Safe at last – They’re among the first of the ‘lucky’ 12,000 to arrive. So how were Osama Butti and his family chosen, and what do they make of their new home?
He believes in God and he believes in us, the Australians who helped make his children safe. He’s travelled so far for so long across the front line of a global refugee debate that he views it only in forms of light, the darkness and the brightness. Life reduced to polarity. Safe, unsafe. Life, death. Here, not there. His name is Osama Butti and he’s 50 years old, a practising Christian from Baghdad, living in a rental house in Melbourne’s outer northern suburbs with his wife, Hanan, and their two children, Saif, 14, and Mina, 12. Here, not there.
On September 9 last year, the federal government announced it would grant permanent visas to an extra 12,000 people displaced by conflict in Syria and Iraq, in addition to its existing humanitarian intake of 13,750. At the Australian Embassy in Amman, Jordan, in November, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton personally informed Osama that his family would be among the first four families to come to Australia as part of that intake. Osama looked up to the tall Australian politician standing in a dark suit and tie who held the brightness in his hands – the family’s humanitarian visa, their paper ticket to the beginning of the beginning again, their entry pass to the future. “I have won the lottery,” Osama told that rangy politician.
He had been in his new Melbourne home for three days when, in mid-December, he took his first stroll through his new neighbourhood. Safe is mid-morning quiet in the Australian suburbs. Safe is golden elms and rusty fig trees and the sharpness of the blue in the Melbourne summer sky. Safe is three neighbours emerging from their homes to greet Osama. “They understood I was a refugee and where I was from,” he says. “I’m not sure how.” The neighbours kept saying the same three words about helping him. “Do not hesitate,” they said. He liked this turn of phrase, it made him feel welcome, understood, as though these neighbours knew he was an educated man who once regularly travelled the world as an international project manager and never had to ask for help from anyone and was deeply hesitant to do so here, 13,000km away from his former life.
Safe is young Saif Butti walking to language school, the first step on the road to his dream of becoming a doctor. Safe is undamaged street signage and order and rules and laws that citizens follow. That first neighbourhood walk made Osama think of life in Iraq four decades ago. “The golden period of Iraq was the 1970s,” he says. “After that we had the Iran-Iraq War, then the Gulf War. All of my youth years – 35 years – were spent in my country with war and unstable circumstances.”
He’s from Zayouna, a mixed-race, middleclass area of eastern Baghdad. His wife, Hanan, is an experienced biologist. They worked hard to build a future for their children, a future temporarily derailed by their Christian faith. “When ISIS entered my country, a lot of things came to the surface. There was a fear among a lot of people in my country – especially the Christians – of what would happen. Even though ISIS did not attack us personally, a lot of things did happen, especially in school with my children. Their friends and classmates started to tell them ISIS would come and kill all the Christians, things like that. And also because of my work with international companies, I was very afraid. If I remained in my country, I would have been a target.”
Threats to his life became more direct when he oversaw a project assisting government troops in Baghdad’s volatile Green Zone. The threats were so real and specific that discussing them publicly, he fears, could have repercussions on relatives back home.
His greatest fears were reserved for Mina, his 12-year-old daughter, the only girl in her school class who did not wear a hijab and whose fear of ISIS became so all-consuming that she had recurring nightmares of her home being stormed at midnight by Daesh militants.
“You know, I felt very depressed,” Osama says. “I was not afraid for my life, I was afraid for my wife and children. When you are forced to stay in an area that is not stable, not safe and in very difficult circumstances, you don’t know when you are going to die. Frankly speaking, when I went out in the morning in my country, I never knew whether I was going to come back or not – from bombs, from militia attacks.”
The Butti family fled to Jordan, where they lived in a small flat in Amman as displaced persons without any work rights and limited legal standing. Hanan had a sister, Samah, living in Sydney. Osama had two sisters, Afrah and Eshraq, living in Melbourne. The family applied for an Australian humanitarian visa in August 2014.
They dreamed of Australia, they spoke over dinner about parks and beaches bathed in permanent sunshine, about city streets where kangaroos follow you home from school. Fifteen months later, their dreams came true.
The first person Osama met in Australia was Sahar Ageed. At Melbourne Airport she welcomed him to Australia in his native Arabic. “Everything will be OK,” she said. He felt that was a truly beautiful thing to say and an even more beautiful thing to hear. Sahar works for AMES Australia (Adult Multicultural Education Services), helping new arrivals resettle in Melbourne. She came to Australia from Baghdad in 2006. Sahar worked in the Green Zone too, as did her sister, who was seriously injured by a rocket launched into the 10 sq km fortified district.
