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After Two Years, Refugees Reach Australia - 2003-09-16

Two years ago a Norwegian freighter, the Tampa, rescued more than 400 asylum seekers from a sinking boat near Australia. The government refused to allow the Tampa to dock and sent its human cargo to immigration camps across the South Pacific. Earlier this month a small group of Tampa refugees made it to Australia after two years in detention on the tiny island of Nauru.

For the refugees, a community center on a busy suburban street here in Brisbane is the latest stop on an extraordinary journey. For most it began in the mountains of Afghanistan.

Then, months later, as their ship was sinking ship in the Indian Ocean, there was a dramatic rescue by the Tampa, a Norwegian freighter, followed by months of detention on Nauru, a tiny island near the equator.

One of the Afghan refugees is Rahimi, 36, who says he longed for a life full of optimism. "I want to come out of this hopelessness into something new and better," he says.

Farid Abdullah was another of the 433 asylum seekers rescued by the Tampa. "I remember the days that we were about to be drowned to the water. So it was very, very, very dangerous days and nights that we were on the boat and about to be drowned to the water. Mostly people were losing their hopes," he says. "They were not thinking that they would be rescued. It was a very, very big chance for us. It was luck, fortune that we were rescued."

The Australian government, frustrated by a steady flow of asylum seekers sneaking into the country by sea, would not allow the Tampa to dock and unload its passengers. Instead, they were taken to camps on several Pacific islands, where their claims for asylum were processed.

Now, the first 21 men to be granted temporary asylum in Australia are attending counseling sessions in Brisbane, to help them adjust to their new life. The men have received temporary protection visas. They will have to re-apply for an extension in five years. In the meantime, their families will not be allowed to join them.

Hassan Ghulan, the president of the Hazara Ethnic Society in Australia, says an uncertain future awaits these men. "They are tough people. We have survived two-and-a-half centuries of persecution. We will be surviving the rest of it," he says. "But it would be good to show them light at [the] end of the tunnel, but there is no light - maybe a bit of a candle, to say you can stay in Australia in absence of your family and without having the right to travel, without having the right to be educated and trained. So, that's it. A very simple existence."

Mr. Rahimi says he has a wife and three children in Afghanistan. He left, fearing for his life under the former Taleban government. He describes what he calls the "great disturbance and depression" he feels because he is separated from his family.

Frederika Steen is a volunteer worker who says that despite their problems, the refugees are an inspiration. "They're survivors and that's a very select group of human beings. One of the first questions they asked on day one is "where can I find work?" There's a resistance among the Hazara people in particular not to take government money," she says. "They want to be independent, they want to work to support themselves and to support the family they left behind if they can find them and locate them properly."

Despite its tough laws on asylum seekers who enter the country illegally, without proper documentation, Australia takes in about 10,000 refugees a year.

Farid Abdullah is confident Australia will eventually allow him and his fellow travelers to stay here with their families permanently. "I am sure there will be some changes to our future about our temporary visas. So the policies will be changed one day," he says. "I am sure so one day I will be a permanent visa receiver and then a citizen in Australia."

The refugee men say it is this dream that has kept them going, and will help them continue working, to be reunited with their families.