Tag Archives: refugee

From Iran to Turkey on the Trans-Asia Express

Published in The Weekend Independent Magazine on 21 January 2010

Western Turkey

My heart sank as I glanced at my watch.  The Trans-Asia Express was due to depart from Tehran in 10 minutes and I could hear the axles grinding in preparation.  The prospect of spending 72 solitary hours in an over-heated ladies compartment was highly depressing.

Just as I was about to surrender all hope, the sliding door opened.  An obese woman, sweating profusely, wheezed a loud “Salam” and dumped her bags and herself on the closest seat.  Her daughter, a big-little girl with messy plaits and a mischievous grin, trundled in with a pink suitcase.  An older woman with a stiff hip entered last.  I beamed: now I had scenery AND dialogue.

However my enthusiasm was soon to be dimmed by the possibility of arriving in Istanbul with a contagious disease.  The young girl, Azine, was physically affectionate: she braided my hair and we played hand-slapping games as she sang that first night away in Farsi.  I’d noticed some red spots on her face, which I presumed to be the early onset of puberty, but when she lifted her t-shirt to reveal a belly covered in scabs, I panicked.  The sores looked a bit like measles, but I couldn’t be sure, as I lacked the necessary vocabulary in Farsi and a basic knowledge of diseases.  I tried looking on the bright side – whatever it was didn’t seem to prevent Azine from having a good time…  At least until her mother applied a brown, smelly ointment, which made her howl with resentment.

The Turkish-Iranian border area

My companions seemed perplexed by the fact that I’d spent a month holidaying alone in Iran.  It was impossible to explain my motivations, as the number of words mutually understood was limited to around 30.  However when Azine’s mother, Marayam, learnt that I was a (wannabe) journalist, she immediately called an English-speaking friend and handed me the phone.  A high-pitched voice begged me to take the women to the United Nations and help them claim asylum.  I was told that Azine’s father belonged to an opposition party and that he was currently hiding in the mountains.  The older woman was described as a close friend of Marayam’s – she’d lost her job for wearing a headscarf incorrectly.  When I tried to explain that the UN was in Ankara (a fact they were hitherto unaware of) and that I was due to catch a plane home from Istanbul, Marayam burst into tears.  We retired to our bunks early that night, but sleep came much later.

I left the sober atmosphere of our compartment the following afternoon by dawdling over a lunch in the refreshment cart.  Despite feeling great sympathy for their situation, I was confused by accompanying feelings of irritation.  During our lighter moments, I was being routinely force-fed and teased.  One of the recurring jokes involved catching my attention by saying “Jessica Flower” – which was followed by peals of laughter and nothing further.  After a couple of hours and a dozen distractions, I was at a loss to do anything but anticipate the next.  “They’re just trying to enjoy themselves,” I reminded myself.  “We’re just different types of people sharing a very small space.”

The Trans-Asia Express

I was surprised to find the restaurant cart almost deserted.  Though the food was ordinary, it was immaculate and contained some admirable finishing touches, such as the flower vases bolted onto every swaying table.  I chewed my flatbread slowly and watched a couple of old men play cards in the far corner.  Whilst passing a remote village that was clearly absorbed in confronting the hardships of winter, an attractive young woman entered the restaurant and headed straight towards me.

“My dog is in my backpack,” she announced with a conspiratorial grin.  “I have to keep him hidden because Iranians wouldn’t like to see a dog in the restaurant, but I didn’t want to leave him in the compartment.”  She unzipped her bag to provide a glimpse of a shaggy ear.  “We’re immigrating to Canada,” she said, “But I don’t really want to leave Iran.”

The train arrived at the border with Turkey in the late afternoon.  Soldiers clad in black scuttled about in the snow, shouting directions at one another with frosted breath.  Weak rays of sunlight glinted through the forest’s bare branches – it was the prettiest border area I’d ever visited.  It also felt the most informal, as our departure stamps were issued in the warm comfort of the refreshment cart.  While waiting for my name to be called, I asked the man sitting opposite if I could flip through his passport, and he willingly obliged.  I told him that I was from Australia, but it didn’t seem to register.  An hour or so later, while queuing for the toilet, he approached me nervously, before proceeding to stumble through a note scrawled in the margins of a newspaper.

“I cannot speak English easily.  But language is not important.  You are beautiful – I love you.”

He handed me a can of orange soft drink and then, to my surprise, said “Liquor?”  I smiled wanly, shaking my head.  We reached customs shortly afterwards, and spent three hours in a waiting room as police searched the train.  For the rest of the journey, my “toilet Romeo” took every opportunity to stare at me with imploring, mournful eyes.  I eventually told him to quit it, but in the end it was only our physical separation that deterred him.

Turkish border guards

The 3,000 kilometre journey costs only £30 and involves crossing Lake Van by ferry, which I felt certain would be a highlight.  But by boarding the vessel shortly after midnight, photo opportunities were reduced to nil.  I proceeded to fall asleep on a row of plastic chairs, and didn’t wake up until the last few passengers were filing off.  Over four hours, I’d caught 20 minutes of a Turkish game show being broadcast on the kiosk’s television, yet not so much as a glance of the reportedly majestic lake.  I made a note to self to sleep when I’m dead.

