As a toddler, Nida Fiazi escaped Afghanistan with her mother in a quest for survival. Instead they ended up in a detention camp in Nauru. Thalia Kehoe Rowden tells their story.
Content note: This is a distressing story of seeking asylum and detention, and includes discussion of psychiatric illness, self-harm and suicide.
When Waikato University arts student Nida Fiazi was three years old, she should have been doing jigsaw puzzles, reading stories with her mum, or maybe running around at kindy – the kinds of things my three-year-old gets up to.
Instead, she was playing in the dirt, surrounded by fences, and by extremely unwell adults. Some people at the Nauru detention camp she lived in were so desperate that they sewed their lips shut in protest at their treatment.
Her mother couldn’t read, but she told Nida old stories from Afghanistan. Books weren’t part of Nida’s life until she arrived at the Māngere Refugee Resettlement Centre in New Zealand, after two-and-a-half years as a refugee.
Nida’s mother fled Afghanistan while she was still a teenager, with her toddler daughter. Nida doesn’t know the details of why – it’s too upsetting for her mother to talk about. But the United Nations Refugee programme recognised her reasons as legitimate, and, as Warsan Shire writes in her poem ‘Home’:
“no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark.”
Nida’s mum managed to get tickets to fly to Malaysia with Nida, who was only two years old. Then they joined 15 other asylum seekers on a flimsy fishing boat, trying to get to Indonesia. In a recent essay for The Sapling, Nida said, “My mother and I used to sleep together every night… Whenever I felt anxious, scared or restless she would narrate old Afghan folktales to me until I fell asleep, and boy, was she good at it.”
Now a student at Waikato University, Nida writes, “I only realised how incredibly talented my mother was at this in my first year of university. I took a Children’s Literature paper where I discovered that most people learn how to narrate well (for example, using voices, the change in intonation, pauses) from being read to as a child. My mother had none of these experiences, yet she had such a knack for storytelling.
“My favourite story she’d narrate was a Hazaragi folktale called Buz e Chini about a cunning wolf who attempts to eat the children of the goat Buz e Chini.”
From Indonesia, Nida and her mum climbed on board another small boat. They were on it for ten days before the Australian coastguard intercepted the boat. Under the hardline immigration policies of the Australian government, instead of rescuing the desperate passengers and taking them back to Australia, the authorities evacuated them, and they spent another 30 days and nights on two more boats, before arriving in Nauru.
Nauru is a tiny Pacific nation – about the size of Rangitoto or Kāpiti islands – that has been through the wringer since Europeans arrived in the Pacific.
First settled 3000 years ago, Nauruans developed sophisticated aquaculture and traced lineage through the maternal line. In the 19th century the country was annexed by Germany, and later administered by Australia and New Zealand under a League of Nations agreement.
Nauru was invaded and occupied by Japan in World War II, and over half the population was deported to the distant Truk islands. Throughout the twentieth century international mining companies strip-mined phosphate from the island, leaving environmental devastation behind them. For a while Nauru citizens had one of the highest standards of living in the Pacific, but now there is 90% unemployment and almost all food needs to be imported.
Now the main source of Nauru’s income is Australian aid, in a deal made so that Australia can avoid its international responsibilities to asylum seekers who arrive by boat.
Under the United Nations Refugee Convention, anyone can legally arrive in Australia, by boat or any other mode of transport, and ask to be protected. Then their claim for refugee status can be investigated, and they can be resettled by the UN.
Since 1992, though, Australia has ignored these international rules. Instead, if anyone seeks asylum by boat, they are diverted to an offshore detention facility, in Nauru or Papua New Guinea, while their claims are checked out. Ninety percent of the asylum seekers in Nauru have turned out to be genuine refugees, accepted by the UN, but they have mostly been stuck in Nauru for several years before being able to travel to a new host country.
That was what happened to Nida and her mum. They were officially recognised as refugees and joined the UN system to find a new home. But that meant that Nida and her traumatised mother spent two and a half of her pre-school years in an unsafe environment, with very limited medical care or education.
Nida writes,”I was two when I arrived at the detention centre. There I was surrounded with people, just like you and I, who were in a constant state of distress and suffering from ill health. At the detention centre, people were diagnosed with depression and anxiety everyday, but there were no proper doctors to help them cope. Some went to the extremes of sewing their lips shut in protest and even committing suicide upon learning that after everything they went through to get this far, they would be deported back to where they came from.”
In an interview this week, Nida talked more about her early memories of Nauru. “I distinctly remember a man in the detention centre who’d throw rocks at me and the other children every time we’d walk past him and the room assigned to him.”
There’s only one small hospital in Nauru, and it’s not up to the job of looking after hundreds of traumatised people. Nick Martin, a doctor who worked in Nauru and spoke out about the appalling conditions there, called the hospital “chronically under-equipped”. Even when doctors recommend that their patients need to be flown to a larger hospital, the authorities delay and usually deny permission. Law firms like Human Rights for All and the National Justice Project are very busy bringing legal cases to try and enforce the human rights of detainees, especially to medical care in Australia. Nida’s mother never got proper care, and has spent much of the last two decades seriously ill.
Psychiatric care is terribly under-resourced, which means, among other things, that children in detention in Nauru are not safe. As Nida said this week, “There was an incident where my friend and I were playing in the room assigned to her when we heard footsteps and a man yelling. My friend knew this man was violent so she hid me under the bunk bed in the room and told me to stay quiet. When the man came into the room we were in, my friend told him she was alone and that no one else was with her. She knew he’d get angry if he knew I was there. As soon as he left and the coast was clear she pulled me out from under the bed and we ran outside.”
The original Australian plan was to build air-conditioned units for the detained asylum seekers, but that didn’t happen. Nida says, “When I got older I asked my mother about the conditions in the detention centre. She said the weather was extremely hot. So hot that the children would get boils and blisters from the heat. Despite this, it was quite a while before those with children were provided with fans.”
Nida and her mum finally arrived in Aotearoa when she was five and her mother only in her early twenties. After arriving first at the Māngere Refugee Resettlement Centre, the little family eventually settled in Hamilton. “When my mother first arrived in New Zealand the majority of her time was spent adjusting to her new environment. She learnt how to catch a bus and enrolled into an English language course at Wintec. Over time she learnt how to drive and now holds a full New Zealand licence. Her English has also improved tremendously. My brother was born in 2007 and for the past decade my mother’s main focus has been on raising him and dealing with her health issues.
“However recently, with the arrival of Afghan refugees, my mother has had a much more active role in the community. She made personal visits to the new Afghans and helped them get settled into Hamilton. My mother also enrolled into another English language course at Wintec after a great many years and her teachers have all expressed that she should be moved to more advanced classes. She has also started volunteering for the Red Cross by driving new refugees in Hamilton to Te Rapa for orientation – where they are introduced to the main New Zealand laws that they must follow – and back home. This recent influx of Afghan refugees has also motivated her to apply to be an interpreter. Her course starts in July of 2018.”
Nida is now an arts student at Waikato University. “After taking the Children’s Literature paper in my first year of university I realised how much I would have loved to read about people like myself as a kid. Representation matters so much – especially the representation of minority groups. It is so important to feel validated and that you belong. It’s now my goal to write children’s stories with diverse characters. I want to write about refugees, about Afghans and about Muslims. In doing so, I hope that other refugees and people in general find solace in these stories.”
Thalia Kehoe Rowden is a former Baptist minister and current mother and development worker. She writes about parenting, social justice and spirituality at Sacraparental.com.
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