“When we arrived at Christmas Island, we were so happy,” Kate recalls. “I just wanted to kiss the ground.”
For a few moments, it felt like freedom, safety, a new beginning, a whole new set of opportunities. But the photo taken in those moments portrays a different reality, an ordeal only just beginning and a nation largely uninterested in their story.
It was April 2, 2013. The photo showed Kate and her husband Eric being frisked by Customs officers, while their two-and-a-half-year-old son, Hossain looks on. Taken by Sydney Morning Herald photographer Wolter Peeters, it featured in newspapers and news websites around the country with the generic and incorrect caption identifying them only as “Afghani asylum seekers” (photo below).
Then known as Ali and Kosar—they adopted Christian names after their arrival in Australia—Eric and Kate had left a seemingly comfortable life in Iran in a hurry just before Christmas 2012, selling their house and as many of their possessions as they could in the 10-day window they had to escape.
Kate had grown up in a large family but lost her parents and a sister in a car accident in 2007. She studied architecture at university and worked for a large oil company for six years before her marriage to Eric, a mechanical engineer, small business owner and, by ethnicity, a member of the Kurdish minority in Iran.
“After I got married, my husband and his family discovered that they had problems with the government,” Kate explains. “The government had already confiscated most of his family’s money and he received a letter telling him that he had to come to court because of a business deal that had gone badly for his family and a wealthy person who was seeking to get revenge. There was a high risk that Eric would be sent to jail, where he would have had to live as a strict Muslim. He was not a religious person and he knew that it would be very dangerous for him.”
The situation was more precarious because of Eric’s ethnicity. He considered escaping by himself, leaving Kate with her family, but Kate insisted that they stay together as a family, purchasing plane tickets to Indonesia. “Going was more important than the destination,” Kate recalls. “We just wanted to get to a safe country. We knew it was a dangerous way to go but I told Eric that I was going with him and bringing our child with us.”
Kate admits that they didn’t know anything about Australia, except that Iran had beaten the Australian soccer team in the 1998 World Cup. “Our family warned us that Australia was a dangerous place,” she says. “Even when we were in Indonesia, our family kept asking us to come back to Iran, but we knew we just had to take the risk.”
After four months of frustration, dangers and delays in Indonesia, they had paid the last of their money—about $11,000—for space on an overcrowded and smelly “people-smuggling” boat and spent three days without food or drinkable water, and battling sickness. “It was terrible,” says Kate. “We were on the boat for three days and we just prayed and prayed, ‘God, help us to survive!’”
Arriving at Christmas Island seemed an answer to their prayers. “But when we arrived, we were told that we were detainees, that because we would not be given a visa, we would be kept in a detention centre that would be like jail,” says Kate. If they had arrived four months later, they would have been sent straight to Nauru. Instead, they were kept in detention on Christmas Island for six weeks, before being transferred—without any explanation or warning—to the Curtin Detention Centre, near Derby, Western Australia, where they stayed for about two-and-a-half months.
Eric and Kate next spent seven months at the Leonora Detention Centre, near Kalgoorlie, where they had positive and negative experiences. A group of nuns regularly visited the centre and Kate remembers learning the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm, and that these women were kind to them. But with the change in government following the election in September, they were now facing indefinite detention. Kate suffered a miscarriage during this time and, when they were told they would be moved to the detention centre in Darwin, Kate began to feel that their situation was hopeless.
She describes the next seven months in Darwin as “hot, humid and terrible”. With public pressure mounting to remove children from Australia’s immigration detention centres, they were moved to “community detention” in Woodridge, a southern suburb of Brisbane. Though living in the community, they had no opportunities to work and spoke limited English, with hopes of a visa in limbo. They were regularly threatened and abused in their neighbourhood and did not feel safe.
For Kate, this was the most difficult time. “I said, ‘This is not Australia. This is not the country we were looking for,’” she explains. “I had had a good life. I had education, a job and family—and I came here and was told I had nothing. We were treated like we were bad people and we were not allowed to be safe.”
