“I am so frustrated,” says Morteza Poorvadi.
Life is pretty good these days for the hardworking 24-year-old Iranian with the idiomatic English and irrepressible sense of humour. He runs a small business doing home decoration while studying part-time for a degree in mechanical engineering at Sydney’s University of Technology. He recently celebrated the third anniversary of his marriage to Jojo, a honey-skinned Burmese woman with whom he has a little boy, Alex, who has inherited Morteza’s huge, down-tipped eyes and big, lippy smile. In the past several years, Morteza’s accomplishments include performing in a play at the Adelaide Fringe, speaking on behalf of Amnesty International and co-founding the Guildford Persian Anglican Church. His interests are broad: he has written one paper for uni on the theatricality of American Beauty and another on the recent APEC meeting’s environmental footprint. So what’s missing? “I can’t vote,” he rues.
Morteza is eligible to apply for Australian citizenship in November - too late to vote in this election. It’s not that he hasn’t been here long enough: he arrived almost eight years ago, in January 2000. It was the way in which he came that was the problem.
When Morteza was 16, his parents decided to flee Iran with him, his 13-year-old sister, Mina, and his three-year-old brother, Hussein. His mother was Iraqi, and although she’d lived in Iran for 40 years and raised her family there, the government refused to give her official status, which meant that her children’s access to education and good jobs was compromised.
A wild storm hit the fishing boat on which they came across from Indonesia. The boat, carrying 284 asylum seekers, sprung a leak. It was the middle of the night, and the terrified asylum seekers formed a chain to bail the vessel out with a bucket. Hours later they were intercepted by the Australian Federal Police and taken to Christmas Island. Less than a week after that, they were flown to Perth.
“We thought, Great, we’ve reached our place of refuge.” Then they were put on another plane. “When the captain said, ‘Fasten your seatbelts, we are going to land,’ I looked out the window and thought, Shit, that’s desert. My dad said, ‘Don’t be silly, they’re taking us to another city.’ But there was no city. Then we knew we were in big trouble. I wasn’t even sure if we were still in Australia.”
They were driven to an old army barracks in the middle of nowhere. “The guards told us not to think of escaping, that there were scorpions, snakes and even kangaroos who would kill us in a minute if we wandered. Then they drove off, leaving us all alone. We thought we’d been abandoned to die.”
It was the first of many surreal experiences which characterised Morteza’s early years in Australia. As it turned out, the guards had only gone to get supplies - including the razor wire and fencing which they proceeded to knock up around them. “When we asked what the razor wire and fences were for, they said, ‘To protect you from the wildlife.’ We were glad they were building the fence, we were that scared.” And so Woomera was born.
Morteza recalls seeing curious kangaroos and emus staring at them through the fence. He thought Down Under was a very odd place indeed: “They put the people in the zoo and the animals come to look at them.”
In Woomera, the asylum seekers were rechristened: three letters identifying the boat on which they came, followed by a number. Morteza answered to DON 94. “I was forgetting my own name.” A year dragged on. Immigration moved the Poorvadis to another detention centre, in Port Hedland.
One day in May 2001, Morteza was in the shower when guards called him. He barely had time to get dressed when they took hold of him. They told him they were sending his father to another detention centre. Terrified at the thought of the family being split up, Morteza got bolshie and said they’d have to take him first. The struggle didn’t last long. The grainy image of the 17-year-old being beaten to the ground, captured on camera by the guards, became one of the galvanising images for the pro-refugee movement when it was broadcast on A Current Affair early the following year.
The beating was the spark which ignited the 2001 Port Hedland riots, which Morteza heard from inside a padded isolation cell. A week later, he and his family - including his dad - were moved to the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, in the western suburbs of Sydney.
It was at Villawood that I first encountered him, in November 2001. He was bent over an acoustic guitar, picking out the chords to Cat Stevens’ ‘Moonshadow’. He had thick long hair, tied back in a ponytail, and wore jeans and a striped T-shirt. I mistook him for one of the uni students who visited asylum seekers at the time. It was a shock to realise that the hand strumming the guitar had no wristband - that subtle strip of plastic which marked out those who were free to go when visiting hours ended.
At times despair overcame Morteza’s naturally sunny disposition. In early 2002, he drank a bottle of shampoo in an attempt to kill himself. He ended up with a monstrous gut-ache and pee full of bubbles. He went on hunger strike and sewed his lips.
I wrote a play about a guitar-playing asylum seeker in detention. It poked gentle fun at the shampoo-drinking. The play’s other character asks, as I had: “What next, conditioner?” Morteza loved it. He said that when he got out, he would act in it. (And so he did - at the Adelaide Fringe.)
Razor wire has a way of slicing through optimism. Mina became so depressed she could barely speak. Hussein’s eyes grew haunted. Morteza grew fuzzy and sad on the cocktail of anti-depressants and painkillers prescribed by Villawood’s medical staff.
His parents decided they preferred the vagaries of Iranian justice to the certainty of their children’s suffering in Australia. But in July 2002, Morteza had converted to Christianity. He had been lost and Jesus - or at least His evangelists among the visitors - found him. In Iran, apostasy, the conversion of a Muslim to another religion, is punishable by death. He had also reached the age of compulsory military service and was a de facto draft-dodger. Add to that the crime of leaving Iran by a false passport and it looked like - while the rest of the family might manage to negotiate their return - Morteza, in the vernacular of his new country, was stuffed.
His girlfriend, Jojo, a fellow detainee, was granted a visa and released first. Finally, in November 2003, after almost four years behind the wire, Morteza Poorvadi was recognised as deserving this country’s protection. He was 20 years old.
Behind the razor wire, Morteza followed Australian politics closely. Even while Australia averted its eyes, the asylum seekers always had us in sharp focus. In the early days in Woomera, when the detainees were denied access to newspapers and television, a fellow Iranian became a hero to Morteza for managing to re-engineer a smoke alarm into an FM radio.
Morteza and Jojo drop by one Sunday afternoon with Alex. “Alex naughty,” says Jojo in her clipped English. Morteza gets his son’s attention. “Where’s Daddy from?” he asks. Alex bats his doe eyes and thinks about the question. “I-wan,” he lisps.
Morteza grins. “Good. And mummy?”
“Aussie!” Alex cries.
We laugh, then the talk turns to politics. John Howard has just called the election. “He was re-elected on false promises to keep interest rates low,” Morteza says. “Before it was by misleading the Australian public by manipulating stories about refugees.”
It occurs to me that Morteza and Jojo are classic ‘aspirationals’. They carry high-end mobiles, sport up-to-the-minute fashion and jewellery, and at home watch DVDs on their 42-inch flat-screen TV. Morteza looks forward to the day when he can work as an engineer and provide even better for his family. Interest rates will one day be a concern, for he would like to buy a house. But if in many ways he fits the profile of a ‘Howard battler’, he would like nothing more than to cast a vote which would help see the prime minister off. “I am so, so frustrated.”
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