Behrouz draws with his finger an imaginary rectangle on the table and pointing to a spot on its outer edge says: “that’s where we lived, on the margins of the village”.
The village of Behrouz’s childhood is located in the deprived Kurdish province of Ilam – itself in the outer western edge of Iran, near the border with Iraq.
What added to Behrouz’s significant economic and geographical marginalisation while growing up, was his minority status as Kurdish. The Kurds are a stateless suppressed population of approximately 40 million people scattered across mainly four countries: Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria.
Behrouz’s life changed forever the day he learnt he had passed Iran’s highly competitive entrance exam to university.
His unbelievable success at the cutthroat national exam meant he could leave behind the social alienation of his childhood and pursue higher education in metropolitan Tehran – a city known throughout Iran for its sophistication as well as the racism of its class-conscious elites.
Behrouz made the most of his university years in Tehran but, once again, found himself pushed to the margins because of his ethnicity and social class.
Remarkably, despite the unfavourable circumstances of his life, Behrouz never thought of himself as a victim without agency. Instead, he remained resolute and always sure of his place in the world.
When asylum seeker Behrouz was unlawfully detained by the Australian government on Manus Island, he instinctively knew resistance was his only way to survive.
And so it was that Behrouz, a powerless detainee, turned himself into an important agent of history by prolifically reporting on the systemic abuse and dehumanisation of refugees and by collaborating with academics to theorise and analyse the very system that had kept him captive.
Behrouz’s multiple award-winning book, No Friend but the Mountains, typed entirely on his mobile phone, unveiled the cruelty of the Australian government’s offshore detention system and catapulted him into international media fame.
Despite his enormous success, Behrouz will never get back what he lost: seven years of youthful zeal for existing in a free world, and to love and suffer in it as young people must.
For now, Behrouz is still adjusting to his new freedom. It’s not easy to reintegrate back into society after a long period of incarceration, especially when that reintegration is taking place in an unfamiliar culture and in a second language.
Behrouz hardly complains, but there have been many assaults on his psyche since his arrival in New Zealand. Some are minor and well-intentioned, like the kind people who recognised him on the street and offered him money he did not need. Others are more serious, such as being subjected to unfounded allegations spread by the New Zealand National party.
Having observed the direct effects of these allegations on Behrouz and the anxiety they induced in him, I was reminded why it was important to always insist on compassion and empathy in politics.
There were some media personalities and politicians who consistently misrepresented Behrouz as an illegal “overstayer” and never acknowledged him as an author, journalist and a filmmaker. This is exactly what Behrouz spent seven years of his life fighting against: the reduction of refugees to mere labels devoid of identity and character.
But for every mental assault dished out to Behrouz, there have been many acts of kindness to make him feel welcomed and at home.
Behrouz still talks about his chance encounter with the Kiwi man who took him on an unforgettable canoe trip down the Avon River – and the meals left out at his doorstep during the lockdown by kind friends who have supported him since his arrival in Christchurch. He values the invitations he receives to speak at events and loves it when strangers care to stop and speak to him when they see him in public.
For me, Behrouz’s arrival in Christchurch has been the start of an education as well as a close friendship.
Fundamentally, Behrouz is a storyteller and each of his tales is a journey into a life enriched by resistance and survival. I will always be grateful to Behrouz for reconnecting me to the truth laid bare in fiction and film when I was too immersed in politics and news.
The more I learn about Behrouz, the more I understand the significance of his achievement and the lasting impact his success will have on the little boys and girls who share his mother tongue and live where he did.
A huge mural of Behrouz’s face has been painted on a wall along the main road leading to his home village. To the locals, Behrouz is a hero and a great source of pride and inspiration for the Kurdish people.
It is wonderful that following the approval of his asylum application, Behrouz is finally able to experience some certainty in his life.
I am truly happy that my brilliant friend now has a permanent home in a country he has come to love and where he can continue his writing in peace and safety.
• Donna Miles-Mojab is a New Zealand based freelance journalist and a columnist at New Zealand’s Stuff news organisation
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