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When 27-year-old human rights lawyer Jessie Taylor, travelled to Indonesia to research the state of detention centres for a documentary in July 2009, she came across countless stories of desperation and persecution. But nothing could compare to a chance encounter with a 14 year old young man named Jaffar in an Indonesian jail.
Jessie recalls how he looked straight at her and begged, “Can you help me?” but she knew, sadly, there was nothing she could do. Yet, in one of those beautiful moments of compassion and human connection, she scribbled down her phone number on a piece of paper and said, “If you make it to Australia, call me and I’ll look after you.”
Well, Jaffar managed to escape and find his way to a people smuggler who put him onto a boat with some 80 other men, women and children, making the dangerous 10 day journey across the seas. And, as hundreds of rickety boats before this one, the small, unsound vessel made it to Australian waters. In a military style operation, Australian border protection staff boarded the boat and allocated each of the passengers a three digit identifying code before escorting them to an Australian Maritime vessel. Welcome to Australia! Take a number.
Jaffar, just like the hundreds of “boat people” who arrive each year, would have been sick, vomiting, dehydrated, cold and exhausted. Not to mention suffering tremendous psychological damage that comes with crossing risky borders, and being thousands of miles from his parents and two younger brothers.
On Christmas Island, he was taken into a room. The door closed and two Australian Federal Police officers began the interrogation. They had searched him and discovered the crumpled note with a name and a phone number. “Where did you get this?” Jaffar was so scared that he would get Jessie into trouble. He had no understanding of the laws in this foreign country. Not that he hadn’t seen jails or detention before. They had become a part of his life now in his bid for survival.
But one thing that was certain, is that Jaffar would have had little comprehension of the idea of justice, having been raised in Afghanistan where, several years earlier, the Taliban had shot dead his older brother and sister on the doorstep of his house. In front of his parents. His father, desperate and in immense pain that only a grieving parent knows, said, “I cannot bear to see another one of my children die.” He gave Jaffar all the money he had and said, “Go. Try and find safety. One day we may see you again.”
See, Jaffar had reached puberty – a very risky time especially for males in war-ridden Afghanistan. Once these boys reach fighting age, they live with the threat of being killed or recruited to fight for the Taliban. So Jaffar kissed his parents goodbye and made the journey to Indonesia, and ended up in the jail where he had met Jessie.
Jessie was asleep in her inner city Melbourne apartment. It was 3am on Human Rights Day, 10 December 2009, nearly five months since her encounter with Jaffar, when the phone rang. Jessie jumped from her sleep and picked up the phone. Jaffar was on the other end of the line. He was calling from Christmas Island to apologise that he may have got Jessie into trouble.
And so, Jaffar embarked on the process of applying for protection in Australia. He would have to demonstrate to immigration officials that he had a well-founded fear of persecution back home. Jessie told him to tell the immigration officers that he had somewhere to live once his visa was approved. With her in Melbourne.
Two months after that phone call, Jessie found herself driving to the airport to pick up the young man who would change her life forever.
For years Jessie had defended the plight of those who have been persecuted, and who had fled in fear of their lives. Defending them in court. To her friends. Even to her mother where stand up shouting matches had become the norm when it came to discussing “boat people.” And now she found herself leaving the airport, Jaffar sitting beside her in the worn seats of her 2002 silver Renault Clio. “I picked him up at the airport and we drove to mum’s house.
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"I told Mum a bit of his story and his struggle and the horrible shit he had been through. And she visibly melted. When she said goodbye to him, he kissed her on the cheek and she burst into tears. From that moment on, she can’t stop asking all her mates, ‘Have I told you about my Afghan foster grandson?’”
And so the collision of two different worlds begins. And how life has changed for Jessie since meeting – strike that - parenting Jaffar.
“Before he arrived I was out every night, extremely overcommitted, doing lots of different things, running around like a crazy person. I made a conscious decision when I knew he was definitely coming to live with me, that I wouldn’t do that anymore. I would make a real effort to slow down and to be present and to be around him. I was working full time, so the idea of coming home and having other things to think about beyond that I would be happy to eat tuna out of a can on the couch.”