The Turkish train was slightly more impressive in appearance and it had several empty compartments.  After roughly 40 hours, the prospect of night-time solitude had grown more appealing than its alternative, so I collapsed into one of my own.  After a blissfully uninterrupted sleep, I momentarily lost my breath when I pulled up the blinds around lunchtime.  Seconds passed, and my eyes still couldn’t focus.  There was seemingly no foreground, background, horizon or sky: dazzling white snow made each indistinguishable.  I shook my head and went for a wash; a daily ritual that took place in the toilet and utilised a half-litre bucket and deliciously hot tap water.  There’s no denying that it took a long time, but I had plenty of that to squander.  The sight of my wet hair provoked friendly teasing from the Iranians, who remained loyal to more dignified forms of bathing.

I  was rested and cheerful, and  gratefully accepted an invitation to chat in the compartment with the family and dog bound for Canada.  Another invitation followed, then another.  Somehow, 10 hours passed before I returned to my own compartment.  I’d been stuffed with delicious tea and homemade snacks, including a sweet resembling a blonde wig.  But I was distressed by much of what I’d heard that day.  It dawned on me that the once-weekly train service is something of a life-line to those in need of a new home.  Suffice to say, I met only two people on holiday.

Trans-Asia Express

Despite being alone when I fell asleep on the third and final night, I woke in the morning to discover two others.  I glared at the strangers from the top bunk, focusing hard on the one with my over-sized toiletries bag in his hand.  I snatched it back and they darted out into the corridor.  It was pointless trying to confront them after changing out of my pyjamas, as they could be hiding in any one of 50-odd compartments.  What troubled me most was feeling certain that I’d locked the door in my typically obsessive-compulsive fashion.  I tried absorbing the beauty of a frozen river and rugged mountains, but I was anxious about leaving my luggage in my compartment if I wasn’t there to protect it.  So rather than spending my last day alone, I hauled my bags into a compartment beside a couple I’d grown very fond of.

The morning’s mystery was inadvertently solved an hour before reaching Istanbul.  While attempting to nap, I heard a key turn in my door.  I pulled back the curtains and recognised one of the intruders.  He vanished, but I darted after him.  A Kurdish passenger translated an explanation that left me speechless.  The intruder was a conductor.  A bag had been reported missing and its owner had requested him to enter my room using his master key.  He was about to enter again to check if I was disembarking before Istanbul.  He shrugged and walked away.  Incidentally, that strangely beloved bag was stolen two years later, while moving house in Bangladesh.

The blue skies of the Middle East felt far behind: it was pouring with rain as the Trans-Asia Express rolled into Istanbul’s grand Haydarpasa Railway Station.  We were seven hours late, bringing the total journey to a tidy 80 hours.  I narrowly made it onto the last ferry of the night, and disembarked on the European shore of the Bosphorus River.  Whilst the experience hadn’t been the carefree, Hafez-sing-a-long journey I’d expected, it had provided a humbling reminder.  For people such as myself, long-distance train rides are imbued with a particular romance and the opportunity to absorb beautiful and exotic scenery.  But for others, the journey itself remains vastly more important.

Why I’d prefer you not to vote for Tony Abbott as Australian Prime Minister

Kallista, Victoria

Before leaving Australia in 2006, I told my family that I wouldn’t return until there was a change of government.  Sure, I was being a petulant 20-something, but I really meant it.  John Howard’s xenophobia embarrassed me and it was causing real harm to others.  I spent a lot of time feeling disaffected and bitching about him with fellow Australians in South East Asian guesthouses.

In the blink of an eye, nearly two years passed and I found myself drinking champagne in London at 8am to celebrate ‘Kevin 07’s’ resounding election victory.  The old prime minister had lost his own seat, the new one promptly apologised to the Aborigines and then iced the cake with a speech delivered in Mandarin.  It was all very exciting – but temporary, perhaps.  As I’m yet to come home, I’ve been following the run-up to tomorrow’s federal election from Bangladesh.  I was appalled to read the following statement made by the opposition leader Tony Abbott:

“We will determine who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”

Uh-oh.  Talk about echoes of the dark and distant past.  John Howard uttered those exact same words in parliament on 6 December 2001.  “Little Johnny” was the second-longest serving prime minister in our history (shame!), and therefore had the opportunity to achieve a great number of things, but Google him today and you will find that the fifth hit, after the encyclopaedic styled-entries, is an article called “John Howard: Muslims Out of Australia.”  And so forth.  With an online legacy like that, it wouldn’t surprise me if the International Cricket Council was able to find a more suitable candidate for the post of vice-president.

I’ve noticed other alarming sentiments expressed by Mr Abbott, and feel compelled to address them, midnight-hour though it may be…

Tony Abbott on people smuggling: 25 July 2010

“Stamping out people smuggling is a way to alleviate people’s anxieties and to reassure them that we are, in fact, sovereign in our country.”

