There’s a dent in the back of Hanif Rahimi’s skull. The deep scar is a constant reminder of the day the Taliban attempted to bash him to death using guns.
“They came to the villages and they searched for the people who would be able to fight for them,” he says. “Any strong person. I wasn’t in a position to fight for them but they didn’t want to leave a young man in that region because they thought we might create a problem in the future.” He pauses. “They captured us, took us to the district centre and started questioning us and beating us.”
Many people were killed and Hanif lay there overnight. “I think I went into a coma.” When he woke the next morning, he fled to the mountains and hid with family friends. “There was no security – nothing, because they thought they’d killed me and left.”
Hanif is from the Khugiani district in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province. After the near-death experience, he knew he had to leave his beloved homeland. “I didn’t go back to my home after. I went to my relatives’ house and sent someone to pass on a message to my family that I was alive.”
It took six months to organise their escape in 2000. “My wife, three children [aged six, four and two] and mother came with me,” he says. “It was very difficult [to leave] the place you were born and grew up in… the culture and the language. Everything. But we had to go. We had no choice.”
They paid a people smuggler to take them from Ghazni to Indonesia via Singapore. A six-day journey on a small fishing boat set off for Australia. “It was very scary. It was so dangerous. Everyone was thinking we’d be dead.” More than 150 people packed onto the tiny boat. “When you sat, you couldn’t stand up and if you stood, there was no place to sit.”
Hanif’s eldest child sat on the floor. The younger two sat on his lap. “All of my lower legs and my bum were bloody because they rubbed against the boat. Imagine punching your hand repeatedly against something. It was like that.”
Waves threatened to capsize the boat. “Everyone was crying and screaming. I couldn’t look my mother, my wife, or my children in the eye.” Hanif shakes his head. “I took them away from Afghanistan to save their life. But on that boat, they thought they’d die. How could I look at them? I wasn’t saving their life. I felt ashamed.”
On the final night at sea, Hanif held his two-year-old daughter in his arms. “She nearly died because of the weather (it was very warm) and there was no air. She couldn’t breathe. I thought, ‘She’s going to die. What do I do after? Can I take her body with me or do I have to throw it in the water?’”
The Australian Navy intercepted the boat and took the passengers to remote coral atoll Ashmore Reef. “We got lucky. Our boat was broken and water was coming in. For two days they gave us rice so we could cook for ourselves. Then a big boat came to pick us up from Darwin.” The next stop was Woomera Detention Centre where they stayed for two months. “We were lucky we were there for only two months. [Some] people were there for three years.”
The uncertainty about their future was difficult to deal with but the family was safe. “They fed us and we had free time to get together and talk to each other but it’s still a detention centre. You can’t leave and you’re in a cage… but you’re safe. Nobody was trying to kill us and we had our children with us.”
When released, they were given a three-year temporary protection VISA and Hanif set about learning English. “We spoke nothing. Zero.”
Hanif worked from the bottom up. His first job on local turf was planting vegetation along the Southern Expressway. He then worked on a farm in Waikerie, followed by a series of factory jobs. It was hot, hard, dirty work. To make ends meet, he took on a second job and drove a taxi. Eventually he built a 35-fleet taxi business of his own and worked around the clock to make Three Stars Corporation a success. Hanif also runs multicultural melting pot Blair Athol IGA & Khurasan Supermarket. His eldest children work behind the counter and the busy father couldn’t be prouder.
Since arriving in Australia 17 years ago they went to university and studied medical science, finance, commerce and business. His youngest two (born in Adelaide) are also a constant source of pride. He hopes to inspire others to work hard and is a mentor to refugees and young people with small business dreams.
“I love Australia. I don’t have any words to say it… Australia is the best. The beauty of Australia is there is opportunity for everyone. Even people like me – a little man from Afghanistan, from a non-English speaking background, who came here by boat. The opportunity to grow and become a businessman, I don’t think that happens everywhere.”
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