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Migrant Lives

Pakistan To Australia, Along The Hazara Refugee Trail

Hazara men at Kabul's Pashtun Bazaar.
Hazara men at Kabul's Pashtun Bazaar.
Naeem Sahoutara and Jarni Blakkarly

QUETTA/JAKARTA/MELBOURNE — Five-year-old Mohammad Raza is holding a photograph of his uncle Sadiq Ali. He believes his uncle is in Australia and that he will soon send a toy airplane. But his grandmother knows that Sadiq Ali is detained abroad. Sadiq left, she says, because he didn't see any hope for his future in Pakistan.

"It was a tough time for him here," she says, "He ran his own shop but got tired of having no work because the area was unsafe. So he left the country."

Sadiq, 22, is part of the Shia Hazara community in Quetta, a town in southwestern Pakistan. He wanted to become an actor, but like many other young talented Hazaras here, the rising number of attacks forced him to give up his dreams. The final straw was the winter day he opened his shop and found a letter on the counter. It was a note from extremists threatening him to leave or face death.

A few weeks ago his family gathered to celebrate Eid, but with Sadiq gone there is sadness within the family during what is supposed to be a happy time. "He is my son and a part of my heart. He is my eldest child. I miss him all the time, not only on Eid," Sadiq's mother says. "I haven't forgotten him, not even for a single minute. He is my nice and obedient son. I am always worried whether he has eaten or not, whether he has managed to sleep."

The mineral-rich province of Quetta has long been targeted by the Taliban, and over recent years, the province has seen a number of attacks against the Hazara, who are singled out because they are Shia muslims are a easily recognized because of their distinct facial features and light skin. In 2013, suicide bombers targeted a snooker shop and the busy market in Quetta, killing around 100 men and women. Nearly 120 people were also injured in the attacks.

Thousands of Hazaras have since fled to other cities in Pakistan and are living in hiding. And for some Hazara parents, like Sadiq Ali's father, they are sending their young children out of the country if they can.

"I was confused about whether to send him abroad or not when he was living with us. But in the end I sent him because his life was in danger," the father explains. "Here he could not even go to the market and would remain indoors all the time due to threats."

An estimated 100,000 Hazaras, mostly young men in their early 20s, have migrated to other countries in the past three decades. Sadiq Ali's journey began after the September 2013 attacks. He left with 12 of his friends, traveling through Iran and Qatar and then to Malaysia and Indonesia.

From there they tried to take a boat illegally to Australia but were arrested at sea. Since then, Sadiq has been living in Surabaya, Indonesia's second-largest city, in a shelter run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Sadiq and his family are in frequent communication via WhatsApp or Skype. Even though they miss him, the family says they don't want him to come back.

"We sent him to go to the Australia because of the poor security situation in the Quetta," his mother says. "When he was here every day he would advise the siblings to look after their parents if he gets killed. It's safer for him to live in Australia because the situation in Quetta is very bad."

Living in limbo

Sadiq is one of approximately 10,000 illegal migrants now living in Indonesia, hoping that one day they might make it to Australia. Most are Hazaras from Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"It's been two years and five months since I came here," he says of his life in the UNHCR shelter. "We have no permission to work. We have no permission to move out of the city. I have to record my attendance twice a day at 10am and then 10pm. We are migrants."

Many of the Hazaras migrants travel first to Thailand using illegal papers, where they are then smuggled through Malaysia and eventually through the jungles of Indonesia.

This was the route taken by Syed Zakariya, another Hazara refugee now in Indonesia, who describes the journey as frightening and something he will never forget. "It was really very dangerous. We were crossing the borders and could see the soldiers had guns. We thought they might open fire because this is the border and they could kill us," he says.

"From Thailand to Malaysia there was a wooden boat that could break up in the middle of the sea and we could die," he adds. "It was all very horrible and dangerous. The smugglers insisted I would reach Australia. But smugglers just need money."

Like many Hazaras who attempted the dangerous boat journey, Syed was arrested at sea. He now lives in central Jakarta, where he sleeps in a cramped room that has a small bed, a dirty toilet and a refrigerator.

Life is not easy in Indonesia, he says, as migrants face discrimination from the locals. "The locals tease us and attack us because we are migrants. They don't like us," he says. "The only thing we can do is eat and sleep, then eat and then sleep. We have nothing to do but to wait."

