Daring escape for a better life

Escape, through the eyes of a child

Dawood Rasooli entered Australian waters in 2009 aboard a boat which set sail from Indonesia with a human cargo of 54 people kept in squalid conditions below deck. 

South Australian journalist Joanne Fosdike spoke to Dawood about his life and the circumstances which found him entering Australia in a way that divides opinions across the country. This is his story.

Dawood Rasooli is a humble, hard-working and softly spoken young man.

He has embraced life in Australia but is still too afraid to dream big. After all, life has taught the 22-year-old that the future is something for which no one can be certain.

His outlook may seem surprising to anyone raised in Australia – the lucky country – where education, peace and dreams of a brighter future are largely taken for granted. 

Dawood was not born in Australia but in Afghanistan, a country that, during the 1990s, was just a blip on a news report until the region's troubles headed west on September 11, 2001.

For Dawood, the dilemma in the landlocked sovereign state was not merely a television news report. It was a reality underscoring the first six years of his life.

He was born not long after the USSR withdrew support from Afghanistan during the Cold War and the first five years of his life were lived amid civil wars until the capital, Kabul, fell to hard-line Pakistani movement, the Taliban, in 1996.

“It was the worse time in Afghanistan, the Taliban were strange – my family decided to escape to save their lives,” Dawood said.

The memories forged during his escape at age six are still fresh and are something he said he would never forget.

“I remember the time we were travelling and the [military] exclusion zones at night-time. Everyone was screaming,” he said.

“We were separated after an attack and my parents and brother and sister headed to Pakistan and I went to Iran with my uncle.”

Iran is where he stayed, alongside his uncle, for the next decade.

A place where the government was openly hostile to refugees, he said he was never allowed to walk alone or far from home because of the threat of being thrown in prison or beaten.

During that time, he never gave up on one day seeing his family again and would push his uncle to take him to them.

My uncle told me I was going on a boat to a better life.

When he was 17, Dawood was told he would have his wish, but his hopes of a reconciliation were dashed in the dark of night after reaching Pakistan’s most populous metropolitan city.

“We were in Karachi and my uncle came to me about 9 o’clock at night and my uncle told me I was going on a boat to a better life,” he said.

“I was disappointed - I was upset not to meet my family.

“The last thing my uncle told me was that if I lived, I would see my family one day.”

Without knowing where he was headed, the 17-year-old feared for his life and thought his uncle had sent him away to die.

After a journey with strangers, he arrived in Indonesia in February 2009, and was hustled alongside 54 other people in the hull of a small boat which was crewed by a skeleton staff of two.

A boat trip to the "lucky country"

It was aboard that vessel that he learned he was headed to Australia.

“We were told we could not leave the hull as it was dangerous and the police would take us to prison, maybe for our whole life,” Dawood said.

During the trip, which took between 10 and 13 days, the passengers did not leave their quarters even during a storm.

“For the first two to three days of the trip I didn’t feel well. It was smelly because of the lack of facilities. I was dizzy and sea sick and throwing up and everyone was the same,” he said.

Food supplies and water were running out and some people were ill when they were finally found by the Australian Navy in early March, 2009.

“The navy warmly welcomed us. They looked after us regardless of where we came from,” Dawood remembered fondly.

“They took us from our boat to theirs and gave us blankets, food and water.”

The navy escorted the 54 refugees to what Dawood only remembers as “a facility somewhere in Australia” before they were put aboard a customs ship and moved to Christmas Island.

Dawood said his only critisism of life on Christmas Island was the lack of information shared about the processes that would decide his future.

“I was there three months and I was happy about what we were given there,” he said.

“After 30 days we were moved to a community house and were able to attend school and go to the pool and play soccer.

“We had a carer responsible for us who was from Afghanistan and who was a migrant citizen working with the immigration department.

“Him being Afghani made it easier to talk with him and tell him our problems and he taught us the culture and some language.

“But we worried we would never leave as it was an unknown situation – we didn’t know if we would get a visa or be deported.

“But I was still happy as we would be worse off in Afghanistan where we would always be at risk from the Taliban.” 

Within three months, 45 of the 54 who had risked the trip from Indonesia with Dawood, were granted permanent residential protection visas and by June, they were on their way to Adelaide to start new lives.

“I was very, very happy and couldn't believe that I was going to be able to live in Australia, to be independent in a safe country,” he said.

A bright but unassuming future

After a short time living in a shared house with other refugees and a guardian, Dawood said he decided he needed to stand on his own two feet and to live an independent life.

In September 2009, he landed a full-time job at T&R Pastoral, now Thomas Foods International, and moved to Murray Bridge.

“I started as a labourer and today am a quality insurance officer,” he said.

“I also work part-time at the Murraylands Resource Centre as a bilingual support officer where I basically help migrant people with language, finding jobs and any other thing like finding a house or orientation in the the city and services that are available.”

Dawood said after making his home in Australia, he has learned a lot about his past and has been able to forgive the uncle he thought was sending him to his death.

He said one of the things he had discovered was that his family had given him to his uncle because he had lost his wife and child in Afghanistan.

“I now am thankful that I had such a good uncle who cared for me and got me to a country where I could be safe,” he said.

After reconnecting with his guardian, Dawood’s uncle made good on his promise and gave him the phone number to contact his family, including siblings he never knew he had.

“When I first talked to them it was hard to believe it was my family and I thought it could be untrue,” he said.

“When I learned to use a computer we could make contact using video and my mother told me the story of our escape and showed me my childhood pictures.”

Unfortunately he also learned that his father had died.

Dawood said he was happy and content in his new life, something that led him to apply for, and be granted, Australian citizenship recently.

“My world is bigger now,” he said.

“I am well settled. I have a job I like. I have made many friends with different nationality backgrounds.”

As for the future, Dawood dares not dream too big but will admit, with a gentle push, that he does have some aspirations.

“Nobody knows what their future will be,” he said.

“But I look forward to doing something different one day - I would like to see my family and would like to go to Europe and see the world.

“But we never know were life and destiny will take us.”

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