Not only did she have to worry about raising a teenage boy – getting him to school and getting herself to work each morning – Jessie also had to learn how to deal with Jaffar’s psychological trauma. “One thing that was particularly acute in the time after he arrived was him being alone. I really didn’t like to leave him alone – he would think about things that were not… necessary helpful. If I came home late from work, and he was home alone, he would be quite down in the dumps. That was something to keep tabs on.”
Jessie says day-to-day life is similar to any single parent raising a teenager.
“We have pretty separate routines and we usually stay in touch in the afternoon and make arrangements for dinner. Sometimes we’ll go out or get takeaway if I’ve been in court.”
And on the weekend? “We go to Queen Victoria Markets and meet my dad for a coffee on a Saturday morning. Do some shopping.” Sounds pretty normal, hey? And yet not.
How does she feel about life as a not even thirty year old raising a son from an entirely different culture and context? “It’s just life now. At the start it was a massive massive shift in terms of having to take someone else’s well being into account. You know, from being an Aussie girl in your 20s, and not necessarily aware of anyone else’s needs. Now it’s completely normal and I have trouble remembering what it was like before that.”
One would think that Jessie could never imagine life without Jaffar. But she says, “Well, I might have to start imagining life without him. We are going through the very difficult process of applying for his family to be reunited in Australia. If his parents arrive, it will honestly be the most bittersweet day. I’m emotional thinking about it. Having him leave my house will be…..” her voice trails off as she ponders. “Yeah…. bittersweet. I think that’s the best word for it.”
Which makes perfect sense for this 29-year-old lawyer who has defended human rights and the disenfranchised for a decade now. But who also put her money where her mouth was by opening her home and heart to this young man. When I met Jessie a couple of months ago, I asked Jessie how she could possibly do it. I will never forget her answer. “I don’t know. You see a need. You just…. fill it.”
Jaffar came to live with Jessie in February 2010. While he is safe and adored by Jessie, his plight as a 14 year old boy meant he had made the journey alone from Afghanistan to Pakistan to Malaysia to Indonesia to Christmas Island to Melbourne. Daring to trust strangers. Pining for the life he would never share with his now deceased older brother and sister. Pining for his parents and his two younger brothers. But determined to live. Jaffar’s story is just one of many.
Up to 2,000 unaccompanied minors have travelled to Australia just like Jaffar. The vast majority are male. Every one of them comes here by boat because they have no documentation. Every one of them gets put into Christmas Island. Many of them are interrogated by the police. Every one of them is grilled by immigration officials. Most of them have done time in Indonesian and Malaysian detention centres. And every one of them is desperate for survival and long to be one day reunited with their families. Yet if they do not have adequate living conditions when they arrive, the repercussions are huge.
Once they have arrived in Australia, they are under the guardianship of the Minister for Immigration who delegates their care to the Department of Human Services. The DHS then interview carers to foster these young people out to. Many don’t find carers, so need to live in group houses or community detention. In fact, around 1,000 young people are in extremely insecure living environments in Australia. In one case, four 17-year-old boys had no choice but to live under the care of an 18 year old.
Some do time in community detention where many self harm or attempt suicide. But some, like Jaffar, are fortunate to be fostered out to wonderful parents – like Jessie – who is a single mother to Behrang. Together, Jessie and Jaffar have made progress in contacting Jaffar’s family and are fighting the clock in order to get them safely to Australia and reunited with their son.
Unaccompanied minors only have until their 18th birthdays to try and get their family reunion applications approved so their families can come here – a process that currently takes 2-3 years. “If someone arrives at 16, they have practically zero chance of connecting with their families again,” says Jessie.
“We are desperate for more people to care for these boys. Once a child reaches 18, he or she is no longer a ward of the Commonwealth and have to fend for themselves.”
Read more about the Department of Immigration’s obligation to unaccompanied minors here.
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