True love in Nauru
On 25 January 2014, a new group of asylum seekers was brought to the detention centre in Nauru. Ashkan* went to the gate to greet the arrivals. He watched tired and confused men, faces tinged with sadness, stagger into the compound. A Transfield employee handed each one a package that included shampoo, a towel and toothpaste. Reading the shock on one man’s face, Ashkan introduced himself. “I was brought here five months ago – I know how you feel right now,” he said, pressing the man’s hand. “If you need anything, I’m here to help, and show you around if you like.”
“My name is Nima,” the man replied.
Later that day, Nima, 27 at the time, and Ashkan, 23, met again in the compound. Nima – average height, with brown eyes in a chiselled face – had been born and raised in Tehran, in a high-rise block of flats. Ashkan, who was taller, with deep-set eyes and a strong physique, had grown up in Ilam, a mountainous area of Iran bordering eastern Iraq. His Kurdish parents had fled there from Iraq during the Iran–Iraq war in the 1980s. When the Kurds in Halabja joined with Iranian troops to fight against Saddam Hussein, Saddam responded by bombarding Halabja, killing thousands. More than 100,000 Kurds fled to Iran, and in total more than a million were displaced. Ashkan’s family spent three bracing winters in Iranian-run refugee camps where food, heating and sanitation were in short supply. Those who returned to Iraq faced execution at the hands of Saddam, and those who chose to stay in Iran became stateless pariahs. Neither Iran nor Iraq recognised them as citizens when the war was over. Ashkan, like many Kurds of that generation, was not entitled to hold a driver’s licence or buy property. He grew up treated as an outsider, a threat to the Iranian state, and was not allowed to get even a high-school education. In 2013, he decided to leave. Without an Iranian passport, it was difficult. He used the services of a people smuggler, who made him a fake passport, and he flew to Indonesia.
From there, he hopped on a boat with 140 other asylum seekers. After a hellish three days and nights, the boat’s pump stopped working, filling the bilge with sea water, panicking those on board. Some bailed out water, others prayed and cried, thinking their boat would go into the sea any minute. Tired and scared bodies were strewn everywhere. Eventually the Australian navy arrived, first threatening to tow them back to Indonesia and then leaving, before returning reluctantly to rescue them.
Ashkan arrived on Christmas Island two weeks after Kevin Rudd’s government declared that all boat arrivals would be taken offshore. In September 2013, he was among a group of single men who, with security guards gripping each arm, were bussed to a waiting plane for Nauru. On the plane, a guard was wedged between every two asylum seekers, watching their every movement, following them to the toilet, even placing a foot in the toilet door.
After 15 hours on the plane, Ashkan spotted a tiny island in the middle of a vast ocean. “I was frightened – the runway seemed like a small street,” he said. When they landed, the muggy heat felt like a slap in the face. The bus to the detention centre drove through the pinnacles of rocks that phosphate excavations had left like tombs, and past cars that lay abandoned by the side of the road. “It looked like a war zone from a movie.” A dirt track led to the detention centre, which had no rooms, beds or fans, just military stretchers lined up under rows of green canvas, 40 people per tent. “For four or five days, I didn’t know where I was, who I was. I was not myself,” Ashkan said. “I couldn’t sleep or eat.” There was a rough wooden hut in a corner of the compound where people took showers. It quickly grew filthy. Each person was allowed to take a two-minute shower per day: after that they were pulled out by the guard even if they still had shampoo in their hair. Detainees queued for hours for a telephone to call their families, and for lunch and dinner, all in the scorching heat.
By the time Nima arrived, the green tents had been replaced by nonflammable, mice-infested white tents. The detention centre teemed with around 500 asylum seekers, mostly from Afghanistan, Iran, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. They now had fans but still could not fend off the scorching 40-degree heat. The men tended to stay in the crowded tents by day anyway, as there was little shade elsewhere.
In the evenings, when the heat dropped a little, the gaunt-faced men emerged, and Nima and Ashkan, who were in different tents, sought each other out. There was nothing to do, so together they paced the floodlit compound, laughing at the squeaking sound of their standard-issue cheap white slippers on the sandy ground. They played cards and traded stories, cautiously sharing more and more about themselves. Nima revealed that he was gay, that he’d been harassed by people who knew him, and gang-raped; that when his father had found out about Nima’s homosexuality, he’d beaten him.
Ashkan replied that he was also gay.
Homosexuality carries the death penalty in Iran. Nima had run a successful business there as an engineer, but he’d fled to find safety from persecution. He arrived on Christmas Island on 7 August 2013, a week after Ashkan (although they did not meet there). He declared his sexual orientation to an immigration officer, explaining that was his reason for fleeing Iran – but he was transferred to Nauru, where homosexuality was also illegal at that time. Ashkan, by contrast, had sought asylum on the basis of being a Kurd – not many people in Iran, including his family, had known about his homosexuality.
