The Dentist

Said | Egypt | Asylum Seeker

“I feel like I can give this country a lot… I can give, but I have nothing to do.”

For more than a decade in Egypt and Malaysia, Said worked as a dentist. But here, he cannot practise. He must first pass the Australian Dental Council Exams, which have been postponed for a year.

He does two days a week as a dental assistant, struggling to feed his family of six. No one else will employ him.

His weatherboard house in southwest Sydney is strewn with old toys and dentistry textbooks and hand-me-down clothes. The wall paint is peeling and falls onto the carpet like small clumps of dandruff. There are crayon marks on the tea-table and the moth-bitten blinds.

Said’s wife is stirring a thin vegetable stew. She smiles at him sadly; they talk in Arabic and laugh. He plucks a pickled gherkin from a jar, and chews it slowly. The clock ticks.

Said picks up his son and presses the little boy’s head against his chest, kissing his curls. His eyes are vacant, his words forlorn.

“When this all will end?” he says. “It’s like a nightmare.” The silence hangs for several seconds.

“I’m begging here, you know? I’m a beggar… That’s it.”

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The Political Activist

Babak | Iran | Asylum Seeker

“Some people in [Australia], they don’t believe the new people who come here. They don’t believe, they don’t trust.”

Babak’s frustration is tangible. He has been living in community detention for 15 months, but still can’t find a job. “And I’m not allowed to study under the bridging visa rule,” he says, shaking his head.

For him, it is difficult to see the difference between his situation now, and the two years he spent languishing in detention facilities.

His eyes glisten with indignation; his voice serrated, tinged with despair.

“Just the same day… same day come and go. Same.”

The Nurse

Janni | Bangladesh | Asylum Seeker

“Then, he would hit me in front of my daughter. He would hit my daughter.”

The rain pelts the kitchen window like a machine gun, punctuated by guttural growls of thunder. Janni trembles and shrinks further into her veil.

It takes an hour to tell her story: how she escaped here with her daughter; her homelessness and hopelessness; how her husband tried to kill her.

Her hands are clasped, as if in prayer. She speaks apprehensively, her eyes large, wet, imploring.

If Janni returns to Bangladesh or Saudi Arabia where she worked as a nurse, her husband will find her there. Here, at least, she can hide.

But Janni and her daughter are on their last appeal.

If rejected, they have 28 days to leave the country.

The Engineer

Majid | Iran | Permanent Resident

“I saw two person die in detention. One, he dive into concrete and killed himself. Another one, hanging in the bathroom… I cut his rope. I can’t forget him, I can’t.”

Majid’s voice fractures. He pauses, swallows, eyes downcast.

As one of Iran’s brightest young engineers, Majid was headhunted to make weapons for the government. He soon resigned, ridden with guilt for his complicity in murder. Fearing for his safety, he farewelled his wife and son, and fled by boat to Christmas Island. After 20 months in detention he was released, pushed out in a wheelchair.

Majid is a sickly, tormented shadow of sadness. His shirt flaps around his frame like a flag. He is diagnosed with depression and PTSD, and spends too much time in hospital to work.

He is gradually recovering through art.

The Lawyer

Diez | Ivory Coast | Australian Citizen

“If you are a refugee, you can become a cleaner, taxi driver, not more.”

Diez’s home is a cardboard box, wedged somewhere within a stunted row of housing department flats.

It is modestly outfitted with dusty second-hand furniture donated through a Buddhist charity. His bed sits one metre from the front door, his dining table a foldable tray. But anything is better than an African prison, he says.

Once upon a time, Diez was a highly ranked lawyer for the United Nations. He disappeared one day, and was found a year later in an Ivorian jail, barely alive.

Diez was sent to Australia in 2006 under the offshore resettlement program. Not wanting to be a cleaner or taxi driver, he spent the next six years studying social work.

He fiddles with his Virgin Mary pendant as he tells his story, his voice a sonorous murmur.

From human rights lawyer to prison inmate. From security guard to social worker. From refugee to citizen.

The Refugee Advocate

Fabia | Volunteer

“I think we need to have humanitarian airlifts from Indonesia. That would stop the boats in five minutes. If the government was really serious about it, that’s what they’d to.”

It is 12 o’clock on a warm winter Wednesday, and it’s one of Fabia’s quieter afternoons.

The doors of her tranquil old Castlecrag home hang open, the pastel pink walls of every room saturated with sunlight and the smell of incense and brewed tea and firewood.

Fabia hums to herself as she flutters between her clanking outdoor washing machine and the cauldron of homemade dahl spluttering on the stove.

The 63-year-old retired ESL teacher dedicates her time to asylum seekers held behind Villawood’s barbed wire fences and those still trapped in community detention. She works alone, writing submissions to policy panels, zipping around in her mini red Yaris, and sometimes ­— just sometimes — grabbing the microphone at refugee rights rallies.

“It’s exhausting, but it’s better than going to superannuation seminars and having my bone density checked,” she laughs.

Her heavily kohl-lined eyes glow green, but are tired, damp. She stirs the steaming pot of lentils and rubs the deep furrows carved above her cheeks.

Fabia has three children — a fly neuroscientist in Singapore, a musician in New York (who has a 15-year-old son — “sex, drugs, and rock and roll,” she whispers), and a daughter who has just moved out of home.

“There’s no one around the house anymore, so I might as well get up to things while they’re gone.” She grins, then sighs.

“It has to be people like me who fight for them, because asylum seekers can’t fight for themselves.

“I used to work with refugee children. Some had been locked up for months. What happened to them was really wrong, so I just made up my mind that I’m going to work against this system.

“I’m going to work for justice for these people until the day I die.”

The Academic

Prof Maley | Australian National University

Room 49 on level two of ANU’s Hedley Bull Centre is a cosy cul-de-sac of sagging bookshelves crammed with several thousand colourful spines.

Welcome to the office belonging to Professor William Maley, Member of the Order of Australia; Foundation Director at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy; Vice-President of the Refugee Council of Australia; High Court barrister; Afghanistan expert; author; Canberran; identical twin.

For someone who fervently read encyclopaedias as a child, the white-haired, rosy-cheeked professor is remarkably… well, normal. Never mind his omnipotent intellect, kilometre-long list of publications, natural eloquence and Harry Potter spectacles. He is kindly and unassuming, and resolute in his belief that Australia should be doing much more to protect its refugees.

In this 10-minute audio interview, Professor Maley explains our country’s immigration policy, talks about asylum seekers and the right to work, and tells us exactly what he thinks about the politics behind the asylum debate.