Words like "resilience" and "inspirational" are perhaps overused expressions these days, but resilience just seemed to be the perfect word to characterise Reza's story, as his bright demeanour and positivity shine out despite some tough experiences to get where he is now.
This is not to underplay the suffering and trauma for many refugees, behind a sunny disposition there is often some pain and it's important for Australians to be aware that people don't just flee their war-torn nations for no reason. I have come to realise that an alarming number of people don't seem to understand what a refugee and that it is not an easy process to be accepted for a Humanitarian Visa to Australia. Sometimes personal stories can carry more weight than simply reciting the Refugee Convention or presenting some facts about Afghanistan.
On the other hand, people who have been refugees are often forward-looking people and don't want to dwell on the past too much, and it's important to give people a chance to tell their story their way and to try and be authentic rather than working to a preconceived narrative.
But to return to Reza's story....
Reza has no memory of Afghanistan himself as his parents fled there when he was a very small child and so he spent most of his life in Iran, along with some other 2 million or so Afghans. Reza is a Hazara, an ethnic minority in Afghanistan who have been persecuted by the likes of the Taliban for decades. It is not an exaggeration to say that many have fled for fear of their lives.
I've worked a bit as a volunteer helping people with their Humanitarian Visa applications for family members living abroad. In this process I've dealt with numerous Afghans, all women, trying to brin family from Iran. This made me somewhat aware of the difficult situation of Afghans living in Iran. Unfortunately, you'll hear people complain that people are trying to come to Australia as a asylum-seekers when they are already living in a "safe country". So I thought it was important to get at least an account from Reza about why Iran is not a safe or secure place for them, even if they don't risk death in the same way as they might in Afghanistan !
Certainly to leave your wife and young child on a one-year journey through multiple countries to end up on a leaky boat to Australia is quite a sacrifice that a person doesn't take lightly, especially know you're going to be held in an offshore detention centre for an indefinite period, something Reza accepted was just part of the deal.
For me though, one of the most striking things that Reza said was about his experience after he was released from detention and started living in Sydney. "There is always tension in life" he says as he describes the pressure of having a family expecting him to get a job and support them back in Iran and then struggling to find work in Sydney. Many people have felt the pain of separation from loved ones for long periods during this pandemic, but imagine being separated from your wife and small child for 9 years. It would require a lot of mental fortitude, but then it also occurred to me that perhaps this hardship is what had made Reza such a positive person, someone who lives in the here-and-now and is grateful for what he's got rather than what he missed out on.
On a lighter note, as with many of the other interviews I've done, there were also a couple of delightful and surprising little anecdotes. First was the fact that all Reza's knowledge of Australia prior to arrival was from watching that old favourite Skippy the Bush Kangaroo on TV in Iran ! Perhaps even more unexpected was his description of going to the pub in Tasmania for the first time on his own and being taken under the wing of a friendly local.
Of course now, Reza has been reunited with his wife and child, and they have had a second child in Tasmania and Reza has a new job managing at Zafira Afghan restaurant, so life is definitely on the up for Reza personally.
However, it's worth mentioning that the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan has left many who have escaped to safer places with what is often referred to as "survivor's guilt" - that feeling that you got away and others didn't. It's something common to those who have escaped ethnic genocides or mass persecution from across the ages.