Previously in Refuge #41 Interrogation and Confession: Fearing for her safety, Maryam and her husband Benham leave Iran. In this episode, Maryam continues telling Lesley and I her story from the safety of Lesley’s home in Australia.
Maryam continues, ‘So we went to Malaysia. We heard that there is a suburb in Malaysia where lots of Iranians live. We went there. There is an Iranian supermarket, a lawyer’s office. We went to the Iranian supermarket and asked the salesman, “Hi! How are you? How can we get to Australia” And he was like, “Shhhh! Are you mad?”’
Maryam puts a finger to her lips, widening her eyes in mock horror. Lesley and I burst into laughter.
‘We were like, “What’s wrong with that? We want to go to Australia.” And he gave us a number to call,’ says Maryam.
‘Was he Iranian?’ I ask.
‘So you were speaking in’–
‘Persian. We came out of that supermarket really happy. OK. We have a number to call. We called the number but no answer. There was an Iranian restaurant there, so we went there, “Hi, how are you? How can we get to Australia?”’
All three of us laugh together.
‘Just like two idiots,’ says Maryam. ‘We didn’t have any idea. A man smoking shisha said, “What? Shhhh! Come and sit here. Do you know if I tell the police that you are asking this question, they come and catch you?” We said, “Why?” He said, “It’s illegal. It’s not like someone gives you a visa and you go there.” Another Iranian man working in that restaurant came and said, “OK. I know someone. You have to wait here for a couple of hours. After I finish here, we go talk.”
‘There was an Afghan man working there. He came and told us about his father in Indonesia. His father had been in Indonesia for six months. They robbed his money but didn’t take him to Australia. He started to tell us about the danger in this journey. But we were like, “OK. We’re here. We cannot go back, so OK. And we had money. And I was always very worried about the money. We were idiots, but not about the money.”
‘So we went to another Iranian restaurant in the middle of Kuala Lumpur. It was around the Twin Towers. We saw a man. It was the first time in my life that I saw someone like with a scar here’– she points to her forehead –‘and one of his ears was like half. Yeah. He was a good example of a people smuggler.’
We all laugh.
‘He said, “I can do something for you but not here. You should go to Indonesia. I have another friend in Indonesia who will help you.” The price was seven thousand American dollars for each of us. Fourteen for both of us. When we went to Indonesia, we found out that it is about five thousand American dollars, not seven. But we said, “OK. Money is not a problem. We just want to get there.”
‘So he told us to get Bali tickets, not Jakarta, because when you go to Jakarta airport and you’re Iranian, police will realize that you’re like refugee and maybe they don’t let you in. Most people pay lots of money to the Indonesian policeman, lots of money. It can be one hundred, or it can be one thousand, or it can be one thousand per person. It’s up to you. So we bought tickets for Bali. At immigration, Benham goes first because he looks European.’
‘Now it’s easier because he looks European,’ I say.
‘Yes, now it’s easier,’– we laugh –‘so we went to Bali. We had a good time there. Three nights. We called another guy, the main smuggler. His name was Iraj. He told us to come to Jakarta and take a taxi and then go to his place. So we went to Jakarta and took a taxi and called him and he just gave the address to the taxi driver. He told us to wait in front of McDonald’s.
‘So we waited there. I was in shorts and a top. Benham was in shorts and a top as well. Apparently, Iraj was there before us but he didn’t realize it was us because he looked at Benham first, with his long hair and blue eyes and thought, “OK. Not them.” And we called and said, “We are in front of McDonalds.” He said, “OK. I’m in front of McDonalds too.” And I looked and he was next to us. Iraj took us to his place first and then another villa with other passengers. How do you call them – passengers?’
‘What did his place look like?’ I ask.
‘It was a two-storey house. He’s got a wife with a little newborn baby. I can’t say he was a bad man. He said, “You are a woman so I can’t take you somewhere with lots of men. I’ll try to put you in a villa that’s not that busy, maybe with some other woman there.” But we went to a villa with another three guys. We were upstairs. They were downstairs. We stayed there for about a month. Each week he said, “OK. We’re going this week.” The launch is usually on weekends. It can be Friday, Saturday or Sunday. If Sunday finished, you know that you’re not going until next Friday. He’s got another – how do you say when two persons work with each other? Co-worker?’
‘Partner?’ I suggest.
‘Partner. He’s got another partner but suddenly something happened between them. The partner wanted to – How do you say this word?’
‘Dob them in,’ I say.
‘Yup. That’s it. We knew that Iraj’s wife was the daughter of the big police in Indonesia. So he was with police. Everyone, all the smugglers, they’re with police otherwise they cannot do this. So, yeah, he wasn’t really scared but he thought maybe he’d better get rid of all of us and his main business wasn’t people smuggling. He was a drug smuggler.’
‘Right,’ says Lesley.
