Kurdish refugee father, son find safe haven in Bega

SAFE HAVEN: Hami Shafei takes a break with Gudrun Stylianou inside Bega's Tarra Motors. Picture: Alasdair McDonald
SAFE HAVEN: Hami Shafei takes a break with Gudrun Stylianou inside Bega's Tarra Motors. Picture: Alasdair McDonald

For Hami Shafei and his eight-year-old son Danny, Bega has become a much needed safe haven.

Mr Shafei’s battle for survival began when as a small boy both his parents were killed in Kurdish northern Iraq.

It was the late 1980s and Iraqi war planes and artillery were accused of dropping mustard gas and the deadly nerve agent sarin on the area towards the end of its eight-year war with Iran.

"We had no other option."

Hami Shafei

Miraculously he and his older brother survived, fleeing Iraq for refuge in Iran.

Unlike many of us, because of the destruction of the war, Mr Shafei doesn’t know his birthday, or even his birth year, and life in refugee camps in Iran was difficult, prompting him to eventually leave the nation for Turkey and Armenia looking for work.

When his son Danny was born in the Iranian capital Tehran Mr Shafei’s life changed forever, and creating a safer life for his child became his priority.

In many ways Danny’s birth to an Iranian mother made life more difficult, leading Mr Shafei and Danny to flee Iran for Malaysia, a voyage that would set off a string of trips back and forth with Indonesia over a period of months.

“We were moved around different basements every three to four days by the smugglers,” he said of the uncertainty of whether he would be helped or killed by those he had paid.

“We had no other option.”

Danny was just four years old, and the two had been stopped no fewer than three times by Indonesian authorities and taken back to Bali, before they boarded what he describes as “a horrible boat” with 200 others crammed together with limited space.

One of the boat’s two engines was a converted water pump which broke down just 12 hours into the journey, while Mr Shafei had to help fix the second motor three times during the gruelling voyage that can see boats spend up to 25 days at sea.

The pair’s trip came just two weeks after an earlier asylum seeker boat had been struck by lightning, leaving five people badly injured.

After four days of travel, followed by two days on an Australian Navy boat off Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, Mr Shafei and Danny set foot on solid ground.

“I knew at least Danny would be safe and nobody would hurt him,” he said, the relief evident in his eyes.

“I thought even if something happened, at least we tried.

“Me and Danny are the luckiest people in the world.”

After spending six months spent in detention in Christmas Island and Darwin, and speaking little to no English at all, Mr Shafei found work as a tow truck driver in Melbourne, a place he had chosen completely at random upon his release from detention.

The commitments of being a single parent forced Mr Shafei to quit after 18 months, and saw him move to the quieter surroundings of Moe in regional Victoria.

Finding a safe place for his son in Melbourne share-houses had become impossible, and even in a multicultural Australian city Mr Shafei again came face to face with prejudice after hoping he had left it all behind when he fled Iran.

Members of Bega Valley Rural Australians for Refugees (BVRAR) assisted Mr Shafei, and for the first time in as long as he can remember he feels he has a safe place to express himself.

Mr Shafei is currently on a Safe Haven Enterprise Visa, a temporary protection visa valid for five years, designed to encourage people to work and study in regional Australia.

John and Gudrun Stylianou from Bega’s Tarra Motors heard of the work BVRAR was doing in the sector, contacted the organisation to see how they could help, and before long had the hard-working Mr Shafei on their books in a newly created role.

“When you look at the news and see the huge number of displaced families made desperate through war, how can you be unmoved?” Ms Stylianou said.

“Hami [Shafei] came to us as a single dad who just wants what we all want: to live and work with dignity, safety and opportunity for him and his son.

“It’s just a bonus for us that he is also a fabulous worker, so we feel lucky to have him.”

With his son enrolled in school, Mr Shafei is extremely positive about his future in the Bega Valley.

“It feels good, I don’t care if I’m cleaning and washing cars, it makes me feel useful,” he said.

“Here you can do something for yourself and prove you are a trustworthy person.

“They gave me a job because they want to help me… they believe in me.”