Mohammad Reza Hassani will never forget bailing water out of a damaged boat in the middle of the Indian Ocean. For three days, he and fellow asylum seekers battled the rising water in a bid to stay afloat. They didn’t know whether they’d make it to Australia alive. Home and all that he knew was more than 6000 kilometres away.
Mohammad is from the city of Jaghori in the Ghazni province of Afghanistan. His father was a farmer and they kept cows, sheep, goats, chickens and a donkey.
“Everything was natural and peaceful,” he says.
The peace didn’t last. Mohammad’s family was part of the Hazara group persecuted by the Taliban. He was seven when his family left Afghanistan and headed to Iran via Pakistan.
“For my parents, it was a very hard decision because we had everything there. Why should we have to leave our place and go somewhere else?”
Now, he understands. Scores of people were killed when the Taliban entered Ghazni.
“After we moved to Iran we heard about what happened.”
The family of seven, including a 20-day-old baby, travelled under the cover of darkness.
“Sometimes we had to walk for hours from town to town. It took us around two weeks to get to Pakistan’s border. It wasn’t easy to go into Iran directly because we were illegal in the sense that we didn’t have passports.”
The family stayed in Iran for 10 years. Mohammad was 16 when he was caught without his refugee papers and deported back to Afghanistan. He was alone and penniless.
Eventually, he made the difficult decision to attempt the journey to Australia via Indonesia.
“[My parents] didn’t know how far Australia was,” he says.
“They thought it was a very small distance.”
Mohammad’s mother sold all the gold she had and borrowed money from friends and family to help her son escape by boat. He was one of 47 people on board.
“People washed their face with ocean water and most of us got dark skin because of the sun. We had no sunscreen and we had no sunglasses. We had nothing.”
Food and water supplies were depleted and when a large container ship passed without assisting, they began to lose hope.
After 10 days at sea, the Australian Navy arrived and took the frightened passengers to Christmas Island.
“That was in 2009. It was a good experience as I didn’t expect the Australian Navy to have such kind conversations [with us].”
All Mohammad had with him was a small bag and the clothes on his back.
“I didn’t have any papers with me. The [people] smuggler took everything – my refugee card and all [my] legal documents. I had no passport. Nothing.”
During 97 days of detainment, Mohammad learnt English at the Christmas Island High School.
When he arrived in South Australia his caseworker and the Australian Migrant Resource Centre (AMRC) team helped him call his parents.
“When they heard my voice they were crying. My father thought I was lost in the ocean. He was always searching for news that the boat arrived.”
Joining a local taekwondo club helped him make friends.
“In Iran, I had been doing taekwondo for about seven years. When I was on Christmas Island, [I’d practise] for at least a half an hour a week so I didn’t forget the techniques and would feel more relaxed. Otherwise I would have [been] depressed.”
Two months after arriving in South Australia he was the state taekwondo champion.
“I competed in the national titles many times and I won many medals. I represented Australia three times.”
Mohammad now runs Total Taekwondo Academy on Enfield’s Regency Road. He teaches students from different backgrounds.
“Australians, Afghans and Indians. So many people from different places.”
In August 2010, Mohammad sponsored his family, including his orphaned cousin, to join him in Adelaide. The reunion at Adelaide Airport was magical. “My mum just dropped everything and ran to me.”
“Australian people give you hope and they give you opportunity.”
Unfortunately, it doesn’t always end so positively.
“If someone offered me a million dollars, I wouldn’t do it again. Some people are lost in the ocean. This journey could have ended very differently.”
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