Amir Sahragard thinks he would be dead if it weren't for the group of civilians who sponsored his move to Canada after six long and brutal years in migrant detention centers in Papua New Guinea.
"The only thing that [kept] I have lived for the past two years, ”he told BuzzFeed News.
"I became mentally and physically ill and the only reason I didn't kill myself or still live was this sponsorship process, because I had no other option."
Sahragard is one of thousands who tried to claim refugee status in Australia, but were referred to offshore detention centers in the Pacific because of their mode of transport: the boat. Under this severe regime, people like Sahragard, who sought security in Australia by sea, were subjected to brutal conditions and years of limbo.
But Sahragard is also one of the lucky ones. He found a way out, not just to another center on the Australian continent, but also to Canada – where refugees avoided by Australia are increasingly placing their hopes for freedom.
Sahragard, now 28, started his long journey in 2013, when he fled his home country, Iran. Anxious for his family, who remains in Iran, he does not talk about why he left the country.
His next stop was in Indonesia, where he boarded a ship that he hoped would take him to Australia, where he could declare refugee status. The ship was full of families and other single men, some of whom he met while waiting for the ship to leave.
They stayed at sea for four days. "The boat was like a horror movie," said Sahragard.
When the ship arrived in the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island, it was intercepted by the Australian Navy. The officers brought them to the island, taking everything that asylum seekers had with them, Sahragard said.
Sahragard and his shipmates were prosecuted, received medical tests and new clothes and said they would be sent to an offshore detention center. After being returned to several compounds, Sahragard said he was asked to sign a document that would transfer him to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. At the time, Australia was paying the government of Papua New Guinea to take migrants and keep them in a facility on the island.
Sahragard did not subscribe to the newspaper, but he was sent "by force", he said. The guards put him on a bus, then on a plane, and half a day later he landed at the Manus Regional Processing Center.
Sahragard said that the scene there was “the worst thing I [have] I already saw ". Some people were sick, others were not wearing clothes, and everyone was terrified.
"I was alone and I was 21 and I had never seen things like that and everything was by force, so I had no choice," he said.
He was placed in a small room with three other men and two bunks, in a complex called Foxtrot. Again, he was dragged, sometimes to tents, sometimes to facilities that had no air conditioning and were suffocating in the tropical environment. Eventually, he landed at a complex called Mike. It would be his home for four years.
At Mike, detainees were allowed to use the Internet once and receive two 10-minute phone calls a week. They had access to laundry facilities and a cafeteria, but were also subject to abuse and violence by residents and guards, Sahragard said.
In February 2014, there was an uproar. A friend of Sahragard's was hit in the face by a stone and his eyes were bleeding. With the lights off, Sahragard tried to look after him and wait for a medical response. It was chaos. It was difficult to say who was in the fight – residents, police, guards – and he distinctly remembers the smell of bullets being fired. Another friend was shot in the buttocks.
After the chaos, the detainees were gathered outside, he said, and beaten.
“They beat people up with what they have. They had sticks, iron, everything, ”he said. “They were just attacking and winning[ing] people and when they get together in the backyard, they say: & # 39; you can't stay in our country, this is our country, we manage and you can't do something that we don't want you to do & # 39; ”.
For a month later, detainees lived in the cafeteria without access to phones or the internet, according to Sahragard. When he finally returned to the room, he saw a bullet hole that went through two walls.
At that moment, he was not asleep and his days were filled with paranoia, stress and agony at being unable to do anything or make decisions for himself. He was also losing weight and becoming dangerously underweight.
They were not being fed properly, he said, and no one was cleaning the complex. Detainees continued to rebel with hunger strikes.
In 2016, the PNG Supreme Court declared the installation illegal. Suddenly, the detainees managed to get out of the day and leave the compound. They could shop in Lorengau or swim in the ocean, but it was no longer safe outside. Locals are hostile to migrants and rob and rob them, leaving some people with neurological injuries in the long run, he said.
Soon he was transferred to Hillside Haus, another facility on the island. This one had hot showers – a luxury that Sahragard didn't even realize he had missed.
“It was so rich that I could take hot water to bathe. It's really funny when I think about it, but it was something that was really missing, ”he said.
In all that time, there was never a glimpse of hope to leave. Sahragard was clearly not going to Australia, and even NGOs like UNHCR, the Red Cross and Amnesty International present at PNG were unable to help him out. He had not applied for refugee status in PNG, for fear of being stuck there forever if the claim was approved. But staying as an asylum seeker presented a major problem: he was not allowed to request resettlement in the United States. under the refugee exchange agreement signed in 2016.
Finally, in 2017, Sahragard heard of a Syrian refugee who arrived in Canada through a private sponsorship program. In Canada, a group of citizens can raise funds for bring a refugee into the country and provide settlement assistance when they arrive. He managed to connect with volunteer refugee lawyers who were eager to help him.
In 2018, he submitted his application and started the long process of waiting to be approved. At that moment, talking to the volunteers who helped him was the only thing that kept Sahragard in action.
"The last year [in detention] it was the most difficult time for me, ”he said. “I was really scared and I couldn't sleep [for] months, and can't eat, and it was the worst time. "
Fifteen months have passed. Then Sahragard was told that he needed a medical examination and thought that he could finally leave. He was approved to travel, landing in Brisbane before being escorted to a plane in Canada by Australian immigration.