They spent more time together, had meals together, supported each other. Sitting together on Ashkan’s bunk a month after Nima’s arrival, Nima told Ashkan he was in love. Ashkan, heart hammering – he had been infatuated with Nima since he’d met him but never able to say it – placed his hand on top of Nima’s. “I love you too,” he whispered in response.
Despite the oppressive conditions in the centre and the terrible uncertainty of the refugee determination process, they had found each other, and that made it all bearable. It gave them hope. A few days after declaring their love, they told centre managers Transfield, the immigration officers, their caseworkers and counsellors that they wanted to live together as a couple. “We love each other. We want to live together and have privacy,” they said. “We want to be moved into [Regional Processing Centre 3] among the families.” The detention centre staff told them that as single men they couldn’t be moved among the families. Besides, it was illegal to be in this kind of relationship in Nauru.
With no privacy, they first had sex in the toilet cubicle; they clutched at each other, kissing and calling each other eshgham (“my love”), trying to avoid the filth of the toilet. They tidied themselves, flushed the toilet and five minutes later were back outside.
They had avoided detection that time, but it wasn’t long before news of their relationship spread among the detainees. “Almost everyone started writing letters of complaint to Transfield, saying that we were disrespecting our culture: ‘We are praying in this tent, while they hug and sit next to each other,’” Nima said. When they were sitting on the same bed or walking together, they felt the hateful gaze of other detainees. “Dirty people,” one spat. Centre management took no action. Other detainees, including some who had shown them hostility, began following Ashkan into the shower, demanding sex. “I was so scared, but when I complained to the security guards, they said they could do nothing.” Their advice: “Stop being gay.”
The guards joined in the abuse, telling Ashkan and Nima they couldn’t hold hands while walking in the compound, couldn’t sit together on one bed – or “we’ll call the Nauru police to come and take you to prison”. A local security guard prodded Nima’s backside with a metal detector. Again, the authorities took no action. Nima, frightened of the harassment, stopped walking alone or going to the toilet by himself, and wanted Ashkan by his side at all times.
One day, when Ashkan was sick, Nima went to breakfast alone. Another detainee sat next to him, pulled his erect penis out of his pants and demanded sex. Nima left the dining hall, repulsed and panicked, and reported the incident to the Wilson security guard, an Australian, standing at the door. Nothing happened.
Nima changed his application to a spousal visa, hoping that if Ashkan was recognised as a refugee, Nima would get a visa as his spouse. A few months later, their lawyer asked them to attend an interview. Through an interpreter, the lawyer advised them to “hide [their] relationship from the Nauruan public, police and government” if they wanted to be released together. They were shocked. Fearing that they would not be able to be together if their relationship was not recognised, they refused. “Why should we hide from them?” Ashkan asked.
Several weeks later, in late July 2014, Ashkan was recognised as a refugee. His lawyer told him that he must leave the detention centre. He was to live in the community in Nauru. Ashkan insisted he would only go if he and Nima could go together, but the lawyer said this was impossible, as “homosexuality is illegal”. Force could be used, Ashkan was told, if he did not leave voluntarily. A few heavy-set Wilson security guards stood by, one gesturing confirmation that they would force him out. “Please give me a few minutes to collect my belongings and say goodbye to Nima at least.”
“Hopefully they will bring you soon,” he told Nima, explaining he had no way of resisting the order. They hugged and kissed and Ashkan put his possessions – three shirts and two pairs of jeans – into his bag, watched by the guards. It was time to leave. He slung his bag over his shoulder and the guards escorted him to the main metal gate. Nima followed, pleading with the guards not to separate them.
When the main gate clanked shut, Nima’s heart broke. “Don’t take him away, don’t take him away! I love him!” His cries woke up other detainees, who came out to find him rolling in the dirt, in tears and shouting. Without thinking, he grabbed a rock and began smashing himself, so hard that he split his head open. Security guards called an ambulance to take him to the clinic.
Ashkan heard the commotion but didn’t know what was happening. He asked the guards, over and over, why they had separated him from Nima. “Just doing our job,” one replied. The rest watched him in silence. They gave him the key to a tiny room in “Fly Camp”, alongside the other single male refugees. He threw himself onto the single bed, crying and screaming.
In the clinic, a distressed Nima found himself lying alone on a bed with his head swathed in a bandage. A few hours later, the security guards escorted him back to the detention centre. He went straight to Ashkan’s empty bed, found some of his hair on the cushion and collapsed in tears again. Security guards looked on.
Nima felt especially vulnerable without Ashkan there. After a guard stopped him from slashing his wrist with a razor, he was put on suicide watch. Two Wilson guards, notebooks in hand, followed him everywhere, even to the toilet and shower.
