David* and I meet outside Ringwood Library on the same day Scott Morrison begins selling the 2019 budget, the carefully curated slogan ‘a fair go for those who have a go’ ringing in my ears. It’s been four years since David worked in a factory in Melbourne’s outer east, but he is clutching oversized farewell cards from his old workmates. As his former caseworker, I once helped David move house – I know how few possessions he owns and that only the most important have survived. I read his treasured cards and understand how loved he was by his workmates, this man who had a go.
Born in Afghanistan and raised in Iran, David is the oldest of three children. His father died when he was fourteen, and he is no stranger to hard work. He has made shoes, clothes, and window and door frames. He is a qualified and experienced electrician and has also worked in plumbing and carpentry. He was maybe seven years old when he understood his obligation. ‘As soon as I knew my right from left, I knew I had to work.’ Being a quick learner serves him well.
David laughs as he recalls his pathway to work in Australia. An employment officer at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre helped him get the job but it was the first time the company had ever hired an asylum seeker. To get to the factory, David woke before 4 am, walked twenty-five minutes to his bus stop then rode the bus for an hour. He’d then walk an additional hour to arrive at work, just before his shift started at 7 am. He couldn’t be late; he was ‘representing all asylum seekers’.
I try to imagine my actions having consequences for an entire race, religion, group. I can’t.
David describes his first day at the outer Melbourne factory; the pressure he felt, the culture shock he experienced and the way he’d watch his boss’s eyes to figure out what he was being told because his English was so basic then. David concedes the work was boring but everyone who worked there seemed disproportionately miserable. ‘They were all so cold and depressed.’ David, thrilled to have a job, smiled at everyone: ‘I said Good Morning to everybody, which was hard because sometimes people didn’t respond.’ An unacknowledged kind gesture on the road can send me into a fury but David, eternally warm and generous, kept smiling and greeting his workmates.
David arrived by boat from Indonesia to Australia in 2012 before the revised ‘pacific solution’. After eleven days at sea and his boat nearly sinking, he thanked God for the Australian Navy – they saved his life, he says. Taken to Christmas Island, David recalls everyone looking hopeless, groups huddled together in shock, women crying. But he couldn’t stop smiling: thrilled he was finally safe, he laughed and joked. A woman from the Navy took photos of everyone from the boat. She took David’s photo maybe five times, each time explaining, ‘You have to stop smiling, do a serious face.’ It was no use.
At the factory, David packed bottles into boxes and put them on palettes. A few months in, he was promoted to forklift driver. On the strength of David’s work ethic and performance, the boss hired two more men seeking asylum. ‘They were like me, happy to be working and always smiling.’ And something else happened – David made two more friends, two Australian friends. They would joke and laugh and hang out at lunchtime. David was in a friendship group of five. Sitting in the centre of the art gallery next to Ringwood library he reminisces, ‘We really changed everything.’
David found a foosball table on the street and brought it into the break room. He created a tournament out of the miniature soccer-like game and got everyone involved. A tournament would last two months and people started coming in early to practise and hang out with their work friends. Instead of looking miserable and eating their lunches in silence, the factory employees spent their lunch and break times laughing and having fun. After two foosball tournaments, the boss brought in a table-tennis table and new competitions started. The workplace had become lively and happy. Twelve months after David commenced work, his boss announced it had been the most profitable year in the company’s 40-year history and threw a big party for employees – the first of its kind.
In 2015, when his protection application was rejected, David lost his work rights. He told his colleagues he was quitting the factory to work as an electrician. He knew what they thought of ‘boat people’ and it was safer to hide his past. I think about the factory staff; the cards filled with their warmth and affirmations that David will never be forgotten and wonder how they would have reacted if he had told them he was a boat person.
In what was described to him as ‘the world’s most liveable city’, David is not allowed to work or study while he awaits a second Administrative Appeals Tribunal hearing. For people seeking protection, the right to volunteer is decided on a case-by-case basis so neither caseworkers nor people seeking asylum report their community contributions to immigration. I know David’s contributions and wonder what ‘a fair go’ is.
David can’t be angry or challenge people about race and equity – that is my privilege. As the federal election looms, he will be used as he has been so many times before. Reduced to at best a number and at worst a murderer, terrorist or criminal. I will go home and swear at my TV and cry, but my tears are a luxury. David will thank God for making him look the way he does (easily mistaken for European) and he’ll get on with things. Noting my anger, he tells me with a smile, ‘Ahh, you shouldn’t be, it’ll be all right.’
When I ask him if there’s anything else he’d like to share, he’s hesitant. The question is too big, too difficult and there is too much he simply can’t tell me. I press him; I want us to share contempt for Australian laws but he won’t collude with me. Instead he offers two thoughts. ‘Back home, if they want to kill you, they do it quickly,’ he says. ‘Here, they kill you slowly, it’s death by cutting.’
Protective of my feelings he follows with a story. Soon after he arrived in Melbourne, David was at Flinders Street Railway Station. As he walked out from under the clocks to the street, he saw men he knew from Indonesia. Thrilled to see familiar faces, he sprinted across the road to say hi. Smiling and laughing with his friends, he heard a police siren. He had just run across Swanston Street on the little red man. With little English he repeated, ‘Friends, friends,’ to the police officer questioning him. When asked to show his ID, David produced his temporary visa. The officer asked if he was an asylum seeker. David said yes. The officer hugged him and said, ‘Welcome to Australia.
After a long pause in his story, David says, ‘Really cool things happen.’
I am not surprised by David’s kindness or the way he chooses his words – he is practiced in being cautious. He doesn’t want me to feel bad, but I do. I demand justice but unlike me, David has no sense of entitlement. He has moved through legal stages and had his work, study and Medicare rights removed in a process that has lasted seven years and is still ongoing. He is a man whose contribution is undeniable but whose potential is unrealised because in 2014 then Immigration Minister Scott Morrison removed his work rights and the chance for him to ‘have a go’.
*Names have been changed in this article.