Abdi Aden just couldn’t take it anymore. The Somali-born refugee had agreed to welcome three celebrities into his home for four nights, feed them and tell them his story for the second series of SBS’ Go Back to Where You Came From. His story is a traumatic and touching one: of fleeing death squads and famine as a 13-year-old to travel to Australia via Kenya, Romania and Germany.
But former 2UE shock jock Michael Smith only seemed interested in whether he had breached Australian law by using false documents to travel here by plane.
Aden, now a 35-year-old youth worker based in Melbourne’s outer suburbs, told him to get out and go stay in a hotel. “I told him exactly what I felt,” Aden told Crikey. “I wanted him to know he was disrespecting me; he wasn’t listening to me and he was my guest. He was calling me a criminal rather than a refugee.”
Aden and Smith’s altercation was one of the most captivating moment’s in last night’s debut episode — easily SBS’ most watched show of the year, with an average national audience of over one million. Last year’s series, which coincided with a heated public debate about the government’s proposed “Malaysia Solution”, was a ratings smash for SBS.
It will be intriguing to see if the public broadcaster can keep up the momentum this year given the bunkered-down ideological positions held by this year’s celebrity participants including former defence minister Peter Reith and left-wing comedienne Catherine Deveny. Reith has already announced that his experience on the show hasn’t changed his views on asylum seeker policy.
In many ways, it’s the refugees who participated in Go Back, rather than the celebs, who have the most fascinating stories. Twenty-eight year old Hazara refugee Hamid Sultani signed up to help educate the Australian population about the plight his people face in Afghanistan.
“I’ve made a lot of Aussie friends and when I tell them about my journey they are totally unaware of the situation back home — they are shocked,” Sultani said. “When people call me a queue jumper I don’t blame them. They don’t know the reasons we leave our country and loved ones. A person like Peter — an ex-defence minister — I found him totally unaware of the situation in a country where Australian troops are fighting.”
“Communication,” Sultani says, “can take us to undiscovered places.”
Sultani fled to Pakistan in 2007 after receiving messages from the Taliban that they were out to kill him because of his work as a translator for US and New Zealand combat troops. When it became clear Hazaras weren’t safe there either — and that it was almost impossible for him to make a living — he travelled, via Dubai and Malaysia, to Indonesia. There he paid a people smuggler to bring him to Australia by boat. He now lives in Dandenong in Victoria.
He asks that Crikey not identify where his wife and daughter are living in Pakistan for fear they could face retribution for his past work as a translator and participation in Go Back. Since production of the show finished, Sultani has maintained a friendship with Catherine Deveny, and watched last night’s show with her.
Sultani isn’t convinced that the government’s new asylum seeker policy — including a return to processing on Nauru and Manus Island — will deter Hazaras from getting on leaky boats.
“People know it’s a risk but the risk they’re fleeing in their homelands is worse, ” he said. “On the boat, I thought it would be better to die here than be cut into pieces by the Taliban. At least I had hope of a better life. Hazara people in Afghanistan and Pakistan are getting shot going to the bazaar. They are facing death every day and there is no safety every time they step outside their home.”
The perception that asylum seekers arriving by boat get unfair treatment particularly riles him.
“When people say they [asylum seekers arriving by boat] are queue jumpers I say, ‘There is no queue. My name was on no list. When I got to Christmas Island I got into the queue.’ The queue in Afghanistan — where I was on a Taliban blacklist — was a queue to be killed. When you are trying to save lives there should be no queue. Safety comes first for everyone.”