'I can't believe I'm free': the Canadian citizens ending the torment for Australia’s offshore refugees

Helen Davidson

“I can’t believe I am free, I can walk around and do whatever I want.”

Amirhossein Sahragard hasn’t yet left the Toronto airport arrivals lounge when Guardian Australia speaks to him for the first time. He has found a Starbucks coffee and a phone plan, but is yet to see the outside of his new home country.

He is excited, exhausted and (repeatedly) expressing his disbelief at being there and not in Papua New Guinea, in detention, sick and distressed, punished for seeking asylum.

The 27-year-old Iranian was sent to PNG’s Manus Island after he sought asylum in Australia by boat. He has spent six, nearly seven years in offshore detention under Australia’s infamously harsh refugee policies.

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Amid tens of thousands of people attempting a similar boat journey, sometimes fatally, in 2013 Australia declared that no sea-travelling refugee would ever settle in the country, and instead sent them to neighbouring tropical nations for “processing”.

Years later, after a lifetime of illness and riots and beatings and deaths, Canada has taken him in under a private refugee sponsorship program which has few parallels in the world.

It’s late on a Thursday evening in Toronto when Sahragard is greeted by several of his sponsors, who he has never met, as well as two cousins he barely knows, and a best friend from Manus he hasn’t seen in two years. They’re all waving Canadian flags.

[I told him] Prepare to be free and prepare to be human again. To be called not by a number but by your name.

Javiet Ealom

Sahragardsays he became very sick – mentally and physically – on Manus and was transferred to Port Moresby for treatment, before being medically evacuated to Brisbane.

Two weeks ago the long process of sponsorship was finalised and he left the Queensland city for Canada.

He lost a lot of weight and a former Rohingya refugee, Jaivet Ealom, says his friend is barely recognisable.

“It was so surreal. I was literally just telling him, who would have thought this could’ve happened four years ago when we were sharing a cell on Manus,” he says.

Ealom has been in Canada for two years, which he says was better than he was expecting “in every possible way”. Ealom now works for a startup NGO and is a high-level activist for the Rohingya community. He’s also studying and deferred an exam to come and meet Sahragard.

Guardian Australia asks Ealom what he told his friend in preparation for arriving in Canada. He doesn’t skip a beat.

“Prepare to be free and prepare to be human again. To be called not by a number but by your name.”

Sahragard is the first of two Manus Island refugees to arrive this week. Refugee organisations and prospective sponsors are working on another 18 applications and have their sights on the hundreds of others still stuck in Australia’s regime and who can’t access US resettlement.

Canadian man Stephen Watt has sponsored or assisted in the sponsorship of 40 to 50 people under the program, including Sahragard. The Canadian government requires at least five people to sponsor a refugee, and they must raise CAD$16,500 ($18,000).

If the government won’t make it right, we will.

Ben Winsor

“I guess how I got involved with this is I found out about Manus from a friend who lives in Australia,” he says.

“Any five people who feel engaged can bring someone to Canada. It’s like if you were watching someone on the news and saying ‘this makes me feel hopeless’, you can actually take that person out of the horrible situation and bring them to Canada.”

Local refugee groups have recently teamed up with the US-based Australian Diaspora Steps Up organisation, known as Ads-Up, to connect supportive Canadians with refugees needing a new home.

Ads-Up USA was founded to support Manus and Nauru refugees arriving under the US-Australian refugee deal.

“Whatever you think of the politics, the status quo is bad for everyone – taxpayers are wasting billions to warehouse people, the government is dragging Australia’s reputation through the mud, and people who fled persecution for being gay or Christian or for standing against dictatorships are having their lives destroyed,” co-founder Ben Winsor says.

“If the government won’t make it right, we will.”

Watt is now heading up Ads-Up Canada along with Laura Beth Bugg, an Australian-Canadian professor at the University of Toronto.

It has taken more than a year to get Sahragard to Canada, and Watt has spoken to him multiple times a day. In that time the situation in PNG has changed dramatically, with hundreds resettled in the US and almost everyone else moved to Port Moresby or medically evacuated to Australia. More than 50 men were also recently arrested and detained in the Bomana detention centre and cut off from outside contact and lawyers.

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“There have been a lot of texts and anxieties about being put in Bomana,” says Watt.

“I was [going through it with him] for the ups and downs and the transportation to Port Moresby and the medevac to Australia … It’s wonderful to be here and see him and see there are no fears of ever being put in Bomana.”

For Sahragard and Ealom, the knowledge that many of their friends remain in PNG or under temporary transfer in Australia, is distressing.

“They are like family to me,” says Sahragard. “I can’t say how I feel about it … I haven’t spoken with anyone since I left.”

Ealom says he can’t help but feel guilt sometimes.

A few days later, Guardian Australia speaks to Sahragard again. He’s in his new house, living with an Iranian refugee couple who hosted a home-cooked meal on Friday.

He’s still happy, but there are other feelings in the mix.

“I had Persian food after six years; it was really great. I couldn’t eat much or really enjoy it though,” he says.

“I didn’t expect myself to not enjoy it. It was really good but I still have stress and anxiety and stomach pain, which I’ve had for a long time.

“I still have lots of nightmares, I can’t sleep, I have panic, I feel numb. Sometimes I think, what can I do, what if I can’t deal with my mental problems, or everything that happened to me?

“These are the things that I think about a lot.”