A picture of Khodayar Amini at the vigil for the one year anniversary of his death
Investigative journalism,  Journalism,  Political journalism

Khodayar Amini, Australia and asylum seekers, one year on How federal and state governments consistently failed a refugee seeking assistance

Khodayar Amini would often listen to Ahmad Zahir’s songs as he lay on his bed in Sydney. In ‘Man Nagoyam’ Ahmad Zahir sings about being like a caged bird that wants to be free. In Afghanistan, from 1996 to 2001, all musical instruments and music making bar the frame duff drum and religious singing had been banned by the Taliban.

Khodayar ran from the Taliban after most of his family were killed. He ran from death as most humans would, to a place of perceived safety as most humans would. But he ran to Australia where he would end up feeling more caged and more in danger.

Last night, there was birdsong and ‘Man Nagoyam’ playing in the air as the sun set in Perth and Khodayar’s friends got the chance to farewell him that the Australian government denied them when he was buried. Across the country is a spot in Roberts Reserve in Dandenong, Victoria where Khodayar died and a grave no one in his community knew about for weeks.

Friends hold a vigil on October 18 2016 for asylum seeker Khodayar Amini who took his life in 2015.

Khodayar had a younger brother. He had photos of him as a ten year old and tried to keep in touch with him as much as he could. When Khodayar ran, he did so alone.  At some point they had to part ways, perhaps there was a choice, perhaps they disagreed on where would be safer, perhaps there wasn’t enough money, perhaps they were parted somehow but his brother was not with him. The last time Khodayar tried to contact his brother was in Australia, the week before he died.

Khodayar was a Hazara man, the third largest ethnic group in Afghanistan’s highland regions who are Persian speaking and Shia Muslim and are targeted by ISIS and the Taliban. For over ten years, they have been seeking asylum on Australian shores and in 2013, there were 10,000 in Australia’s Hazara community of migrants, refugees and those born here.

When he went to Dandenong in October 2015, he went into an area with a Hazara community. After his death on October 18, the Coroner’s office failed to notify the community despite communication from the police that the Hazara community wished to be involved. The enquiry into his burial arrangements did not reach the Coronial Admissions and Enquiries Office. The State Trustee did not pay for the funeral and he was buried at the Northern Memorial Park Cemetery on the day after Australia Day, January 27, 2016. The Hazara community on finding out, held a memorial ceremony on February 21, 2016 for all those who did not get a chance to farewell him. It was in June 2016, after receiving complaints, that the Coroner’s Court of Victoria and the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine officially apologised for the mishandling of Khodayar Amini’s burial. There are no written findings for his death and no obituary notice.

Khodayar would have feared the Taliban government’s police force as a child – a force, he knew, would easily target him for being born into a group they wanted to decimate. No one is sure what the circumstances were but he ran because his family members were killed by the Taliban.

Khodayar had grown up being the target of violence and when he ran to Australia in September 2012 he was looking for acceptance and peace. Yet he ended up in detention centres on Christmas Island and then Darwin before being released in the community. He alleged that he suffered abuse from police officers and immigration officials. These claims were never investigated – he was sent a letter to begin the process which requested that he sign and return it by October 22, 2015 for the investigation to go ahead. By then it was too late.

In 2014, he was returned to detention for 11 months after an argument with the Department of Transport, Travel and Motoring in South Australia but released when a court found him innocent. The experience left an impact on him and he was convinced that he would not be treated fairly by the government or the police and that going back to detention was inevitable.

“Are there rule of law, social justice and human dignity in this country? If there is, why your behaviour is in contradictory to human rights? In 2014, the Adelaide police mistreated me because I was asking for the refund of my $32 [from Transport, Travel and Motoring]. Then, I was harassed, incarcerated, taken to court, tortured for 11 months inside immigration detention centre. What was my crime? How your treatment is different from the treatment of the Taliban and Daesh? For three years, you have tortured me in every way. What do you want from us? What’s our crime? In your view, we are not human beings.”One of Khodayar's notes written in the months before his death, as reported by the Saturday Paper.

Khodayar Amini was generous and caring. He cooked for his Sydney housemates often and according to the Saturday Paper, he cooked for them the night he feared the police would put him back in a detention centre.  The night he got a call saying the police had come around to his previous address. the night he feared going back to detention because despite cooperating with immigration officials, he thought they would not be kind to him. The night he walked out leaving everything behind and headed to Dandenong in South East.

