Asylum-seeker afraid for his future

Changes to government support place strain upon new arrivals

Iranian asylum-seeker Richard* is living in fear and trembling. Residing in Sydney with his mother and younger brother, he has been granted a rare asylum-seeker scholarship to study a business administration degree at a University in Sydney.

Having converted to Christianity in Iran, Richard attends Berala Anglican Church in southwest Sydney. One of his ministries is driving a van to Flemington markets each week to buy food, which his mother cooks and he distributes to the needy.

It was partly on the strength of this community work that his application for a university scholarship was successful. However, to take up the offer, he needs to complete an English for Academic Purposes course, which he is studying full-time at TAFE in Sydney.

Unfortunately, Richard is one of about 12,000 people seeking asylum in Australia who are at risk of losing financial support as a result of government changes to the Status Resolution Support Services (SRSS).

SRSS is a fortnightly payment to help with basic living costs for asylum-seekers awaiting a decision about their immigration status. In the past six months the programme has been drastically cut, leaving many people with no form of financial or service assistance. Anglicare NSW says charities and food banks around the country have reported a significant increase in the presentation of asylum-seekers who are destitute as a result of the reduction of services.

“It’s going to stop my studying and stop to have a good future in Australia.” – Richard

A month ago, the government made changes that threaten to cut all SRSS support for asylum-seekers who study full-time, including English, if they are assessed as fit to work.

Richard has 12 weeks of his advanced English course left and he is worried about what will happen if his income support is cut off.

“It’s going to stop my studying and stop to have a good future in Australia,” he tells Eternity during a break in his studies.

“This course is the English requirement for uni and I have to do it. If something happens, I hope Jesus helps me, but if something happens like that, I’m scared to mention it even.”

There are fears that the number of people who will become destitute is only going to rise.

The Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce will join the Refugee Council of Australia, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and others to campaign for the restoration of key support services for asylum seekers. The Red Cross, which has been a provider of services for asylum seekers for 25 years and is the largest provider in the country of SRSS, has not had its contract renewed. There are fears that the number of people who will become destitute is only going to rise, placing extraordinary pressure on charities and welfare agencies around Australia.

The cutting off support for asylum-seekers currently studying is also opposed by the Labor Party and the Greens.

Richard says he has tried to get work at supermarkets but they won’t take him on without a six-month visa, and he has to renew his visa every three months. The only work he could get is cash-in-hand labouring work, which he feels is too risky.

“Unfortunately, I’m not a person for doing hard physical work – my brain is good for study, I really love to improve my skills and abilities,” he says.

“But if this situation happens it’s going to stop my future, it’s going to make me really disappointed with this life …. Honestly, I don’t have solution. I don’t want to think about it.”

As a new believer, Richard fled Iran with his mother and brother after his Christian girlfriend Rachel* was taken away by the Islamic militia Basij.

Basij is a group of young Iranians who volunteer, often in exchange for official benefits, to engage in activities such as internal security, law enforcement auxiliary, organisation of public religious ceremonies and suppression of dissident gatherings.

“I find Christianity is a real God and the thing that can give me power for rest of my life.” – Richard

Richard, 26, had been disadvantaged in his early university career because he refused to join Basij. He explains that, as a result, he missed out on 20 per cent extra points in his first-year exams.

Later, while studying on a scholarship at the University of Tehran, his head teacher pressured him to become involved in Islamic activities, but he refused. At the same time, he developed a close friendship with Rachel, an Armenian Christian who taught him about Christianity.

“I really like it,” he says. “I researched a lot about Islam and I found that this religion is not peaceful since the beginning when Muhammad chapter, 47:4, it does say, ‘cut the neck of any people that doesn’t believe Muhammad or Allah. Encourage people to kill each other.’ I couldn’t understand this.

“I find Christianity is a real God and the thing that can give me power for rest of my life. I ask anything, Jesus give me, God give me. Before I didn’t have anyone to talk to.

“Before that, I need to do practice to have God love me, but in Christianity God – even without I love him – he gave me the eternal life! How beautiful this is, I couldn’t believe it. I was really happy.”

Richard says when Basij attacked Rachel’s house and took her away, his main concern was for his family’s safety, so he brought them to Indonesia and then to Christmas Island by boat.

While the family was in detention on Christmas Island, Richard’s mother disowned him after discovering he had converted to Christianity. But soon she experienced a miracle.

“One day she had a dream – I said dream, she said ‘no, it was someone.’ He told her ‘give me your hand’ and my mum said ‘no, I can’t walk to give you my hand, you come pick me up.’ He said ‘no, give me your hand,’ and he take her somewhere that has eight stairs.”

Richard’s mother was in a wheelchair with swollen joints from rheumatoid arthritis and doctors said they could not do anything for her.

“My mum said ‘eight stairs with this leg?’ He said ‘yes, you will do it.’ My mum done that and opened the door wide, very beautiful garden, but my mum described it as a heaven for her; exactly after that vision, eight weeks, my mum was walking.”

“My mum said, ‘I was asking Allah a lot of times, he didn’t give me even answer, not treatment, but I didn’t like him [Jesus], I hate him, he come to me, give me the cure.’ Finally, my mum is very happy.”

After the family came to Sydney on bridging visas in January 2015, Richard started studying at a Bible Baptist College, but he found it too hard because he couldn’t understand a lot of English words. So he took a course to improve his English.

“Every second day he’s saying that it is because of you we were in detention, and my guilty feeling never stops.” – Richard

“I found a Persian church for my mum in North Rocks and they have a Bible study in North Parramatta on Tuesday and Thursday and I’m the interpreter for the pastor. I’m really happy whatever I have. I really thank God for everything but there is some situation that is coming from the government, it makes our situation hard.”

“My brother has really bad depression, staying at home always …. When he was in detention he was 16, the age when boys want to do something naughty, playing sports, but he just see the fences, jail, officers, guns.”

“Now we are on the bridging visa. I have done the interview with immigration four months ago, I’m still waiting for resolve that. It’s going to give us five-year protection visa. After five years if I do 3 and a half years in a regional area, study or work, they’re going to give me work permanent residency. Just me. I don’t know what’s happen to my family.”

*Names changed for security reasons.

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