“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.