The long wait: how one family coped with 18 years in refugee limbo

The long wait: how one family coped with 18 years in refugee limbo

It’s a tale of two cities, three sisters, 18 years in exile, and how their lives matched the birds around them.

In Kuala Lumpur, there was a budgie in a cage and sparrows scrambling for bread crumbs. In Melbourne, there was a magpie warbling happily on a Hills hoist and a parrot flying free.

A new documentary, Journey Beyond Fear, premiering this week, shines a light on the little known plight of refugees living in limbo in south-east Asia.

Waiting in the so-called queue for resettlement via official channels can be just as soul destroying as those who attempted boat journeys and have languished in immigration detention on Nauru or Manus Island, film-maker Robyn Hughan says.

Since 2011, Hughan has documented the lives of an Afghan refugee family who had come via Iran to the Malaysian capital. 161,140 asylum seekers and refugees are registered with the United Nations in the country. There are 13,800 in nearby Indonesia, while 68.5 million people have fled their homes globally.

Hughan began filming the family around the time then-Gillard government flagged the ill-fated “Malaysia solution” people swap deal. Under the agreement, which the high court quashed, Australia would send 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia and in return accept 4,000 UN certified refugees.

Hughan says there always seemed to be birds in the background during filming.

“When something was happening there was always bird there to symbolise it,” Hughan tells Guardian Australia. “That became quite a focus for me.”

The main subject of the film is Zahra: eldest daughter in the family and the only fluent English speaker. Over multiple trips to Malaysia, the documentary tracks the pit of despair Zahra falls into as she’s forced to give up studying to work full-time.

At age 15, Zahra started work to help supplement the household’s meagre income from her father’s bread-baking micro business. She took up jobs at a shopping centre, working 12–14 hour days. Working illegally opened her up to employer exploitation.

“Most of the time I wasn’t getting paid,” she says. She saw her future cloaked in darkness. In the film, she explains: “People say ‘why you easily cry?’ I don’t cry for fun, I cry because of the pain to my heart.”

Hughan, who sometimes slept on the floor with the family in their shoe box apartment, says at the height of Zahra’s depression it was heart-wrenching to get on a plane home not knowing if she’d survive the long wait for a visa.

Zahra’s hair was falling out and the stress and uncertainty led to a suicide attempt. “It got to the point where I felt very useless … I thought maybe it would be better to end things,” she says. “Thank God, I had my family who made me more strong and gave me hope that things would get better.”

_ The family danced all night in their lounge room when Australia finally accepted them as refugees. Photograph: Supplied

As the months and years wore on, her parents briefly contemplated a boat journey to Australia, but when another family they knew drowned at sea, they abandoned the idea. “They had a little baby, they didn’t put their life at risk on purpose, they were just fed up,” Zahra says.

When good news finally arrived that Australia had accepted them, the family danced all night in their lounge room to music on YouTube. It was a joyous end to 18 years living as refugees.

Hughan says since arriving in Melbourne, Zahra and her younger sisters Zeinab and Sakina are focused on achieving and making up for lost time. Zahra won a scholarship to study nursing at Monash University and has recently finished a work placement at an aged care facility, while her sisters are at secondary school.

“I just want to be able to help Australians,” Zahra says.

Hughan hopes the documentary will inject a bit more empathy into the public debate and demonstrate the desperation and hopelessness of people trying to decide whether to get on a boat.

“It’s a roll of the dice,” she says. “Even if you’ve got your UN card it doesn’t mean you’ll be resettled, because only 1% are ever resettled.”