When entrepreneur and former fashion designer Fleur Wood heard that 1250 asylum seekers from Australia’s off-shore detention centres were being resettled in the US, she was struck with empathy.
It was 2016 and the men, women and children who had spent years languishing on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island would now be transferred to a country on the other side of the world as part of a deal between the Australian government and the Obama administration. After so much uncertainty and despair, this was their chance to start over – but not without enormous challenges.
“I knew what a big ask it is to resettle in a foreign country,” says Wood, who had moved from Sydney to New York with her husband and children in 2013. “I came here with a partner, a job, my family, money in the bank. I just couldn’t imagine what life was going to be like for these refugees who had no money, who sometimes had little education, a language barrier, and who were suffering severe PTSD from spending years living in terrible conditions where their basic human rights were denied. I also knew I wasn’t going to be the only Australian in America who felt like that.”
Wood began building a network of Australians living in the US who were keen to help out, and in 2018 she co-founded the not-for-profit Ads-Up (Aussie Diaspora Steps Up) with fellow Australian Ben Winsor. Their aim was to do what the Australian government would not: provide a social network and financial assistance to help refugees begin their lives in a new country.
“The first thing we do is connect refugees with an Australian expat living in their area, with the hope that they’ll offer some extra support,” says Wood. “That could be giving them driving lessons, or showing them how to use the local transport system, or accompanying them to a medical appointment.” The organisation also sends out emails to its database that allows people to purchase basic necessities on refugees’ behalf, and has a small fund to cover unexpected costs such as urgent medical care.
Though refugees receive three months’ accommodation and some basic support from the US government when they first arrive, Wood says the agencies tasked with providing help are often chronically understaffed and underfunded. Add the fact that new arrivals are expected to repay the cost of their flights to the US, and the obstacles they face can seem insurmountable.
“An entry level job when they get here might be working in a factory earning $8.20 an hour,” says Wood. “We’ve got one family that has a $12,000 debt to the US government to repay their airfare. Those are just crippling circumstances. How do they get out of that?”
In spite of the hardship, Wood says there have been plenty of success stories. “We have refugees who have just got their GED [high school-equivalent certificate] and are studying part-time after work, or they’ve got full-time jobs. They’re really making a go of it, while others still struggle with depression and anxiety.”
For volunteers, connecting with refugees provides a chance to make amends in some small way for Australia’s inhumane treatment of asylum seekers. Says Wood, “Regardless of where you stand on the immigration issue, or whether you think these people should be allowed into Australia, you can’t deny the incredible human rights violations that they have suffered.”
The Australian government doesn’t provide regular information about Nauru and Manus Island, but according to the Refugee Council of Australia, 632 people have been resettled in the US. It also reports that as of late 2019, there were still 562 refugees and asylum seekers held on Nauru and Papua New Guinea, and three left on Manus Island (the rest were transferred to Port Moresby by the Papua New Guinea government). Last June, Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton said the target of resettling 1250 refugees wouldn’t be met, hindering the Coalition’s goal of closing down the detention centres. US President Donald Trump was also famously scathing of the deal.
marie claire spoke to refugees who made the move about their new lives in the US and their unlikely friendships with Australian expats.
Ellie Shakiba, 34, and Nathan Lovejoy, 37
Nathan is helping Ellie start over in California after she fled Iran and suffered on Nauru.
July 19, 2013, holds terrible significance for Ellie Shakiba. “This is the date that Australia made the policy to transfer people who arrive by boat to Nauru and Manus Island,” she remembers. “And it was the day that I left my country.”
Ellie was living in the south-west Iranian city of Ahvaz and working for a Farsi radio station broadcasting from Amsterdam when she received information that her life was in danger. “The Iranian government considers Farsi media outside of Iran as enemies and everyone who’s in touch with them as spies. If you are anti-war, a feminist, if you talk about freedom of speech, you can be imprisoned or killed,” she explains.
Ellie had no idea how to seek asylum, but previously worked with a journalist who had successfully escaped to Australia. “I just thought, ‘If I’m supposed to die, I’d prefer to die on the ocean than in prison,’” she says. Little did she know what was waiting at the other end.