In late 2014, Kate was admitted to hospital. Unaware that she had been pregnant, the doctor told her she had suffered another miscarriage and she spent time in intensive care.
During their time in Woodridge, Eric expressed his desire to find a church. Kate was less enthusiastic. She says she was afraid of what the people might be like. Eventually, Eric was one of a group of Iranian men who visited the Eight Mile Plains Adventist Church and found a church that fitted with their Muslim culture. Eric met a few church members, including Dr Paul Truscott, who invited Eric and the other men to his home that night, and Patrick Shaw, who would offer Eric work in his building company.
Eric had visited the Eight Mile Plains church a few times by the time Kate was so unwell. He mentioned that his wife was in hospital to some of his new church friends.
Kate picks up the story. “When I was in hospital, some of the ladies from the church came to visit me, including the pastor’s wife, Margaret van Rensburg, and they were very nice to me,” she recalls. “I wondered why they were crying for me—why did my situation make someone else sad? After I got out of hospital, they came to visit me again. And I said to myself that I needed to go to see what their church was like. The first time I just went to Sabbath School and it felt very open and welcoming to me and my husband. It was everything about God and everything about the Bible. It was OK to ask questions. It was very nice.”
Paul and his wife Linda spent time with Kate and Eric, hearing more of their story, more of their circumstances and their uncertainty relating to a possible visa. They invited the family to stay in their home over Christmas in 2014. In the meantime, Paul wrote a strong letter of advocacy to the Immigration Department about their specific case. Within two weeks, Eric and Kate had received bridging visas and were free to find a place of their own to live. This brought other challenges, such as finding a rental accommodation with no rental history and then no furniture or other household items. Various church members stepped up to help in these many ways and Hossain was sponsored to start school at Brisbane Adventist College.
Kate now recognises this as the biggest turning point in her life. “I was sad, I was in a dark place,” she explains. “But after what the church members did for us, I realised I had been looking for a God—and that if God was here, He would help us in our bad circumstances. We asked Pastor Andre [van Rensburg] to teach us about his religion and we were baptised on July 25, 2015. We are happy now as a part of the church family.”
Kate and Eric’s story is one of many stories that have now led to a growing Adventist community of refugees from Iran, Syria and neighbouring nations in the southern suburbs of Brisbane, led by Andre and Margaret van Rensburg. A number of Life Groups meet weekly, as well as regular larger meetings for worship, fellowship and support.1
Despite being classified as legitimate refugees who have legally sought safety in Australia, under continuing government policy, Kate and Eric still have only temporary protection visas and have been told that they will never be able to settle permanently in Australia—but they are part of this vibrant community, now considered part of their family by many of the church members who have shared their lives with them.
Amid the ongoing political debates around refugees and asylum seekers coming to Australia, Kate draws on her own story. “I want people to know that we are not coming to take anything from other people,” she urges. “We can’t talk English perfectly, but we had a good education. We had a good life, a good job. We didn’t come to do anything bad. We came here to live a good life, to help others, to pay tax, not to use the government.
“I want people to know that it doesn’t matter which colour your skin, which colour your eyes [are], we are all human and we’re all children of God. I want them to know that we should trust people and trust God.”
For Kate, this has become a vital part of her new-found faith that she now shares with others in the refugee community—and anyone else who will listen to her story.2
“Whether it’s someone of the same religion or different religion, it’s so important to be open and welcoming to other people,” Kate urges. “Jesus shows us the example of how to serve others, even in His suffering. He showed God by how He treated people. It doesn’t matter the colour or language or religion, we have to be kind to other people.”
- Get a glimpse of this special ministry led by Pastor Andre and Margaret van Rensburg: www.facebook.com/sqconference/videos/2167038930275879/.
- Their story was recently revisited by the original photographer and journalist for a follow-up article in the Sydney Morning Herald: “Putting to rest the ghosts of a Christmas Island past” by Bianca Hall, May 12, 2019, www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/putting-to-rest-the-ghosts-of-a-christmas-island-past-20190417-p51eyw.html.