Golriz Ghahraman and Behrouz Boochani. Photo: supplied
Golriz Ghahraman and Behrouz Boochani. Photo: supplied

BooksNovember 15, 2019

We welcome Behrouz Boochani – and we can learn from him, too

Golriz Ghahraman and Behrouz Boochani. Photo: supplied
Golriz Ghahraman and Behrouz Boochani. Photo: supplied

Green MP and former refugee Golriz Ghahraman was there last night when the former Manus Island detainee and acclaimed writer arrived in New Zealand.

Last night, quietly and without fanfare a small group made up of human rights activists, literary folk, and just two journalists, came together at Auckland Airport to welcome Behrouz Boochani to freedom.

We waited a tense, giddy, agonising hour after his flight had landed until he finally walked into the arrivals lounge. Through the wait, we held back tears and spontaneously held each other. None of us had met Behrouz in the flesh before then, but we were all deeply connected with his plight. It feels like the enormity of injustice suffered by Manus Island detainees has been embodied by Behrouz for so long that if he didn’t make it, that injustice may become unbearable. Yet, it was not us who had suffered it. So how has this man, this journalist, humanitarian, kept his humanity in the face of six long years of exile on a prison island?

Before Behrouz took up the task of speaking truth to infinitely brutal power, before his striking image and extraordinary writing brought to light the suffering of detained “boat people”, he was an avid journalist fighting for Kurdish rights under the watchful eye of the Islamic Republic of Iran. As the risk of torture and disappearance became too much, he fled for safety. He was 28 years old.

That backstory may now seem like a footnote, as most refugee and asylum seeker stories seem to become once we are perceived through the reductive prism of our displacement. We are seen as faceless hoards, victims or “queue jumpers”.

What made the wait at Auckland Airport difficult for me was the memory of my own walk through that airport as a child with my asylum seeker parents. My own deeply political, Kurdish, mother, my socialist dad. I can still vividly feel the anxiety of our own hour coming through transit. We got to arrive in a nation that recognised our humanity and afforded us a legal process where we could prove our persecution. We were treated as equals, because inherent in the right to claim asylum is the acknowledgement that no one deserves to live with the risk of torture or violence. I got to escape that world, while Behrouz grew up in it. He paid a high price for holding on to his humanity under an oppressive theocracy. “They call us the scorched generation, did you know that?” Behrouz told me as we swapped notes about our childhood in that first decade of the Islamic Republic. The first Iranian generation with no living memory of freedom. That, is what refugees are made of.

Behrouz has fought hard and long to bring humanity to the way we portray refugee stories. Only then might we all stop and challenge the way governments, our allies, are allowed to treat people fleeing oppression or violence. We need to see refugees as they are: individuals with values, hopes, and dreams, like our own. People fleeing war and persecution have also had birthday parties, created works of art, protested as student unionists, like Behrouz. They, we, are complex, diverse and different from one another. We are all capable of life beyond victimhood.

Behrouz walked free into Auckland Airport last night, exhausted but happy. He said it was the first time he could think of himself as a “survivor” of Manus Island. At any moment, during the 2269 days of unlawful detention, in conditions described by the United Nations and Amnesty International as amounting to torture, he knew he may not make it. He began to write his accounts of the prison camp early but didn’t feel safe enough to identify himself as the author until he had established support networks outside of the Island. It was the journalists, civil society organisers, ordinary people connecting with his stories, who gave him confidence enough to speak louder.

Today we flew together to Christchurch where Behrouz was welcomed, not only as a refugee but as a celebrated author, there to speak about his award-winning book. How poignant that the city he describes as “teaching the world kindness” in the wake of a terror attack in part driven by hatred of refugees, is the place to give Behrouz Boochani his freedom.

And how perfect that he used the first opportunity to speak with that new found freedom, to remind us that hundreds still languish in Australia’s inhumane detention camps. He called upon us to use our freedom to end their torture too. That will mean condemning our closest ally, it will mean approaching Papua New Guinea and Nauru, even if Australia hates it. Though today Aotearoa gets to be a place where an author is welcomed based on the value of his work no matter his birth, we none of us want to live in a world where we must author award winning books on a cell phone to earn basic human dignity.

Behrouz Boochani appears at Word Christchurch on November 29

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