Even when Sahragard saw the travel documents, he still couldn't believe what was going on. Disbelief remained on the 14-hour flight and on arrival at the airport, where his sponsors greeted him by placing him on a Canadian flag.
It took weeks for him to really accept what had happened. "I thought I could still wake up and see that I am in Manus or I am still in Papua New Guinea in detention," he said.
That was in November. When he spoke to BuzzFeed News in February, Sahragard was settling into his new life in Toronto, staying first with an Iranian family who also came to Canada as a refugee and now rented his own room. He studied English and made friends at college, but he was still plagued by the trauma of his time in Manus.
He continued to sleep poorly, but was recently approved for Ontario's public health system, where he can access a family doctor.
Sounds are still an issue too.
"There was a fire alarm in our building yesterday that really made me crazy," he said. "It was really scary for me, because when I hear these things or the ambulance in the city center really gives me stress and I get really paranoid about these things because of all the experience or the memories I have."
It is getting better day by day, but it is still difficult for Sahragard to imagine a future, of any kind, anywhere, after spending most of the 20 years scared, alone and detained.
"I live my life in one day for now," he said. "[The present] it's the only thing I think about for now, because I really don't want to think about something I couldn't achieve It would be very difficult for me and I lost six years of my life for nothing. "
For others – Sahragard's colleagues at the same time – Canada remains a dream.
Abdolah Sheikhypirkohy also fled Iran in 2013 only to be sent to Manus Island and, like Sahragard, the 2014 riot is one of his most traumatic memories. Local police arrested him and placed him in a cell with almost 40 others, including six refugees.
"They beat me up, punched me, hurt me, cut my lips," he said.
In the six years in PNG, Sheikhypirkohy thinks he lost 12 teeth. In the early years of detention, there was no dentist. After three years, one arrived, but they had a solution for dental problems.
“They just pull it out. No crown, filler or root canal, nothing. Just pull it out. I don't have many teeth now. I have problems with chewing, ”said Sheikhypirkohy. It was his missing and infected teeth that took him to Australia for medical treatment in July 2019. He was detained in a hotel in Melbourne since then.
He requested private resettlement in Canada more than six months ago. Like Sahragard, he had never applied for refugee status in PNG and could not apply to go to the US, where more than 700 people were successfully resettled.
Sheikhypirkohy wrote to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau three times: to talk about the situation in Manus, send condolences for the Canadians killed when Iran shot down a plane flying to Ukraine and ask him to help approve his resettlement request. .
Trudeau's office responded every time I told him that there was nothing they could do. His last request was sent to the Canadian Immigration Minister, and a representative sent an email to Sheikhypirkohy telling him where his request was and explaining the process.
Sheikhypirkohy was happy to receive the answers. "Even though he said he can't interfere in the matter … at least someone answered, answered my letter," he said.
"I said to myself: if my application is approved, I am sure that I will be in the perfect country, that cares about people. Here they call me & # 39; go back to your country, boat people & # 39; ”.
Jafar (a pseudonym to protect his identity) has been trying to get from Nauru to Canada for the past two years. He was skeptical about the plan that would work – "in seven years, we've had a lot of news, a lot of rumors, but nothing has happened" – before hearing about the first flight to Canada.
His application in the USA was rejected, he has high hopes in Canada. “I saw on the internet about the Canadian Prime Minister, he is very humble. I also see Canadians, very, very good people. They are welcome to refugees, very incredible, ”he said.
Sheikhypirkohy and Jafar may be waiting a while. The voluntary efforts that helped Sahragard to reach Canada have increased. There are currently dozens of people in Canada, Australia and the United States organizing to fill requests, raise funds and, finally, free men from detention. But so far, only 11 people have arrived in Canada: few in 2015 and 2017, another eight last year.
The process is slow: each application requires sponsors to prove they have thousands of dollars to support the refugee, and the Canadian government offers limited sponsorship spots each year. Now, the coronavirus pandemic has completely stopped resettlement in Canada, although applications are still being processed.
The arduous process also means groups helping to register requests – Ads-Up, an Australian-American group dedicated to helping refugees trapped in Manus and Nauru; the group of volunteers Operation Not Forgotten; Canadian nonprofit MOSAIC; and UNHCR – need to find out who to prioritize. At the moment, these people are still at sea, those with medical conditions and people who have no other resettlement options.
Still, the volunteers who work to make this happen are committed to ending Australia's offshore detention program.
"Taking everyone out of hand would be hundreds of submissions and millions of dollars," said Ben Winsor, founder of Ads-Up. "But that is our ultimate goal".
The soft-spoken Sahragard feels safe in Canada. But now he is dealing with a new challenge: the pandemic. His classes have moved online and social isolation is causing traumatic memories.
"It reminds me of the time I was detained, because it is the same situation, I cannot do anything."
But he chose to speak out – reliving memories he would prefer not to – because he hopes his friends from Manus will also be able to leave.
"It's really difficult for me to talk about all these memories, all these things, but the only reason I'm doing this is because I get help and I want them to get help too, have their future and save their lives."