Imagine receiving a letter to your house asking you to turn yourself in, or face your death.
For Zaki Haidari this was a reality, and it wasn’t the only letter, nor was it the only life they demanded.
At the age of 17, after repeated threats from the Taliban, who took his father and older brother, Zaki had no choice but to knowingly risk his life to flee his home in Afghanistan for Australia.
In doing so, he left behind his mother and six younger siblings, not knowing whether he would ever see them again.
“If you ask me the question of if I miss my country [sic], I wouldn’t say I miss anything in particular. I never had a good experience of any place or people,” Zaki tells me, in conversation at a Canberra café.
This was the country in which Zaki was born and raised, his native country, where his mother tongue is spoken and his culture was developed – the same land that his ancestors lived and died on.
However, hearing his story, it’s not difficult to understand why he holds no positive feelings toward his homeland.
Persecution of the Hazara people
Belonging to the ethnic group of Hazaras, Zaki’s experience of Afghanistan is not unique.
An ethnic minority of Afghanistan, Hazara peoples’ physical appearance is far closer to that of their Mongolian ancestors and East-Asian cousins, with fairer skin, sharp eyes and straight hair, rather than the duskier, round-eyed, Middle Eastern appearance of the majority Pashtun country.
This physical dissimilarity is one of the reasons that the Hazara people have been mercilessly oppressed and targeted over centuries of the country’s history.
But the reasons behind their oppression go further than just skin deep: Afghanistan follows most of the Muslim world with its dominantly Sunni ideology.
The Taliban draws upon the Sunni-Shi’a divide in order to extend their oppressive regime in Afghanistan. While this schism doesn’t explain all of the factors involved in the conflict, it does go part-way in addressing some of the underlying tensions.
This is because the majority of Hazara people, including Zaki, follow the Shi’a sect of Islam – a sect that, according to the Taliban, shouldn’t even be considered a part of Islam. Furthermore, the Taliban propagate the idea that killing even one Hazara is a key to paradise.
Being Hazara and being a Shi’a usually come hand in hand, and for Afghan Hazaras, it means that you have your odds stacked against you from the day you are born.
One of the first things he noticed living in Australia was his freedom to walk the streets without having terms like ‘Hazara boy’ being shot aggressively at him by passersby.
In Afghanistan, like many other Hazaras, Zaki was seen as an outsider in his own country. However, for Zaki in particular, there was one more reason behind why he and his family were targeted by the Taliban.
The Taliban have a particular hatred for those who they consider to be allies to the west, or the international forces. Their hatred for foreign invaders manifests in the oppression of anyone who seeks an education, or is found with anything that could suggest association with the western world.
Zaki’s father, Dr. Haidari encouraged his children to get an education to give back to the Hazara community, which so desperately needed help.
After getting an education and becoming a medical professional, Dr. Haidari knew how rewarding it was to have an education.
He opened the first and only medical centre in Zaki’s hometown, building and funding the hospital on his own, running it with the help of just one other person.
Unfortunately for Dr. Haidari, the Taliban would soon discover English documents that belonged to him.
This was the last time any of his children and patients were able to receive his generosity again.
He was kidnapped, and to this day, the family are unaware of his whereabouts, or if he still lives.
Zaki’s older brother, an aspiring doctor like their father, suffered a similar fate, but unlike Zaki’s father, the family weren’t able to hold onto any hope that he was still alive.
I recently sat with Zaki in a coffee shop outside his workplace, now a confident, well-dressed man.
I asked about his past, having him step back into the shoes of the frightened young boy he once was.
Re-living these past events were noticeably difficult for him, but sharing his story was more important. He began to speak about what happened the day he lost his big brother.
“He was going back home in the summer holiday from university. He forgot to leave his ID card back at home, when they searched him they found his ID card and..”
Zaki looked away as his voice began to drop.
“That was it for him.”
There were no high schools in Zaki’s village, so after primary school, the kids would travel to Kabul for an education. This journey was a risk every time they travelled. The road they used is known for being a hotspot for Taliban attacks and roadblocks, often Zaki would have to get out of the car and find cover to avoid being injured or killed in crossfire between the Taliban and the Afghan Military.
While on his war-torn path to school in Kabul, Zaki’s brother had forgotten to leave his I.D card at home which identified him as both a Hazara and a university student. The aspiring doctor was beheaded that day by the Taliban.
Following these two major traumatic events, Zaki began receiving letters to his house from the Taliban demanding that he turn himself in for his family’s apparent crimes.
Zaki escaped to Kabul to stay with his extended family, but the letters would continue, and they began to threaten not only his life but the lives of his loved ones as well.
Realising she could no longer protect her son, Zaki’s heartbroken mother paid a network of people smugglers to get him to a safer country.
The journey to safety
Zaki remembers the heartbreak he experienced when hugging his mother goodbye for the last time, not knowing if he would ever feel the warm comfort of her embrace again.
