1998 – 2020
Before reading further, please note that this memorial will refer to experiences of mental illness and suicide.
Art is not just about beauty but is more than worthy to express emotions and situations which are difficult to explain through words. Being an artist I could not just sit quiet and not express my feelings about my surrounding and people.
Asif’s accident is not the first incident which is heartbreaking news. His story took me to explore my feelings in my way through the elements and tools which I have the knowledge and use such are flower, figure, Dari alphabets and lines as a frame. These are the most incredible tools to me that allow me to drive into untouched parts and bring them onto canvas.
I believe artists are the most sensible part of a community and the utmost sincere people to a society. They are sensitive and show the reality to the people as a mirror on the wall.
Mohammad Asif Rezaie
JN Joniad and Erfan Dana.
August 12th 2020
In July 2014, at the age of sixteen, Asif fled Afghanistan. He managed to find a smuggler who helped him to flee from India to Malaysia, then to Indonesia. He hoped to be resettled in Australia through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) resettlement program. However he arrived just days after Australia’s announcement that refugees registered with UNHCR after 1 July 2014, would no longer be resettled to Australia. This news broke his hope for a safe future. He decided to wait for UNHCR to find him a third-country resettlement.
With his weary soul, Asif then moved to his friends in Bogor, two hours outside of Jakarta, to find shelter. After a few months, his friends could not support him anymore as they are also refugees relying on donations from relatives. With no work rights as a refugee in Indonesia, he could not afford himself to stay in Bogor.
In Indonesia, the absence of resettlement places and lack of any legal rights for refugees has created a mental health crisis, only worsened by the current COVID-19 pandemic. Single refugees are particularly vulnerable to mental illness. The ongoing uncertainty, lack of basic relationships, social support and inability to pursue meaningful daily activities have all greatly affected their mental health. They are isolated from their family and loved ones back home. For young single refugees, their chance of being resettled to a third country is even more slim as UNHCR prioritises family members and the sick and elderly for resettlement. There is almost no psychological care available for them.
To receive food and shelter, Asif had to submit himself to immigration officers to be detained. His friends managed a flight for him to immigration detention in Makassar, in Eastern Indonesia. When he arrived, he was rejected and was told that they had no budget to feed him in detention.
He wandered around immigration detention and starved for days. He slept outside the immigration office through the rain and scorching heat. After one month, he was finally registered by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and was moved to IOM community accommodation in Makassar.
Most refugees had to go through long period of detention before being released into IOM’s community accommodations. Crammed with hundreds of refugees, some have been imprisoned for three to five years in makeshift prisons lingering in legal limbo. They slept on the floor and received innutritious foods. Refugees commonly describe being beaten when they did not comply with immigration officers’ orders and at times locked up for twenty-four hours in exhausting sealed rooms.
In these accommodations, refugees are confined with rules and restrictions which they liken to an “open-prison”. They say they are still in danger of being sent back to detention if they cross the line on the many restrictions imposed on them by the authorities.
On 1 January 1998, Asif was born into a working class Hazara family in Afghanistan. His parents grew up without school and his father farmed vegetables in the mountain to support the family. However, his father worked hard to send his children to school as he did not want them to grow up uneducated. He sacrificed everything he had for Asif’s education to see his son’s bright future as a well-educated person.
Asif went to Hotqool School and passed all subjects each year with flying colours. Back then, Asif’s dream was to become a doctor like his uncle in Afghanistan. “Asif was a hard-working student who never skipped his class. He was a very loving son to my parents. He was such an adorable charming boy. He had never upset us. He always tries to take good care of everyone in the family” said Asif’s older brother in Afghanistan.
Asif grew up in a small village, close to the border of Qarabagh where Taliban are based. He belongs to the Hazara ethnic minority that has been subjected to genocide since 1880 in Afghanistan, with targeted killings and genocide continuing to this day. In 2019, a suicide attack killed at least 92 Hazara people and injured over 140.
In 2014, Asif had become a prime target of the Taliban as he became a non-believer of religion forbidden in his society. Mullah and others would call him Murtad (apostate or heretic). They reported him to the Taliban.
Asif was determined not to leave his home. He wanted to finish his study and help his family. But one day when Asif was in grade nine, Taliban attacked his home and he fled to Kabul to hide. Even there, he could not find safety.
In Indonesia, Asif fought to sustain his mental health, trying to keep himself busy. He was good at learning new skills faster which would amaze his friends. He took sewing courses and no sooner did he learn it, he would make shirts and Afghan clothes for his fellow refugee brothers in the community housing.
