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The life of an Iranian refugee in Jakarta: 'Of course I feel less than a human being'


Mozhgan Moarefizadeh is 26 years old, ambitious, driven, and in love. She's ready to start a career, get married, and have kids.

She's ready to live, basically. But none of that is available to her.

It's illegal for her to get married, to work, or to study, and she can't bear to bring kids an existence where they'd live like she does — without basic rights or hopes for the future.

Her life has been on hold for the past five years, and it's likely to stay that way for a long time.

Mozhgan hasn't committed a crime, but she is a fugitive; one of almost 14,000 asylum seekers and refugees who are stranded in Indonesia.
Fleeing Iran: 'We had to lock the doors and go'

In her spare time, Mozhgan makes wedding gowns for friends out of a tiny apartment in Jakarta — all on a volunteer basis.

It's a skill she acquired from her mother, who managed a bridal business in Iran for more than 25 years — until the 2009 presidential election dramatically changed her family's future.

Following the election, a brutal government crackdown saw thousands detained as political prisoners. Many others fled the country.

Her father's advertising business had printed statements from opposition candidates and rallies, and one morning after the election, the family woke to find his shop closed and the staff arrested.

"The neighbours called and said 'your shop is raided, don't come'," Mozhgan recalls.

"We just had to lock the doors and go. We never thought this would happen, but it happened in a second."

Knowing the brutal fate of political prisoners in Iran, the family fled — firstly to other cities in Iran.

When that became too dangerous, they made a tense and risky trip through the airport to escape by plane, landing in Jakarta in 2013.
The split second decision that saved her life

Following their arrival in Indonesia, the family made three attempts to get to Australia by boat.

On the fourth attempt, Mozhgan vividly recalls being struck by fear when she saw the crowd waiting to board the boat.

"So many people — eighty-something," she says.

"I had this feeling that everyone is going to die here. I started telling these mums, 'don't go on this boat, don't get on the boat'."

After taking her passport out of her father's bag, she refused to get on the boat.

She ran, and her family soon followed her. By morning she knew that split second decision had saved her family's lives.

"About 10 hours later, it was early in the morning, we heard everybody had drowned except for 25 people," she says.

"The boat had capsized because the weather was bad. Thirty-six kids died."

Mozhgan's family, like many other refugees, have stopped trying to make the crossing by boat.

Instead, they are stranded, with no way out of Indonesia, and no hope of a life there either. They hang on to life by a thread.

In Indonesia, after a process lasting two years, the family were found to be genuine refugees with legitimate claim to asylum by the UNHCR.

Mozhgan says they were filled with relief when they received the news.

But as time drags on it brings them little comfort — refugee status is unlikely to get them very far

At school and university Mozghan was diligent, the kind of student who shushed others and told them to focus.

"I always hated wasting time. I could never see myself just having a bachelor degree and sitting here wasting four-and-a-half years of my life," she says.

Now, she watches as days creep idly by, eventually turning into years, and her frustration builds.

Indonesia hasn't signed on to the UN Refugee Convention, so refugees and asylum seekers are not allowed to stay permanently.

They won't be deported, but asylum seekers don't have rights to live like ordinary citizens, either.

Refugees are particularly vulnerable in Indonesia, with no laws to protect them. Refugees can be detained arbitrarily and sent to immigration detention indefinitely, with no recourse to justice.

Mozhgan lives in fear of raids targeting places that refugees tend to live.

Refugees living in the community are not allowed to work, and accessing medical care is prohibitively expensive.

Furthermore, UN refugee cards aren't accepted as ID, making basic things like getting a sim card, finding a place to live, opening a bank account, traveling by train, or entering a public event a major challenge.

"When you can't do the most simple thing, how would you feel?" she asks.

"Of course I feel less than a human being."

Refugee centre 'brings us a temporary kind of joy'

In the dusty laneway that runs along the side of Jakarta's UNHCR building, destitute refugees and asylum seekers sleep on the street.

Every month Mozhgan pays them a visit, delivering care packages of essential hygiene items to asylum seekers who have nothing.

Seeing how few support services there are for asylum seekers in Indonesia inspired Mozhgan to take action.

With her friend Jafar Salemi, another Iranian refugee, she last year established a volunteer, refugee-run initiative to provide support to asylum seekers struggling with the basics.

The Refugee and Asylum Seeker Information Centre [RAIC] is a fledgling project, but they are relying on ad hoc donations.

Nonetheless, they were quickly inundated with desperate refugees asking for assistance.

In the past year they've connected refugees with urgent medical problems to private donors who can help pay for treatment, and helped get refugees who were sleeping on the street into housing.

RAIC distributes monthly care packages, and has a website with information for refugees in five languages.

Spearheading RAIC has given Mozhgan and Jafar a sense of purpose and a meaningful project to fill listless days. Seeing how gratefully their assistance is received "brings us a temporary kind of joy," they say.

But Mozhgan says this volunteer work has a flip side.

"My depression became worse when I started doing RAIC actually, when I started knowing more about the refugee matter … when I started knowing the system," she says.

Meeting malnourished babies, adults living with chronic pain, disabled children stuck in bed forever — who all desperately need help — makes Mozhgan feel overwhelmed by the sense of hopelessness.

While she does what she can to support them, she also struggles with personal challenges. She wonders how long her fiance will stay with her when she can't marry legally or have children; can't travel with him, can't work, and can't think about the future.

She is no stranger to suicidal thoughts.

"In our country we might have got arrested, gone to jail, been tortured, or died. It would last a very short time, but here we are dying gradually," she says.

"Seriously, sometimes I wish I could just go back home and die there. It would be better than staying here and dying every day."

Just 1 per cent of refugees worldwide are resettled in their lifetime, according to UNHCR.

Before 2013, Australia was the country that resettled the most refugees from Indonesia. In recent years, both Australia and the US have dramatically reduced how many refugees they take from the country.

Now, so few refugees are accepted from Indonesia that the UNHCR has started informing refugees and asylum seekers that they will probably never be resettled, and should look for ways to return home, or get used to living where they are.

Mozhgan says that's a difficult prospect. Returning to Iran is out of the question; prison, interrogation and possible death would await.

Her chances of resettlement are impossibly slim.

"If I could go back, it would be the happiest day of my life," she says.

"But we just don't have that option."

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The life of an Iranian refugee in Jakarta: 'Of course I feel less than a human being' Reviewed by Chidinma C Amadi on 6:10 PM Rating: 5

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