Khodayar had best friends. Mohammed Nasim Najafi died in an Australian detention centre, Yongah Hill Immigration Detention Centre in July 2015, while Khodayar was out in the community on a bridging visa. Two others, Reza Rezayee and Ahmad Ali Jafari, died while out in the community. He was now distraught.

My crime was that I was a refugee. They tortured me for 37 months and during all these times they treated me in the most cruel and inhumane way. They violated my basic human right and took away my human dignity with their false and so called humane slogans. They killed me as well as many of my friends such as: Nasim Najafi, Reza Rezayee and Ahmad Ali Jaffari. They were my friends and their crime was that they had sought asylum in Australia. from the letter Khodayar Amini wrote to Michelle Bui and Sarah Ross prior to his death.

Khodayar’s bridging visa had restrictions that meant you could not work or study and that simply being on public transport with no ticket could send you back to detention. But he was still learning English and a misdiagnosed illness from his time in detention had left him in coughing fits. Frustrated at the lack of help he called the Red Cross and tried to convince them he needed medical attention. As the conversation escalated they called the police and he was charged with making threats over a carriage service. According to his solicitor in the Saturday Paper’s article, he had been trying to tell them that they were killing him with cotton, a Hazaragi phrase – slowly, because they would not help him. The Australian government had assigned the role of his medical care while in the community to the Red Cross. They were meant to look after him.

The police, the government, the officials in both Afghanistan and Australia had never been good to Khodayar Amini. They had terrified him, allegedly abused him, confined him when all he had wanted was to feel free enough to live a life, to work, to sing, to worship freely though by the time of his death he had lost faith in God.

Khodayar ran to Dandenong and went into the bushland to hide from the police, not wanting to be back in detention. He was now convinced that the eventual outcome would be finding himself back in detention again, back to alleged abuse again. Khodayar called his friends Michelle Bui and Sarah Ross at the Refugee Rights Action Network on October 18, 2015 but they were in Perth. “I want to cut my life.” he told them. They tried to talk to him. They watched him pour a can of petrol over himself. They thought he was still in Sydney.

Ms Bui and Ms Ross called the police. They traced his calls to them to Dandenong.  They called back again on October 19. They had found Khodayar, dead after setting himself on fire, in Roberts Reserve.

“They asked us how we were.” Ms Bui said last night. “But he had friends he lived with who were much closer to him and they don’t get any sort of support the way we do.”

Khodayar Amini had not wanted his death to be forgotten. A year later with the rise of anti-immigration sentiment and associated policies, a revelation of the scale of abuse not just in immigration detention centres but in juvenile detention centres as well as an immigration minister keen to paint refugees and migrants as less capable and intelligent and therefore less able to fit into society, there are still more people who have died in detention and more in serious untreated health conditions.

Just before his one year death anniversary, the AEC confirmed the registration of the Love Australia or Leave party and the news broke that there were asylum seekers diagnosed with cancer that had not been treated for eight months.

As the sun set over a park in Perth last night, amidst birdsong, a small crowd gathered to remember Khodayar Amini, who ran from Afghanistan to Australia, who ran from the Taliban and then from the Australian police, who liked Ahmad Zahir songs and cooking for his friends, who had a brother somewhere in the world who probably only found out via a news article. They read out remembrances from his friends who could not be there, had a moment of silence, lit candles and remembered a man whose whole thirty years of life had been earmarked by violence done to him by others for simply being born into a certain ethnic group. Despite the various failures at both federal and state levels of government to treat Khodayar Amini with dignity during his life and in being laid to rest, his friends held the vigil they had been prevented from doing so when he initially died.

As the Afghan ballad about being caged and wanting to be free played out across the park, they remembered Khodayar Amini as a human being who deserved a life in which he was treated with dignity and finally free of fear.

Friends leave flowers and light candles in Khodayar Amini's memory at his vigil in Perth on Tuesday night.

If you require assistance, please call Lifeline  on 13 11 14.

Marisa is a globetrotting freelance writer, journalist and editor with cat for hire (her, not the cat). She is usually based in Melbourne but is currently flouncing around in Perth for a week for the Inaugural 2018 KSP - Varuna Foundation Fellowship. She will be at Melbourne's Continuum and online running a Writers' Bloc course in the coming weeks.

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