During the outbreak of the COVID-19, he contributed his talent by making facemasks for the local community and refugees. He also learnt handicraft. He could make bracelets, bags and signs of love. However, he could not utilise any of his skills as he was not allowed to sell his products outside.
Asif liked to go sightseeing, cycling and swimming with his fellow refugees. Even then, these activities are challenging and expensive for refugees. They are not allowed to travel more than 20 kilometers far from Makassar. Many refugees found visiting other cities are arrested and detained. “Even if we try our best to keep mental health, we cannot afford it. The allowance we receive from IOM is hardly enough to eat two meals a day” explained a refugee in Makassar who preferred to be unidentified.
After living confined for years, most refugees sleep through the days and suffer from mental disorders such as insomnia, depression, anxiety and stress. Most refugees arrived with past trauma and their current circumstance has further exacerbated their PTSD and other mental illnesses. They face cultural and language barriers, receive no social support and are isolated. They don’t have any daily activities to keep their brain function working. They are not accepted by their neighbours; they are being called illegal immigrants. Without psychologists available for refugees to visit, they are left to grapple with psychological scars on their own.
After two and half years Asif was transferred to a different IOM accommodation in Makassar. There he met a local girlfriend he wanted to marry and start off a life with. But refugees are forbidden to marry locals. Their marriages with locals are considered as illegal, refugees are subjected to detention and deportation if they marry illegally. After learning that she cannot have a future with Asif, his girlfriend eventually left him.
One year ago, Asif was one of thousands of refugees shouting to the world for resettlement to a third country. Protests across six cities in Indonesia began Monday, August 6th 2019 outside UNHCR offices. Refugees objected to years in limbo and pleaded for a durable solution via resettlement to a third country or legal local integration, since they are unable to return to their countries due to ongoing wars and conflict. As a result of resettlement nations’ refugee policy changes, UNHCR began announcing in 2018 that refugees in Indonesia should expect never to be resettled, or to wait 25 years or more.
In Makassar, Asif would come earlier than everyone else to prepare banners for the protest and stand in the front line. When others tired and lost their strength standing in the heat, he would encourage them to withstand the protest and replace them holding their banners. He would distribute water if others were thirsty.
“Asif was thoughtful and very conscious of the world’s inequalities. He couldn’t bear to witness injustice, or to see his friends suffering.” said Assodualla Amiri, a Hazara refugee in Makassar. “He wished to continue his study and become a lawyer in Australia, but Australia has shut the door on refugees.”
In these protests, Asif screamed his frustration about the years of uncertainty and disappointment living indefinitely in Indonesia with no legal rights that were causing him heavy mental pressure. His voice was not heard by resettlement countries. Instead, the protest was responded to violently by police and twenty-six of his friends were arrested and detained.
“He looked very depressed this year.” His friend, Sayed Sarsar said, “He gave up on almost every activity. He looked so bony. He starved when he ran out of money.” Asif had patiently waited for a third country resettlement but had never seen any sight of his future. He could never repatriate as he was an atheist and particularly vulnerable in his home country. His hope slowly began to fade away as he continued to be trapped in limbo and be traumatized by the system.
“How many more years do we have to wait in this limbo before we get resettled? Asif asked his uncle, Qurban Madadi, the day before he died.
“I came as an unaccompanied boy in Indonesia, without my family, I miss them, I cannot go to a third country and cannot settle here in Indonesia in the coming years. The content of absurdity and exhaustion of waiting in limbo for years reached its highest peak for me. I don’t enjoy living here as a wandered person” he told his uncle.
On the 2nd of July 2020, Asif’s roommate, Liaqat Jamali, returned home from playing futsal with friends. When he entered their room, he saw Asif sitting on his bed, busy making a heart from red cotton and videoing it. He told him that it was his very first time-making heart and asked Liaqat how it looked.
Later that night Asif collected all his unwashed clothes and went to the toilet. His roommate went to sleep, but woke up again around twelve am. “I still hear water dripping and the light was on. I knocked on the door several times. There was no answer and I went to security. The security said he will check tomorrow. I called my friends, we broke the door and found Asif” Liaqat said.
All Asif wanted was to live in peace, study and contribute to the world and his people in Afghanistan, but since birth, Asif had never had his freedom and had never had the chance to enjoy his full human rights. He was born in a land of terror, in the ash of the Longest War. He grew up in fear of death and Taliban targeted killings every day.
“He would have been with us today were he in a safe country and his human rights had not been constantly violated” said his friends in Makassar.
Since 2014 and adding Asif this year in the list, we have recorded eight single refugees who ended their own lives in Indonesia.
Asif was one of the 14,000 refugees living years of his youth pointlessly in Indonesia, who became disillusioned, couldn’t receive help and at last succumbed to unjust and harsh policies. This is what trauma does to a person trapped in a harsh system with no foreseeable future.
