Australian Navy intercepted their boat.
As everyone rushed to meet their rescuers, they were warned to stay in their places. A boat that had come before theirs had capsized, they were told, when all its passengers pushed to one side to meet the bigger boat. A pregnant woman and a three-year-old boy had drowned.
At the first detention centre on Christmas Island, Aqua, conditions were cramped. There were 800 people, Kosar says, and two toilets.
I want people to know that we are not coming to take anything from other people
After Christmas Island, the family was sent to Curtin detention centre in the Kimberley region for 2½ months. Then, they were transferred to Leonora in the Goldfields region of WA for more than seven months. Kosar suffered a miscarriage. She wore the same clothes day in and day out. She made an attempt on her life.
“I didn’t want to be alive anymore,” she recalls, numbly. “But it didn’t stop anything.”
Next, the family bounced north to a low-security detention facility in Darwin. Finally, after 17 months in detention, the family was released into community detention in Woodridge, a tough neighbourhood in Brisbane. They were frightened to leave the house at night. The family left their shoes outside, and they were promptly stolen.
After everything they had endured, this petty act of unkindness threatened to break them. Kosar recalls her reaction: “All the time I spent in detention, to come here?”
Kosar tried again to take her own life. She had been pregnant, although she hadn’t realised it. She lost the baby.
In hospital recovering from her miscarriage, and more vulnerable than she’d ever been, Kosar had a visit from Linda Truscott, a member of the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Eight Mile Plains.
Perhaps, thought Kosar, God could help her. She and Eric – who had abandoned his Islamic faith some 15 years earlier – started walking to a local church every week.
Of Linda and her husband Paul, a medical specialist, she declares: “they are my family”.
Kosar and Eric miss the country of their birth, and the family they had to leave behind.
But both remain deeply troubled by what they experienced in detention. And while they have worked hard to build a life in Australia, it remains precarious.
Under laws introduced by the Morrison government, Kosar, Eric and Hossain can never convert their temporary protection visas, which give them three years’ security in the country and work rights, into permanent residency.
Should Bill Shorten’s Labor win office, it has promised to give certainty to the family, and others like them.
Today, Eric has his own business plastering and labouring, and Kosar works as a carer in an aged care facility. She wants to become a nurse.
Kosar is acutely aware that in Australia, debates about refugees and asylum seekers remain fraught.
“I want people to know that we are not coming to take anything from other people,” she says.
“We can’t talk English perfectly but we had a good education. We had a good life, a good job. I want people to know that it doesn’t matter which colour of your skin, which colour of your eyes, we are all human and we’re all children of God. We didn’t come to do anything bad.
“We came here to live a good life, to help others, to pay tax, not to use the government. My husband works hard at his job and we want Australia to know that we didn’t just come here to sit around and use Australia.”
For help, you can call Lifeline 131 114 or beyondblue 1300 224 636 or visit www.lifeline.org.au or www.beyondblue.org.au
Bianca Hall is a senior reporter for The Age. She has previously worked in the Canberra bureau as immigration correspondent, Sunday political correspondent and deputy editor.