“She understood what we’d been through,” Osama says. “It is very difficult when you are 50 years old to leave a country where you were born and where you were educated; to leave behind memories – good memories, happy and sad memories. It is hard to leave a place that has been your home. It’s very difficult for me to change at this age but according to my experience and the things I have seen here – the feeling and the services here – I can say I will have a good life here.” Everything will be OK. Here, not there.
She believes in God and she believes in them, hundreds of motorists zooming past her and the sign she waves on the corner of Station and Musgrave Roads at 3pm on a hot Thursday in Indooroopilly, in Brisbane’s west. “Mistreating refugees is wrong,” the sign says. She’s happy this afternoon to receive more raised thumbs from drivers than middle fingers.
Frederika Steen AM, 71, came to Australia when she was six years old. She was born in September 1944 in the living room of a Dutch farmhouse while her parents were hiding from Nazis. Her father, Jan Steen, was marked for assassination, a member of the Dutch Resistance who found secret sanctuary in the home of a merciful farming family who risked their lives to house the desperate Steens. “How can I not be there for other people in desperate situations?” she ponders by the road. She worked for 16 years in Australia’s Immigration Department, between 1984 and 2000, largely in migrant settlement services, almost single-handedly revolutionising Australia’s support services for migrant women.
She stows her sign away in her car, parked in front of Indooroopilly’s Uniting Church. She shuffles into the church and takes the stairs down to a common room filled with 20 recent arrivals: Iraqis, Syrians, Sudanese, Afghans, Sri Lankan Tamils, Rohingyas of Myanmar. They sit at tables as volunteers – law students, advocates, retirees such as Frederika – guide them through the complexities of the government’s Temporary Protection Visa and Safe Haven Visa application forms A, B and C. “Many of these people arrived before the government’s [August 2012] cut-off date for sending people directly to Nauru or Manus,” says the support service’s coordinator, Malcolm Dunning, a former marine biologist for Fisheries Queensland. “Most have no visa beyond a bridging visa.”
Frederika scans a room filled with confused, desperate faces. The Butti family did indeed win the lottery, she says. “These guys have to climb the mountain. A bureaucratic Everest.” The immigration department Frederika was once an integral part of has, over time, she says, created two kinds of refugees. “The good and the bad. A ‘bad’ refugee is someone who does meet the refugee convention in the end but who comes by themselves without having been chosen and invited,” she says. “A ‘good’ refugee has been selected, the ones who will fit in best.”
Osama Butti is a good fit. An intelligent, educated Christian vowing to contribute to the country that will give his family so much. On his first day here he refused to use translation services, so keen was he to improve his broken English; to adopt the Australian way of life. He passed our health and character tests; he passed rigorous security checks to become one of the lucky 12,000. All are required to meet all the criteria for a refugee and humanitarian visa including health, character and security checks. Processing times vary depending on the circumstances of the individual applicants. Assessors piece together a complex jigsaw puzzle to find their fit: availability of settlement services; family or community links; opportunities for employment; “the size and ethnic, cultural, religious composition of potential settlement communities; the potential for the harmonious settlement of the specific group”.
The man overseeing the settlement of the 12,000 intake is Christian Porter, minister for social services. He knows the Butti family’s arrival is just the start of a long and upwardly inclined road, as terrorists continue to exploit the refugee crisis. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has confirmed that applicants are being rejected after failing biometric and security checks. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says the country will take as long as is necessary to maintain public confidence in the intake. Porter knows that means it may take several years before the full 12,000 are settled in Australia. As of April 6, more than 180 of the 12,000 had arrived; only 11,820 to go. “We expect the arrivals to accelerate in coming weeks,” he says. “We always said the process would take several years but the intense security checks that our agencies are conducting have meant that the refugees have arrived slightly more slowly than originally anticipated.”
“It’s a really good initiative,” says Dunning. “It’s a shame it’s not capturing the realities of the 30,000 who have already got here, some of whom have just as good a reason to stay permanently. We’re seeing Syrians and Iraqi people with legs blown off coming through here too; those people are somehow stuck off in a corner somewhere and sometimes – I hope not, but I suspect – it’s because they’re Muslims and there are some issues there.” But Osama Butti, Dunning is quick to add, is no less deserving of his dream of sanctuary.
