Canada ‘like a dream’ for refugee who spent 6 years in Australia’s Manus Island camp

Amir Sahragard doesn’t like to talk about his past.

The Iranian refugee fled his home country in 2013 when he was 21 and made the dangerous trek from Indonesia to Australia by sea.

But instead of finding refuge, he was shipped off to a detention camp on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, for “processing.” He would remain there for six years, until finally getting resettled in Canada last week with the help of a private sponsor.

His wounds — both emotional and physical — are still fresh, he said. But he’s speaking publicly about his experience in the hopes of helping those left behind.

“The only chance that they have is to come to Canada,” Sahragard told As It Happens host Carol Off.  “All of them are my friends and like family to me, and I’m only doing this to help them.”

‘Exactly like hell’

Under Australia’s hard-line immigration policy, anyone intercepted trying to reach the country by boat is sent for processing to three camps on Manus Island or the island nation of Nauru.

The United Nations, Amnesty International and other human rights groups have called on the country to shut down the island facilities, which they say are “inhumane” and ripe with abuse — something Sahragard can personally attest to.

“It was actually like a prison. Even worse than prison because we [weren’t] allowed to have a visitor,” he said. 

In this July 17, 2018, photo, a man standing on a balcony at the East Lorengau Refugee Transit Center on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. (Aziz Abdul via The Associated Press)

For the first three years he was there, Sahragard says he was limited to a maximum of two phone calls a week, and internet access once a week.

After Papua New Guinea’s High Court ruled in 2016 that the original Manus Island detention centre was illegal, Australia build new facilities on the same island and moved the detainees there. 

“After that, we had phones and they opened the detention and we could go out,” he said. “But it was still an island that we could not go anywhere, and it was really, really a dangerous place, not safe for anyone.”

People were frequently robbed and assaulted. He and and friends were beaten.

“It was exactly like hell,” he said. 

A warm welcome 

Sahragard is the first of two Manus Island detainees coming to Canada through a private sponsorship by the Australian-Canadian organization Ads-Up Canada.

The group — led by Toronto marketing manager Stephen Watt and Australian-Canadian University of Toronto professor Laura Beth Bugg — is an offshoot of Ads-Up USA, an organization that helps resettle refugees on Manus Island and Nauru in the United States.

Sahragard, centre, surrounded by supporters after he arrived in Toronto last Thursday. (Ads-Up Canada)

“These refugees are some of the most resilient, motivated people out there, and they thrive when countries like Canada give them a chance,” Watt said in a press release.

 “Amir’s been robbed of his 20s — years he’ll never get back— but we’re ready and excited to help him build a new life here and achieve his full potential.”

Watt and others greeted Sahragard at the Toronto airport last Thursday with open arms, and draped him in a Canadian flag.

“It was just like a dream come true,” Sahragard said. “I am still sometimes thinking that I am dreaming.”

‘They really need your help’

Ads-Up Canada says it’s working to sponsor more refugees from the Australian-run facilities to come Canada through private sponsorship. 

The group is currently fundraising for a gay Iranian asylum seeker in Papua New Guinea and a family of four on Nauru, it said. 

The Canadian government requires at least five people to raise $16,500 to privately sponsor a refugee.

As Sahragard spoke to As It Happens on Friday, he was getting ready to head back to the airport with Watt to greet his friend, another refugee from Manus Island being sponsored by Ads-Up.

“I am going to be in the airport to welcome him like the one that I got,” he said.  

“I really want to take a minute to say thank you to all the people who are helping the people like me to give them their life back. It’s the only thing that they have is you people, and they really need your help.” 

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Sarah Jackson.