After serving three months in detention, the only freedom Syed has won is visiting other Hazara friends. They pass the time sharing their horrific memories of the dangerous journey, and trying to remain hopeful about the future.

Even if the Hazaras are granted refugee status, they can wait years in Indonesia before they are accepted by a host country. And there's little for them to do in the interim. "We're not allowed to do anything, neither work, nor studies," he says.

Sadiq Ali agrees that the waiting game is hard. Still, he doesn't want to return to Pakistan. "I don't know where the UNHCR will send us," he says. "We will have to go wherever they decide. But I will never want to go back to Pakistan because it is not safe for us anymore. Had things been okay there I would never have had come here. Now, I just want to go to Australia."

Community building

If his dream does one day come true, Sariq will join the estimated 50,000 Hazaras who managed to reach Australia between 2007 and 2013 — prior to the country's current crackdown.

Around Melbourne, Australia's second largest city, Hazaras have established a growing and flourishing refugee community. One member of that community is Sultan Hussein. He lives in a sparsely furnished apartment in Dandenong, an outer suburb. In the living room there is just one couch, a television and a lone picture on the wall — a drawing of a Hazara leader who was assassinated by the Taliban.

As he plays the Tanpura, a long-necked sitar-type instrument, he talks about what life has been like since moving here. At 26, Sultan has spent almost his entire adult life as a refugee.

I first met him more than a year ago, when he was living in Swan Hill, a farming town a few hours drive from Melbourne. After being released from detention many Hazaras pass through there. Waiting for their work permits, the cheap rent and off-the-books fruit picking jobs of town appeal.

But over the past few months, a lot has changed for Sultan. Earlier this year he finally obtained a work permit and joined the community of 5,000 Hazara refugees currently living in Dandenong.

"In Swan Hill it was hard. To have Halal meat we had buy a whole lamb, then freeze it. The whole lamb," he says. "In Dandenong we can get Halal food, anything we need. That's the good thing here."

He now works six days per week at a BBQ chicken shop that is run by an older Hazara man and former refugee. After work he often stops by a nearby Hazara restaurant that is a popular hang-out spot for community members. He says the curry is as good as back home.

It took Sultan more than three years to get his work permit. In the meantime, he had to survive on charity and welfare. He is relieved that now he can finally send some money back home to his family.

"That way we can become independent and live the life we want," he says. "Lots of Hazaras are happy here. Here you can do whatever you want. You can build your life...We see lots of people who are doing well with their own business. Wherever we Hazara's go we are building something, not destroying."

Sultan, like Sadiq Ali, grew up in Quetta. He decided to flee after members of Hazaras were increasingly targeted and killed on his route to work. He made it to Australia in 2012, just before the country hardened its refugee policy and started turning boats around at sea. He is one of more than 30,000 refugees who have been accepted by the Australian government. But his temporary status means his visa could be revoked at any time.

In the past decade, the question of how to deal with asylum seekers arriving by boat has become politically divisive. Australia's refugee policy has also drawn international criticism — this year a UN report said the country's treatment of refugees amounted to torture.

When John Gulzari first arrived in Australia, in 1999 on a boat from Indonesia, he was one of just a few Afghans in town. "The country was very new," he recalls. "It was tough. I was worried. I was worried I was going to forget my language because there was no one to speak to."

In a cafe in central Dandenong, on a street that has been officially named the "Afghan Bazaar," John talks about the changes he has seen and experienced. "This street where we are sitting right now, Afghan Bazaar, was like a ghost town," he says. "It was very rough, there were no shops. Now that our people are here there are more than a hundred shops and all of it flourishing."

The bazaar is lined with Hazara restaurants and groceries, fabric shops and bakeries. John was 17 when he first arrived. He has since become a successful businessman, running a taxi and dry cleaning company and even serving on the local council.

But in the early days it was a rough ride. "People didn't know. We looked alien to them. Lots of people said we were coming to take their jobs away," he says. "There were very negative sentiments. I know that lots of people were abused here on this street. A friend of mine even got stabbed here."

People have since become more welcoming. John thinks it's because Hazaras have made a positive contribution to the community. "Our people are a very hard working. They come here not for begging, not for hand-outs," he says. And yet the government is now turning away new Hazara refugees, treating them like "criminals," John says.

"Even the old people that came in the 2000s are doing fantastic work, theycontribute to society, they are becoming great role models and they pay their taxes,

he says. "I think our people have been very good citizens here, law abiding, paying their dues. What more do you want?"

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