On April 27, 2016, Omid Masoumali, a 23-year-old man in a wet grey t-shirt, stood in a gravel clearing on an 8.1 square mile island. He was surrounded by people, then by jungle, then by ocean. He yelled out, throwing his arms towards the ground, his voice strained and ragged. He turned, and he set himself on fire.
Sahar, a 17-year-old girl, has a picture of Omid and her older brother at a Halloween party together one year before. She was at the small hospital that Omid was taken to. She could hear his screams. She saw him being taken to an ambulance for transfer to another hospital. She said there was no soul in his eyes. She couldn’t sleep for three days after this, and she was sent to check in with a psychiatrist. The first thing he asked her was, “Do you ever think about killing yourself?”
Sahar has big black eyes under fierce brows. Her dark hair is pulled off her heart-shaped face to keep cool, and a wide, charismatic smile flashes brilliant teeth – she has always wanted to be a dentist. She is also one of about 800 people trapped on the island of Nauru. They are refugees and asylum seekers who were taken to the “offshore processing” site on the island after seeking protection in Australia. She is from Iran, and so was Omid. They had both been on the island for three years when Omid died. Now she has been there for four.
Nauru is the world’s smallest island nation – an oval shaped speck in the Pacific Ocean that lies northeast of Australia. It became an incredibly wealthy nation in the late 1960s after massive amounts of phosphate were discovered, strip-mined and sold for fertilizer, leaving the landscape barren and unsuitable for agriculture. The phosphate and money now mostly depleted, Nauru relies on foreign aid and the money it makes operating the detention center.
The detention centers at Nauru and Manus Island, the smallest province of Papua New Guinea, receive all refugees who travel to Australia by boat. These “unauthorized maritime arrival” refugees are sent to the detention centers to be processed for relocation to a third country, never to Australia. For those who arrive by plane, this policy does not apply.
This law was put into effect on July 19, 2013, just two days before Sahar, her older brother, Navid, and her mother arrived by boat on Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean. Her older sister, Sepideh, had arrived there a few weeks earlier with her husband and was sent be processed in Australia with no way to take her mother and siblings with her.
The family was fleeing abuse and separation in their home city of Abadan in southern Iran, where Sahar’s uncle planned to take her from her mother and force Sepideh to marry his son. Sahar’s father died when she was nine and the family was left vulnerable and trapped under the uncle’s control. He was a strict, powerful man with connections to the government and the Iranian court would not defend the family against him. Sahar’s mother fought to put together passports and flee, bringing her family to Jakarta, Indonesia, where they hoped find passage to a better life in Australia. Sahar’s sister had a one-month-old baby by then with her husband, who she had married secretly.
Sahar’s sister and brother-in-law were sent to Christmas Island on an earlier boat, even after the smuggler had assured the family they wouldn’t be separated. Sahar was in Jakarta for 28 days, and then, at 2 a.m. on July 18, she and about 60 other refugees were put on a boat.
The bathroom, a hole in the boat’s wooden creaking side, was big enough for children to fall through. Vomit and urine covered the floor. People slept draped over each other, with no room to lie down. Sahar’s mother had paid $2,000 extra per person for this specific boat, which was larger and safer than many others.
They arrived at Christmas Island three days later, at 5 a.m., but according to guards, no one was at work yet, so they waited on the boat till 1 p.m. before being taken to the immigration building. They were told to sit wherever they were and were given numbers.
“I was always ANA-9. That was my name this whole time, I didn’t have any other name,” Sahar said. Their boat, boat number 800, had been named ANA. “My brother was 3 and my mom was 21.”
Although Sepideh and her husband were also on Christmas Island, Sahar, Navid and their mother were not allowed to contact them.
After being told that they would be unable to settle in Australia, Sahar’s family began to navigate an endless slew of lies about their future. They were told every day for the 28 days that they were on Christmas Island that they would be transferred to Papua New Guinea, but one morning, Sahar, Navid, their mother and five or six other families were given black plastic bags for belongings and told they would be going to Nauru. The workers wouldn’t tell them where that was, saying they didn’t even know. One worker told the panicked families that the weather on Nauru would be the same as on Christmas Island, cold, breezy and raining, and that they would be living in apartments in open camps.