“It was so difficult and it got worse every day,” she says of life on Nauru. “We were seeing our friends killing themselves or setting themselves on fire. We saw children who didn’t eat or talk. The only good thing we had was friendship.”
Ellie was transferred from Nauru to Los Angeles in February 2019 and initially struggled with the isolation. “Nauru was like being in hell but with people you love,” she says. “America is like being in heaven but alone.”
When she met Nathan Lovejoy, an actor who moved to LA in early 2018 with his wife Jessica, she immediately felt at ease. They bonded over their shared love of film and theatre, and hope to collaborate on a project soon.
Nathan says that meeting Ellie has reinforced his conviction that the path to resettlement needs to be easier. “[The process] seems heavy-handed, unfair and inhumane, but when you don’t have any personal connection to it, it’s still in the abstract,” he says. “Seeing someone as talented and capable as Ellie, you can’t understand what Australia has to lose. We’ve only got everything to gain. It’s crazy to think that we’ve missed out on her.”
Anwar Sadek, 26, and Lisanne Jenkins, 37
Although Anwar (below) never made it to Australia, he’s found a friend
and support in expat Lisanne.
Anwar never wanted to leave his home in Myanmar, but as a young Rohingya man – one of the most persecuted groups in the world – he had few other options. “The [Burmese] government started killing our people in 2012,” he says of the military violence. He had no passport because
the Burmese government refuses to recognise the Rohingya as citizens, so he travelled to Thailand, Malaysia and then Indonesia on a terrifying boat journey. He decided to head for Australia because he was told that the country recognised his claim to asylum. “That didn’t happen. They took me to the camp [on Manus Island],” he says. Again, he was surrounded by violence – though this time at the hands of the detention guards and the local population. “For six years I lost my mind. I don’t remember anything, I was like a robot person,” he says. “To keep people on Manus [Island] and Nauru for so long for no crime … this is cruel.”
After he moved to Chicago in July, Ads-Up put him in touch with Lisanne, a behavioural neuroscientist who relocated from Melbourne six years ago. At their first meeting in downtown Chicago, she brought him an umbrella for the notoriously brutal weather and a radio so he could listen to music. “I asked him if he listens to the news and he said he doesn’t anymore,” says Lisanne. “I can empathise with that.
“I was very pleased to meet an Australian,” says Anwar. “She was friendly and she helps me so much. My hope for six years was to come to Australia; I’m so happy that finally my life has one Australian [in it].” Now he plans to find a job and get his GED, but his biggest dream is to see his parents and siblings, who are living in a refugee camp outside Bangladesh. “I left my country more than seven years [ago],” he says. “Now, I wish to live a simple, normal life with my family.”
Mona Taheridost, 37, and Nicole East, 39
After years of terror and torment, Mona is rebuilding her life with the help of Nicole, who she calls “her angel”.
When Nicole texted Mona about meeting up at a local cafe, a new friend was the last thing on her mind. “I had no idea what to expect,” says Nicole, a brand manager who moved from Queensland to North Carolina seven years ago. “But Mona and I instantly got on, we clicked.”
Mona had fled her home country of Iran in 2013 because she’s Christian, and religious minorities are routinely harassed and imprisoned there. On Nauru, she was told that she would never be resettled in Australia because she had come by boat. Mona says she spent the next five years questioning why. “I asked myself, what’s the difference? We are all human.”
When Mona found out that she’d been approved to resettle in the US, her first response was disbelief, then joy. Though the past two years have been difficult, Mona says Nicole has helped her through her lowest moments and refers to her as “my angel”. She now works at a department store and paints in her spare time. One painting of a ballet dancer is particularly special; she had imagined it while living in Iran but wasn’t able to depict a woman’s uncovered form. The piece now hangs on Nicole’s bedroom wall as a reminder of how far her friend has come. “After everything she’s been through, she talks about how blessed she is,” says Nicole. “It’s inspiring to watch someone rebuild themselves. It really makes you check yourself. You think, if she feels blessed, then I certainly should.”
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This article originally appeared in the March issue of marie claire.