‘And he was really proud of that. Whenever we saw him, he started to tell us stories: I sent two kg via one passenger to that country.’
‘Goodness gracious,’ says Lesley.
‘So Iraj suddenly started sending all his passengers to another city cause he had a fight with his partner. Iraj gathered all his passengers in our villa, about twenty guys and just me. For two days, Iraj didn’t come. We were all waiting for two days with our bags. We just eat and wait. ‘And Iraj came in the morning and said, “Maryam and Benham, you come with me.”
He took us to his place He also took two guys who were eighteen years old. They were passengers, but they were also his friends. So there were six guys there and me. And I could talk to his wife. She was nice.
‘That night, the partner came with sword. He knocked on the door. I opened the door because I was downstairs. They were all upstairs. I saw no one so I closed the door. Iraj thought maybe there was something wrong. He opened the door and the sword just came in and he was like this’– she moves her shoulder to avoid an imaginary blade slicing vertically through the air –‘and all the other guys came down. The partner was with two other guys with swords. Iraj went to the kitchen to get swords. He gave one of the swords to Benham, another one to another guy.
‘His wife started to scream and phoned her father. I said to Benham, “You don’t go anywhere.” Benham said, “OK. I’m here.” He stayed with us, with me and the other girl. There was a fight. Iraj had scars here, cuts there. I heard that they put the sword in the partner’s chest. So they ran away.
‘Iraj came in and said, “Everyone pack your things. We’re going.”
He started taking group by group to the airport. And we were at the airport but we didn’t know why we were at the airport.’
‘Inside the airport?’ I ask.
‘Not inside. Outside.’
‘Like the carpark?’
‘Yeah, carpark. It was about 1 a.m. that we reached there. Iraj just went off and brought another group, then another group to the airport. Around this time, I called my mum and said, “I’m going by plane to Australia. I can’t talk to you for several days because I have to turn my mobile off.” I said this even though I was going by boat because I didn’t want her to worry.
‘At 7 a.m. Iraj started to pay the police to let us go into the airport and he started to buy tickets to send us to another city in Indonesia. We went into the airport and it had been about forty-eight hours that no one slept. I just slept on the floor. When I woke, I thought, “I’m just like a homeless person.” Group by group he started to send us to a different city. Our flight was the last flight. We boarded at 11 p.m. We went to Makassar.’
Lesley fetches a map. But the map didn’t show Makassar. Later, on Google Maps, I locate this city on the island of Sulawesi.
‘It was about 2 a.m. that we arrived there. Another van came to pick us up. And we went to a hostel. They told us to be quiet and just go to the room. We slept at 3 a.m. And I think it was about 10 a.m. that someone just knocked one the door and said, “Police coming! Police coming! Just run.” I woke up and put in whatever I could put in my bag. That’s where I left my phone and Benham’s glasses. We got on another van. It was about three hours we were in that van.
‘We went to another beach house. Everyone was there, all the passengers. About 8 p.m., Iraj came. I think 10 p.m., he started taking us to the shore so we went into the water with our bags on our heads. Then we got to a small boat. We got on. It was about fifteen minutes in the sea and then we get on to the big boat, the main one. We were not the last group but when we got there, there was no space to even sit. There was a guy, he went away and said, “OK. You sit here.’
‘He was kind to you,’ I say.
‘Yeah. He was,’ says Maryam.
‘A passenger?’ I ask.
‘Yeah, a passenger. So I sat there and Benham just stood and suddenly I thought maybe something just crossed my legs and my hands and I said, “What is that?”’– she jumps in her seat, her voice is extremely anxious –‘Everyone said, “Shhh! Quiet, nothing.” And again, I sat there and said, “Arghh! There’s something here. Benham, there’s something here.” And suddenly, someone put on his torchlight because we weren’t on the deck, we were under the deck, and he just put his light on and I saw big groups of cockroaches and they were just like moving into each other and I was just about to faint. Benham hugged me and closed my eyes. I stood up and said, “OK. Benham, that’s it. I’m not going on this boat anywhere. Let’s go.” And Benham said, “Where do you want to go? We are in the middle of the sea.”
‘The boat was still there. It hadn’t moved yet cause another group was coming. So I said, “OK. The last group that’s coming, we go to that small boat and with that small boat we go back to shore.” Everyone started to laugh at me, “Oh, come on. You’re going to Australia. It’s just a cockroach.” And I said, “No, I cannot. I cannot even imagine somewhere with that many cockroaches” and I was crying and the last boat came, the last group. A pregnant lady came onto the boat and the boat just left, I couldn’t even say, “I want to get on”, just left.’
To be continued next Friday 27 December 2019 in Refuge #43 Fifty People in Stowage. This is part of the serial online release of Refuge, a collection of true stories of refugee resettlement in Australia. Subscribe for free to receive links to new instalments in your inbox.