When the Syria-Iraq refugees program was announced last year, Dunning was overwhelmed by genuine offers of housing and employment from community members and workplaces. Mayor Ray Brown, whose Western Downs region of Queensland, west of Brisbane, covers an area roughly the size of Switzerland with a population of 33,000, offered to house 1500 of the 12,000 refugees. “That was nearly six months ago,” says Brown. “But I haven’t heard any word out of Canberra in any shape or form. The families were in need. We were in need five years ago during the floods and the country bent over backwards to help us; now there’s an opportunity for us to help others.”
The offer divided his electorate, but Brown has stayed true to its intention. “There’s been a lot of negative and positive,” he says. “There’s a lot of angst in the community that they will all go on welfare, but for every hundred refugees that come into a region they stimulate $16 million per annum. There’ll be additional welfare but there’ll also be additional teachers and doctors and linguists and support mechanisms and that’s what starts to generate a community. We can accommodate skilled and unskilled people, anything from unskilled labouring and fruit-picking right through to accountants.”
In Young, southwest NSW, former mayor John Walker was reminded of the boost his town received from the influx of 90 Afghan asylum seekers in an early 2000s economic slump. In a single year in 2003, the Afghans injected $2 million into the town, prompting Walker and the local council to pressure the Federal Government to allow the 90 asylum seekers on temporary protection visas to remain permanently in the town. (They were allowed to apply for permanent residency in 2004.) “The abattoirs were looking for workers and everything just jelled together,” Walker says. “There was some resistance because it was a fairly new thing at the time but the community gave them support because of the significance of the abattoirs in the region. Refugees have so much to contribute in these rural areas, and it works as long as they have the right attitude to reciprocate the welcome they do get.”
In Sydney, Jason Letchford, secretary of the Shearing Contractors’ Association of Australia, looked at his books and saw employment opportunities in outback shearing sheds across the country. “The 12,000 are coming from dry, arid countries – if anyone can acclimatise to the hot, dry conditions of an Australian summer, it’s those guys,” he says. “Bring ’em over. We have training systems and procedures in place. They’re up and running: Newstart training, in-shed coaching and everything in between. We don’t have to build systems from scratch. We’re just waiting for them to come over.”
She believes in medicine and she believes in Saif Butti, Osama’s oldest son. “If he needs some guidance or some inspiration, please pass my contact details to him and please tell him dreams do come true,” says Homa Forotan.
It’s 5.30pm on a Friday and she sits in the foyer of Brisbane’s Princess Alexandra Hospital. Homa’s dreams came true two days ago, on her 29th birthday, when she did her first shift as a qualified cardiologist. “My first shift as a registrar in cardiology was on my birthday,” she says. “I’m living my dream. It’s hard and it’s stressful but it’s what I asked for. I’m working alongside world leaders in cardiology.”
When Homa was 12 her father, Taher, also a doctor, fled Afghanistan on a perilous boat journey to Australia where he hoped to establish a better life for his family. It would be five long years before he would see his family again, nine months of that time spent in detention. Homa came to Australia when she was 17, having fled Afghanistan with her mother and four siblings to Pakistan, using forged identity documents to cross the border. Resettled in Brisbane, Homa would pass Princess Alexandra Hospital every day on her way to Milpera State High School, a remarkable state-run learning space in Chelmer, south-west Brisbane, where refugee youths learn English and receive settlement support. “I looked up at that hospital and thought, ‘Dear God, that’s where I want to be’,” she says. “Saif and his family will build back up,” she says. “I’ve seen it. It may sound cheesy but dreams do come true. It all comes true eventually.”
If you can’t sleep you can’t dream. But he sleeps now, Osama Butti. In Baghdad his nights were restless because a father can’t sleep when his children can’t sleep. “When you feel your family is safe and the future is secure, that is the most important thing a father needs from life,” he says. For his sleep he gives thanks and makes a promise in return. “We promise we will work hard and we will become part of your beautiful community and pay our taxes to give the opportunity for others who are suffering in the world also to get the opportunity for a new life in Australia,” he says. “Let them not depend on the money the government gives them, let them depend on themselves and contribute to Australian society. Let them get a job and this is the way they can thank Australia for giving them safety and security.”
He’s 50 years old and he’s beginning again. He’ll look for work once he completes his English language course. He loves the fact Saif wants to be a doctor and he knows there is not a single thing in this country to stop him from doing that. Because there’s something special about this place and he sees it every time he walks out the front door of his Melbourne rental house. “The bright face of Australia,” he says. “I’m sure this is the true face of Australia.” The bright and true face that keeps telling him the same thing over and over. Everything will be OK.
Story by Trent Dalton (The Australian)