As for Ashkan, freedom from detention meant nothing while Nima was trapped inside. He didn’t sleep. He didn’t leave the room. Night blended into day. A worried caseworker tried to persuade him to go out but he refused. “What I am going to do there?” He was worried about Nima being followed into the toilet, perhaps raped. He felt guilty about leaving him behind; he had been the stronger one, the protector. They spoke on the phone. “I miss you, eshgham,” Nima said. “I want to be at your bedside. I wish my love had wings to fly the fence.”
Nima asked to be allowed to see Ashkan outside, but the guards refused. The couple hatched a plan to meet up on the next “excursion day”, which happened once or twice a month, when refugees were taken out under heavy guard to watch the sunset. On a small island littered with quarries, there was not much to do except visit the beach.
When the day arrived, Ashkan and Nima rushed towards each other and embraced tearfully. Around them, the security guards formed a human chain, in case they tried to run away – or throw themselves into the sea.
They sat there, pressed together, kissing and hugging, surrounded by guards. The red sun sank into the sea. “Time’s up.” It had only been around 30 minutes. Nima got back on the bus. Ashkan stared at their footsteps in the white sand, putting his feet into Nima’s, zigzagging along the beach.
The second time, Ashkan waited with mounting anxiety as the bus failed to arrive. He ran, a knot in his stomach, until he found the bus. The guards had changed the location at the last minute. This time they had less than ten minutes together.
Ashkan was disappointed after the second short reunion. He thought he would probably not get another chance to see Nima. After a month, overcome by worry and guilt, Ashkan swallowed 30 Panadol tablets. Another refugee alerted nearby Save the Children staff, who called an ambulance and rushed him to Nauru hospital. He told the doctor not to save him. The doctor, a Nauruan, said his organs would be badly damaged if he wasn’t treated. “When the doctor gave me hope, [saying that] he would do something to help bring Nima, I allowed him to flush my stomach,” Ashkan said. He stayed in the hospital overnight. Two days later, he learned that Nima had been recognised as a refugee and was soon to join him.
Ashkan bought groceries and a bottle of wine to celebrate Nima’s arrival. He cooked qormeh sabzi, an Iranian dish of meat, beans and herbs. The room was too small for anything but a single bed; they sat on it to have their dinner.
They had noisy sex – freedom! But they were given separate rooms. A few days later, when an immigration officer and a caseworker from Save the Children visited them in Fly Camp, Ashkan and Nima asked to share a room with a double bed. They were told they couldn’t because it was illegal.
At least they were free. They wandered the island together, surprised by the poverty, shabby houses, broken windows and people walking barefoot over the rough and barren ground. But here, too, they attracted hostile looks. One day, as they lay side by side on the beach, sunning themselves and taking photos, a local Nauruan approached them and asked, “Are you gay?” “Yes.” “You are bad people, you are dirty people.” The man closed his fists, threatening to attack them. “You are not allowed to sit together here.”
Nauru has a population of a little over 10,000; homophobia is rife. Slowly people became aware of the only openly gay refugees on the island. Sometimes, local people threw rubbish or swore at them. One day, as a motorbike passed, the driver punched Nima to the ground. Things got worse for Ashkan and Nima as more locals learned of their sexual orientation.
In February 2015, while they waited on the street for a lift to go shopping, a group of five young Nauruan men began swearing and throwing stones at them. They tried to ignore the men and move further away but in the end had to run.
Two weeks later, while they were waiting for a bus, a carful of Nauruan men drove past. One of the passengers threw a cigarette lighter at Nima’s feet and it exploded, spraying fragments of something on him. They reported it to their caseworker.
In July that year, around 8 o’clock one night, they were walking back from the shops on a darkened route close to home when three locals armed with clubs and a stick jumped out from the jungle. “Are you partners?” they asked. “Yes.” “Fuck gays, you make our home dirty,” and they attacked. Nima and Ashkan were knocked to the ground. A refugee passing on a motorbike called the police and ambulance; Nima and Ashkan landed in hospital.
From then on, they decided not to leave their rooms. But this was no safer. One night, a local tried to break in while they were inside, shaking the door violently. They reported the incident to the police. Nothing happened.
They weren’t allowed to sleep together at night but would spend their days together. A refugee who lived next door one day asked why they spent so much time together. “We’re partners,” Nima replied. The man argued with them and punched Nima in the chest. Other refugees stepped in to stop him attacking again. Some called them “disgusting people”; some said they “should be removed from the Earth”. For seven months, the couple pestered the authorities to provide them separate accommodation, and eventually they were allowed to live together in another camp, Ewa, where they remain.