The families, all dressed in sweaters to the incredulous stares of the Nauruan natives, arrived at the detention center, which was not open apartments but six white tents in a rocky clearing with fences around them.
“All of us thought this would be just for the paperwork and they would be taking us to the apartments that they were talking about,” Sahar said.
The workers went through the families’ belongings, taking things – scissors, tweezers, even hair ties. They set up the tents, opened metal cots and then left. The families stood, surrounded only by security, still searching for answers. Sahar closes her eyes and shakes her head as she remembers the first days.
Before Sahar’s group of families arrived, there were only single men being held on Nauru, men who had arrived before the law changed and were able to eventually be settled in Australia. That is the way Andrés Leal first saw Nauru.
Leal is originally from Colombia, and works for Overseas Services to Survivors of Torture and Trauma, an organization based in Australia that provides counseling on Nauru and Manus Island. He worked on Nauru for three years as his team’s leader and watched as the conditions of the camp took their toll on the refugees.
“People were living in tents without air conditioning in places of the Island where it can reach 48 degrees Celsius during the day,” he said, the equivalent of 118 degrees Fahrenheit. Mice and insects infested the tents. Leal was advised as a contractor never to use the Nauru hospital.
Sahar said the schools on Nauru barely have internet, and bathrooms are smeared with filth. She has heard that teachers sometimes force refugee children to sit on the floor, and will not intervene when the children are bullied, often violently.
As more families were sent to Nauru, some, like Sahar’s, began moving into small houses in the community after processing. Leal said the Nauruans were welcoming at first, but cultural differences led to clashes, prejudice and intolerance. Instances of violence, theft, and sexual assault are common occurrences in the community. Sahar was once attacked after refusing to go with a man who approached her.
“He just punched me in the face!” she said, exasperated, almost laughing. “My nose was broken!”
Leal, as a trauma counselor, knew that the most destructive issue for families in Nauru is the lack of information, the lack of hope. The hot days bleed into each other, children lose their youth, and parents break down as watch their family’s future disappear. Depression, self harm and suicide plague the refugee population, and the Australian government has dismissed them as simply attempts to get medevaced to Australia. Protesters are arrested without question. Sahar has seen a close friends sew his own lips shut as a desperate demonstration after his daughter tried to jump off a roof, her second suicide attempt. The few who are taken to Australia, like Omid’s wife, are seldom heard from again.
“It’s like they disappear,” Sahar said.
The families have been told they cannot settle in Australia, and the only other country that has offered to take them is Cambodia. Australian Prime Minister Turnbull and Barack Obama made an agreement to resettle up to 1,250 refugees from Nauru and Manus last year, but after a short phone call between Turnbull and President Trump in February, the future of this agreement remains unsure. Turnbull confirmed that the agreement was still in place, but Trump tweeted hours after the call that he would study the “dumb deal.” The refugees on Nauru are doubtful, Sahar said.
“We have been lied to so many times.”
Sahar, now 18, has protested on Nauru. She has spoken to many journalists about what she has seen there. She spoke under the name ‘Sara’ at a Teach-In event about Immigrants and Refugees at the Wang Center of Stony Brook University in February.
“Sahar is a free spirit and it’s very difficult to say what she can or can’t too,” Leal said. “That is a rare thing to find, someone that is as outspoken as her. And the thing that drives her is that rage, that anger against what she has lived, the absurdity, the unlawful situation what she has been subjected to.”
Sahar said she is aware that there are many refugees in the world, some that live under even worse conditions, but the anger radiates through Sahar’s warm voice as she speaks of the children she knows who have self harmed, as she speaks of Omid and how the hospital didn’t even have a clean sheet for him to lay on, as she speaks of her family, her friends, her future.
“I always thought this is a temporary place and we will be here for a very short time. But these four years? You can’t imagine it. When you tell someone, ‘I’ve been in Nauru for four years,’ they will say you are living there. But here, it doesn’t feel like living.”