We have written Asif’s biography to honour his memory, make sure this is never forgotten, and remind organisations and nations that they must do more before we lose other refugees whose hope are on the brink of dying. Refugees deserve protection, freedom, and a future.
Letters to Asif
We are collecting letters to remember Asif’s life. We invite you to write a short message of support to Asif, to write what we were not able to say to him and to honour his memory. You may alternatively wish to leave a message to the refugee community in Indonesia. We will publish as many of these letters as possible at the end of September on this memorial page.
نامه ای برای آصف
اگر کدام گفتنی در گرامیداشت آصف دارید و هرگاه پیامی در این ارتباط به مهاجران در اندونیزیا داشته باشید؛لطفا در فضای اختصاصی گرامیداشت ایشان بنویسید. ما تا حدی امکان پیام های گرامیداشت شما را نشر میکنیم. لطفا پیام ها را تا ۲۵ اگست بفرستید.
Let Us Hold on the Pain
We are inside limbo and stuck in undefined days of life without hope, not treated like we are human and have rights. Staying silent and overthinking somethings that we don’t have the power or solution to solve it. That is pushing us to deceive our life and take bad decisions that can heartbreak the rest of your brothers and sisters in the same situation.
As refugees, we run out from the chaos to save our lives and we need to save our life again. We need to support each other and we need to hold on our dreams that our journey is not yet completed. Many good days ahead but totally we don’t when and where or how we will change this mental and life prison we are in.
Our struggles to be free from injustices and genocides are still going on. Staying this limbo life does not mean our life has finished yet. Absolutely we don’t need to lose one brother or sister because as refugees we need you and you are not a waste of space!
We never forget the pain of our brother Asif and those before him who life trapped. You will be present in our hearts.
Don’t isolate yourself, speak up who is next to you. Let us do what you think. We are good without resources or support, just do things based on your ability to take care of ourselves today, then we will get a solution.
Let us stand ourselves as refugees and speak out for one voice to reach those who still have the heart to feel for us. Let us unite to stay alive and healthy because we deserve to get our rights that we lost for decades.
Dealing with stress during difficult times
When we experience a traumatic stress event, we often do not have words for our feelings. We feel “bad” and we know something is not right. If we do not talk about such feelings, we will not understand them and we may feel that no one understands us. Instead of pushing these strong feelings aside, we connect to them, describe them, and stay with them. When we spend enough time with our feelings, we will be able to make sense and let go of them.
Tip 1: Writing to resolve strong feelings
Through writing, we can express ourselves freely and listen to our inner voice. If you are not sure how to start, here are some suggestions for what to write about:
- Your surroundings. Where are you now? What 3 things can you see? What 2 sounds can you hear? What 1 scent can you smell?
- Memories. As you observe the stress event that bothers you, what are some memories that come up to you?
- Emotions. What emotions do each of these memories bring to you? Where do you sense these emotions in your body?
- Needs/Wishes. What do these emotions tell you about your needs/wishes concerning yourself, loved ones, and the world?
- Action. How do you think you will deal with the needs/wishes (or concerns)? List some small steps even if you don’t have the complete solutions.
Tip 2: Attending to your needs
There are things you can do regularly to take care of your physical, social, emotional and spiritual well-being:
- Breathe. Breathe in and out slowly and gently 10 times. Allow yourself to sense every part of your body as you observe how your breathing affects your sensation.
- Exercise. Do some stretching or go jogging each day.
- Stick to your routine. Eat, sleep, work, exercise, learn at the same time each day.
- Talk. Share with your friends and family about your feelings.
- Play. Hang out with people around you.
- Write down all your worries on a piece of paper. You can look at this paper at a specific time each day. After this time, fold the paper and put it away.
- Observe your stress. Record what time stress comes each day and how bad it feels (on a scale of 1-10; 10 being the most stressful). After one week, look at the pattern and see what you can learn.
Tip 3: Finding professional help
After a traumatic stress event, it is common that people experience multiple distress responses such as forgetfulness, irritability, nightmares, headaches and more. Many people will recover from the distress after some time. If distress responses persist after weeks and cause serious disturbance to daily activities, you may want to consult a mental health professional. You may also explore online resources such as AnxietyCanada offering free, useful information and activities.
Kevin Yau, Lifespring Counseling and Care Center
You can contact Yayasan Pulih in Indonesia at +62 21 788 42 580 and visit http://yayasanpulih.org/. You can call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue Australia on 1300 22 4636. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the United States is 1-800-273-8255.
Embracementalhealth.org.au has mental health information in several languages.