Asylum in the suburbs

September 03, 2012

Iraqi refugee Hasan, 23, lived with the Thorstensens for 10 weeks after being granted a bridging visa.Iraqi refugee Hasan, 23, lived with the Thorstensens for 10 weeks after being granted a bridging visa. Photo: Bridie Jabour

Before Claire Thorstensen welcomed a 23-year-old Iraqi asylum seeker into her home, most of the exposure she had had to his culture was through stereotypes that she knew could not be true.

Terrorists. Misogynists. Extreme thinkers.

They’re real people who do not have safety and protection in their own country

In Hasan, an asylum seeker who stayed with her for 10 weeks in the Homestay program, she found a quiet and considered young man who celebrated his protection visa, not with a beer or even a vodka, but with a rare cup of coffee.

Claire Thorstensen in her Arana Hills home.Claire Thorstensen in her Arana Hills home. Photo: Bridie Jabour

“There’s been different cultural groups that have come to Australia, like the Italians who came back in the ’70s or so and there was all this fear campaign about ‘oh it’s the Mafia, we’re letting the Mafia into the country’ but of course it wasn’t like that at all and then with the Vietnamese, there were all these evil triads which were out to attack us,” Ms Thorstensen said.

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“And somehow now it’s the Middle Eastern people as terrorists but it’s not like that at all. We’ve met Hasan and he’s just such a lovely person and you relate to him as an individual and as a person, not as a cliched stereotype.”

Ms Thorstensen lives with her husband, Derek, and 13-year-old son, Connor, in a two-bedroom house in Arana Hills in northern Brisbane.

Earlier this year she heard about the Australian Homestay Network launching its Community Placement Network in Brisbane and decided to help. At the end of June, Hasan moved into the garage that she had converted into a bedroom and living space.

The initiative involves members of the community taking into their homes asylum seekers who have been issued bridging visas and are making the transition from detention centres. The asylum seekers are waiting to see if they are eligible for protection visas.

Ms Thorstensen was witness to the emotional moment Hasan was told he had a future in Australia when she took him for what they thought was a routine visit to the Department of Immigration.

Instead Hasan was told he had been granted a protection visa, which meant he could make a life in Australia as a permanent resident.

There was no jumping up and down or squeals of delight.

“He just went really quiet, it was a very serious moment, just sort of like . . . ‘wow’,” Ms Thorstensen said.

“The significance sunk in and he just sat there for a couple of minutes and said nothing.

“But then afterwards he went out and had a celebration and he bought me a coffee because he doesn’t usually drink tea or coffee but it was a special occasion.”

Hasan stayed with the Thorstensens for 10 weeks – they extended his original six-week stay when they felt he was not ready to leave yet.

Last Friday, he moved into hostel accommodation organised by the Multicultural Development Association. He has been assigned a case worker who will help set him up with a Medicare card, bank account and other administrative tools that the average Australian uses daily, without a second thought.

For Hasan it will be the beginning of the end of a journey that started in Iraq, took him by boat from Malaysia to Indonesia and then on the final leaky journey from Indonesia to Australia.

He saw his bag washed overboard during one of the boat trips and arrived in Australia with nothing but vivid memories of the sea sickness that many around him had suffered but from which he had been spared.

After spending six months in a Darwin detention centre and following a litany of security checks, Hasan was granted a bridging visa and a bed in Ms Thorstensen’s house.

She is not shy about admitting the arrangement was initially awkward, compounded by Hasan’s limited English and his difficulty at understanding Australian accents after hearing mostly American accents on the radio and TV while growing up.

Though Ms Thorstensen’s friends and her son were supportive of having Hasan come to stay, most of the impressions the family had of the Iraqi culture were stereotypes that Ms Thorstensen said had been perpetuated by the media.

“It didn’t take too long to break down the barriers and build up respect and trust in each other,” Ms Thorstensen said.

“We’ve learnt a lot about another culture and being a Muslim person and about his diet and his routine, but he’s just a very positive and enthusiastic person.

“We’ve got a number of projects around the home and he’s always willing to help out and participate so he’s been a really good role model for our 13-year-old son, just seeing another young man being really active and engaged.”

Hasan’s immediate family have no plans to flee Iraq despite facing cultural persecution – he does not know when he will see them again.

He has obtained a tax file number and hopes to get a job in Brisbane so he can establish himself and have the means to eventually visit his family in Iraq.

Ms Thorstensen said it was a range of things which motivated her to put her hand up for the program, including feeling she was in a “comfortable” position along with most Australians and should offer other people opportunities where she could.

As for the broader asylum seeker debate, Ms Thorstensen chooses her words carefully.

“We definitely have global obligations to help refugees and we are a well off country, we’ve got lots of space, we’re signatories to the United Nations convention on refugees, so we have a role to play,” she said.

“But the way it is playing out, it seems almost like they’re missing the point about caring and looking after [asylum seekers].

“It’s treating them as little number and putting them in boxes and they all just go mad and can’t survive. They’re people, which is blatantly obvious, and lovely people.”

Ms Thorstensen said there was a need for a managed program and the doors could not be thrown open for all, but asylum seekers were being dehumanised and used as a political football.

“They’re real people who do not have safety and protection in their own country and that’s what they’re looking for, but they’re being treated like ‘illegal boat people’,” she said.

“There’s no such thing as an illegal boat person, you’re a boat person and sometimes that’s the only way they can escape and look for safety. There is no ordered program to get out of the country.”

For people interested in the Community Placement Network visit homestaynetwork.org/cpn.

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Filed under Life after detention, Public Reaction/Perception Towards Asylum Seekers

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