Oh please.  If Tony Abbott was concerned with reassuring “people” (which people? his people??) about Australia’s sovereignty, he wouldn’t be opposed to reopening the debate on becoming a republic.  And he might want to alter the words on the first page of our passports, in order to alleviate any confusion on the part of immigration officials in overseas nations when they read the following:

“The Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia, being the representative in Australia of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, requests all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford him or her every assistance and protection of which he or she may stand in need.”

But he won’t do anything so rash, because he’s a staunch monarchist.

Flinders Street Station, Melbourne. A cabbie told me that this station was meant to be built in India, but the architectural plans were swapped by mistake!

However it’s true that the thought of people being smuggled to Australia makes me anxious – particularly when they arrive on boats.  Are those people dehydrated or malnourished?  Were they tortured?  Have they been separated from their children or partners?  Are we capable and willing to fulfil our legal obligations under international laws as well as our moral obligations to them as fellow human beings?  When the debate between the two prime ministerial candidates degenerated to arguing over whether it is physically possible to turn boats away, I became very anxious indeed.

Labor leader and incumbent PM Julia Gillard, despite also having a tough stance on the issue, gave a response to “the boat people” [refugees] question that I admire:

“I say to those engaged in this type of rhetoric: ‘Stop selling our national character short. We are better than this. We are much better than this.”

At the time when John Howard was accusing asylum seekers of “throwing their babies overboard,” I was a law student at Monash University and I came to know a group of refugees from Afghanistan.  I picked them up from a legal aid centre in Collingwood and drove them to their new home in Dandenong, as they didn’t have money for a train ticket.  I like to think that the favour was returned when three Pashtun men took me along the Khyber Pass to the border with Afghanistan in 2007.   I know it’s corny, but I remembered one of the guys in the car talking about the mountains in Afghanistan when he first saw the Dandenongs in Victoria.

Over the next few months I became good friends with a young man called Habib, who had paid a lot of money to be smuggled to Australia.  He eventually told me why he did it – but not how he got the scars on his face.  He’s now working as a taxi driver in Melbourne and he’s doing really well.

Case study of a person who was smuggled to Australia

Habib was a teenager when the Taliban arrived in his home city of Kabul in the 1990s.  He and his family were kicked out of their home and forced to live in a house with several of their neighbours.  The Taliban installed themselves in this way along most of the main streets, and Habib said that none of the locals knew who the Taliban were, because they shared no particular ethnicity.  This was especially terrifying.  After living in cramped and stressful conditions for many months, Habib’s uncle arrived in the mail – chopped up into small pieces.  Habib decided to leave Afghanistan and he reached Indonesia, mostly by overland routes, several months later.  He paid a hefty amount to spend six months living in a room with around 40 other people who were also waiting to be smuggled – to no country in particular.  Habib did say, however, that the smugglers tried their best to feed everyone adequately.  One morning, the people smuggler boss announced to the group that they would set sail that day.  When Habib saw the size of the boat and the number of people that were attempting to board it, he became very frightened.  The boat sank before it reached Australia, but a Norwegian vessel rescued more than 400 people and placed them onboard the MV Tampa.  The Australian government refused to allow the rescued people onto Australian soil, and quickly passed a new law called the Border Protection Act, which aimed to “determine who will enter and reside in Australia.

Habib spent the next two years in a detention centre on the coral atoll of Nauru (NB: also a sovereign nation) waiting for Australia to determine whether he could enter.  Of course he was grateful to be accepted, but Habib said that those last two years were tougher than the Taliban and worse than anything else he went through.

Rye Beach on a Tuesday morning

It’s my belief that, like his party predecessor John Howard and a growing number of Australians, Tony Abbott suffers from “island mentality.”  Unlike the vast majority of nations, Australia doesn’t share a border with anyone – yet it’s as though we’re turning into the only-child who never learnt to share.  If Australia could somehow spend a year located next to a porous border it could do us a world of good – pardon the pun.  I lived in London for two-and-a-half-years, and was struck by the UK’s (mostly) liberal attitude to immigration.  The government there didn’t even know how many people had arrived, let alone how to stop them!  Tony Abbott has complained that under Labor leadership, the net migration to Australia increased from 210,000 to 300,000.  That’s a few football stadiums worth of people, so we should be worried, right?  Well, at least not until the UK starts freaking out.  Every year, the UK accepts 510,000 people – yet it’s less than a thirtieth of the size of Australia.  And anecdotally speaking, it didn’t seem too crowded to me…  If anything, the diversity and energy, especially in London, was one of its greatest strengths, both economically and culturally.  Furthermore, the UK has granted 250,000 Australians the right to reside in the UK at present, which is nearly the same number of immigrants that Tony Abbott would permit to enter Australia in an entire year.  I’ve not heard him comment on the fact that there are currently 1.3 million Britons living in Australia, but presumably this should also be a cause for concern?

Whilst it’s possible to play around with numbers all day, I’ll add just two further statistics in conclusion.  According to UN figures, in 2009 there were 44 million displaced people around the world.  Last year, Australia accepted less than 3,000.

And finally, I’d just like to say that I know many talented and creative people here in Bangladesh who would be thrilled to live, work or study in Australia.  In my mind, it would only be our loss not to welcome them.


A few weeks later….

I hope the clever person who designed this will regard its reproduction as 'fair use'!!