The smugglers told them that where he was going, there was 90% risk of facing his death before even arriving in Australia, and they weren’t far from the truth. Since 2000, over 1000 people have died attempting to reach Australia for refuge.
The first stop was India. This is where Zaki and two other fellow Hazaras refugees were kept locked up in a pitch-black room with no windows. The smugglers would not allow them to leave the dingy, depressing room for fear of being exposed, and they gave them a single, cheap meal every 24-hours.
“It was horrible.” said Zaki, with a slight tremble in his voice.
“I was young, and I was missing family. I got homesick, missing my mum and siblings.”
It seemed like weeks that they stayed cooped up, but Zaki couldn’t really tell. Having no windows meant they couldn’t tell if it was day or night, and time passed by excruciatingly slowly, without them knowing how many days it had really been.
Finally, the day came where they would depart for their next destination in their journey for safety, Malaysia.
Conditions here weren’t an improvement. Zaki recalls being given a piece of bread to eat in the morning and noodles for lunch and dinner.
Naively, I asked him what it felt like to not have proper meals for so long, but for Zaki, he didn’t have the luxury of thinking about his feelings at the time.
“As soon as you’d see food you’d eat it, I don’t think you’d think about it.” he said. “Food is food, you know?”
From Malaysia they departed to Indonesia, which was the beginning of the final and most dangerous stretch of the their journey: the boat to Australia.
It was on this boat that Zaki met a group of boys who would go on to be some of his closest friends.
They bonded over their shared circumstances – such as their Hazara heritage, lack of work rights, and their dreams for a safer life in Australia.
However, being packed into a small, disintegrating boat for five sleepless days, without food or water, began to take a toll on its passengers.
“I was counting my life every moment,” he said, remembering what the smugglers told him when he left.
The boat was rescued by an Australian Navy vessel, and its passengers taken to Christmas Island for mandatory detention. However, the problems didn’t end there.
From Christmas Island, Zaki was set to be sent to Manus or Nauru detention camps, but in a stroke of luck, both were full. So Zaki was sent to be detained in Hobart, Tasmania.
He was in limbo for three months, not knowing if he would be resettled in Australia or not.
Living in Australia
Luckily for Zaki, he made it out – along with his fellow Hazara friends from the terrifying boat journey. After leaving immigration, the group was released in Sydney. Zaki was given a loan of 100 Australian dollars to survive on for two weeks that was later cut in small amounts from the Centrelink payments he would briefly receive.
When I entered the cafe to chat with Zaki, he only had a 30-minute lunch break from work. Without thinking too much, he quickly ordered a burger and fries and we sat down.
Zaki recalls his first time living in Australia after being resettled. The group went to the supermarket to buy something to eat and noticed a simple $10 burger.
For a while the boys considered how expensive it was. Their stomachs ached for a warm meal after barely eating for their entire journey across the seas and in detention – but if they spent the $10 on the burger, that would leave them with a mere $90 to survive on for the next fourteen days.
They all went to bed that night on an empty stomach.
Zaki later moved into a house with three of his Hazara friends, and briefly did some volunteer work with Amnesty International, posting picture dictionaries to asylum seekers in detention.
He would wake up every morning and sit outside, watching others his age head to school and college. He recalls feeling really bad, just wanting to go so that he was able to get an education. The education that his father wanted him to get, and that his brother never finished, but having no work rights, immigration would not allow him to reveal his name or speak to anyone.
After speaking anonymously to a journalist doing a story on asylum seekers, the journalist was so touched by story that he tried around Sydney to get him a scholarship to study. This eventually worked, but Zaki’s english was too weak, so he was enrolled in an English class.
The English class was where he first noticed the diversity of Australia; he had classmates who were Chinese, Iranian and Pakistani, and for the first time, he had a teacher who was nice to him.
Today, 24-year-old Zaki works at a Student Admissions Office. Having completed a Diploma in Graphic Design and IT, he is currently undertaking a Business and Marketing degree, finally achieving his dreams of an education. His English has also improved, now speaking at events around Australia.
He has also used his connections to get his siblings a good education back home; one of his sisters is now a midwife, and his younger brother is on his way to becoming a doctor just like their late father. They look up to their brother, and hope to one day live in a safe country like him.
Zaki no longer faces the struggles he once did. His life in Australia is the life of safety and comfort that he longed for back in Afghanistan – the life that he risked his life for, starved for, and left his family behind for, at the age of 17.
He may not miss his country, but he does miss his family and celebratory occasions such as the Hazara new year, Nowruz.
Zaki fortunately did make it out to be resettled, but for many refugees today on Nauru and the recently closed Manus Island detention centres, they have spent almost half a decade detained, not knowing whether they would be released into Australia or sent back to the home countries they tried so hard like Zaki to flee from.
To find out more information on how to help refugees detained by the Australian government, visit https://refugeeaction.org and https://www.amnesty.org.au/campaigns/refugees or attend your local rallies and protests and get involved.