Through their lawyer, Anna Brown, from the Human Rights Law Centre, Nima and Ashkan documented and reported all these incidents to the Australian immigration department. A month later, the minister’s office responded that their safety was the responsibility of the Nauru government, and asked them to be “active players in the Nauruan community for the duration of their time in Nauru”. Minister Peter Dutton did not approve relocating them to Australia. The letter acknowledged they had experienced “some unpleasant behaviour” but advised them to report the incidents to Nauru police, and seek support from Connect Settlement Services “on preventative measures, including personal safety strategies”.
I started speaking to Nima and Ashkan in April last year. They needed somebody to talk to who could speak their language (which I do), and we had shared experiences (I came here by boat in 2001 and spent five months in Curtin detention centre).
Ashkan and Nima were eloquent, kind and intelligent. They spoke passionately about their love, and how they had missed each other when they were separated. “We were like Layla and Majnun,” Ashkan said, laughing, referring to a 7th-century love story told by Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi in the 12th century. Like Romeo and Juliet, it is a tale of star-crossed lovers that ends in tragedy.
When I asked Ashkan why he had taken the pills, he said, “I was so [intoxicated by Nima’s] love. I wasn’t sure what I was doing … I tried other ways to get to him but was not successful.”
After the July 2015 incident, Ashkan only went out with a caseworker, once a week, to buy groceries. “We have been attacked so many times and survived … We’re not iron men; we are made of bones and flesh like everyone else.”
Nima said he wanted to start a business in Australia. Sometimes he asked about Sydney: where was the best place to live, and where did the gay community hang out. He said he liked sport, and wanted to know the best place to go surfing. I was surprised, and asked him where he’d learned to surf. He said he would learn. “I would like to go out, to do sport, and go swimming and running, but in a place that’s safe. Not here,” he said, sounding hopeless.
“Everything here is repetitive – the minutes, the hours, the weeks and the months.”
We cracked jokes and laughed about such things as former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad telling the United Nations General Assembly in 2007 that there were no gays in Iran. But slowly the jokes dried up, and the calls grew fewer.
After a 23-year-old Iranian asylum seeker, Omid Masoumali, set himself on fire in front of the visiting UN High Commissioner for Refugees representative, I called to check how they were. Nima sounded very distressed. “Omid is gone,” he said, choked with emotion. “He freed himself from the torturous world.” He said he’d be the “next” – “That’s how tired I am.” I didn’t know what to tell him.
In June 2016, Connect Settlement Services stopped escorting Ashkan and Nima out shopping, telling them it was “an order from above”. When I spoke to them, they had been out of food for a week, surviving on biscuits and water. “Let us die here. We don’t feel safe going out by ourselves,” Ashkan said with a hoarse voice. A fellow refugee eventually bought some groceries for them.
For weeks and months, Nima repeated that he would take his life, that he was tired, that had nothing to look forward to. Around September last year, he told me, “I am just a corpse.”
“He has gone mad,” Ashkan told me. “He pounds the wall, throws plates …” Since 14 October, a psychiatrist and psychologist have visited Nima weekly and recognised major depression. He has been put on medication. Ashkan sent me a picture of Nima lying on his bed, and another of his notebook-sized medico pack filled with antidepressants.
Hope came in the form of news about the refugee swap deal with the US. Laughing again for the first time in months, Ashkan told me, “Everyone is happy here. We are going to America!” A group of Iranian women next door began learning English. Ashkan put his phone on speaker mode; I could hear people’s voices, laughter, giggling. Life. Both Nima and Ashkan got interviews for resettlement in the US.
When Donald Trump announced his four-month ban on Muslims from seven countries, including Iran, entering the US, Nima said, “My hands and feet turned cold. I felt numb. Four months is a long time. Each day passes like a year here.” Then came the infamous phone call between Trump and Malcolm Turnbull on 27 January: the deal with the US was on shaky ground. The mood on the island turned sour. One Iranian tried to hang himself at the detention centre. Australian Border Force called a few refugees, including Nima and Ashkan, in the wake of the discussion between Trump and Turnbull, assuring them that the deal was going to get through.
“Our emotions fall and rise with any good and bad news,” Nima said. “We are human beings. We have the same desires as everyone else. We want to live in peace and have freedom. That’s not too much to ask. We aren’t toys for politicians to play with.”
They put in a joint application for US resettlement and in their first interview gave details of what had happened to them on Nauru, of the abuse and harassment they had suffered since being marooned there, and spoke of their love for each other. Two months ago they completed their medical check-ups but were waiting for their second interview with US Homeland Security when the officials suddenly left Nauru, leaving them confused and doubtful about their resettlement taking place at all. They said they didn’t believe in the deal anymore, and wouldn’t believe it until they stepped onto the plane.
“Australia has killed our hope and broken our hearts,” Nima told me, “but not our love.”
“Love will be victorious,” Ashkan added.
* Names have been changed.
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