OVER the years, Jeanette Chan reckons she has lost about 20 of her students to people-smugglers.

The head teacher at the Hilla Community Centre, one of only two schools in Kuala Lumpur for Afghan children, Ms Chan said she does "everything to stop them except reporting them to the authorities".

About six weeks ago, Ms Chan got word the family of one of her students had made a down payment of 1000 ringgit ($310) to a smuggler. Alarmed, Ms Chan called in the father of four.

"I said if the boat should sink who are you going to save?" Ms Chan said. That seemed to do the trick. The man was reconsidering his passage to Australia.

While Malaysia has no shortage of asylum-seekers, only 490 of the country's 94,000 recognised refugees are Afghan.

This poses serious challenges for Afghans transferred under Australia's refugee swap, who will not have access to the multitude of community schools, health clinics and support services that Malaysia's 86,000 Burmese refugees have developed to support their people, who like the Afghans exist on the margins of Malay life.

Hilla, which Ms Chan said meant "hope" in Pashtun, is a small school with about 70 students, about 60 of whom are Afghan Hazaras. It is at a community school such as this that transferred Afghan children can expect to be educated, as the agreement between Malaysia and Australia bars asylum-seekers from attending state schools. The students range from five to 20 years and are taught English, Bahasa, maths, history, geography and science.

The school offers no recognised qualifications. The best the children can hope for is a certificate signed by the UNHCR and the head of one of Malaysia's public schools that confirms they have sat their exams and stating their grades.

Besmella arrived from Afghanistan with his family three years ago. He has three daughters at Hilla. He wants desperately to go to Australia, but is resigned to waiting patiently in the resettlement queue.

"Because I have three daughters and I love them, I will never go by boat," he told The Australian.

About 1 1/2 years ago, some of Besmella's neighbours, another Afghan family, did just that. "We told them 'Please don't go'," he said. "They were happy because the smuggler had told them they will be (in Australia) in three nights." They were not.

Besmella said the boat never made it to Australia; nor did it return to Indonesia. The 103 passengers, including his friends and their three children, all perished, he said.

Ms Chan said the Afghans were exploited in the Malaysian labour market, often by the Iranians, many of whom owned local businesses.

Besmellah, who earns a modest living baking bread in his kitchen and delivering it to locals, said he had been robbed and targeted by African youths. "We live very hard," Besmella says of the Afghans in Kuala Lumpur. "The rent of the house is very high. When we go to work (we earn) only a little money."



The long wait: How one family coped with 18 years in refugee limbo - New documentary highlights the soul-destroying wait for those in the so-called official queue for resettlement.

At age 15, Zahra became the breadwinner to help supplement her family’s meagre income.

It’s a tale of two cities, three sisters, 18 years in exile, and how their lives matched the birds around them.

In Kuala Lumpur, there was a budgie in a cage and sparrows scrambling for bread crumbs. In Melbourne, there was a magpie warbling happily on a Hills hoist and a parrot flying free.

A new documentary, Journey Beyond Fear, premiering this week, shines a light on the little known plight of refugees living in limbo in south-east Asia.

Waiting in the so-called queue for resettlement via official channels can be just as soul destroying as those who attempted boat journeys and have languished in immigration detention on Nauru or Manus Island, film-maker Robyn Hughan says.

Since 2011, Hughan has documented the lives of an Afghan refugee family who had come via Iran to the Malaysian capital. 161,140 asylum seekers and refugees are registered with the United Nations in the country. There are 13,800 in nearby Indonesia, while 68.5 million people have fled their homes globally.

Hughan began filming the family around the time then-Gillard government flagged the ill-fated “Malaysia solution” people swap deal. Under the agreement, which the high court quashed, Australia would send 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia and in return accept 4,000 UN certified refugees.

Zahra’s parents briefly contemplated a boat journey to Australia, but when another family they knew drowned at sea, they abandoned the idea.

Hughan says there always seemed to be birds in the background during filming.

“When something was happening there was always bird there to symbolise it,” Hughan tells Guardian Australia. “That became quite a focus for me.”

The main subject of the film is Zahra: eldest daughter in the family and the only fluent English speaker. Over multiple trips to Malaysia, the documentary tracks the pit of despair Zahra falls into as she’s forced to give up studying to work full-time.

At age 15, Zahra started work to help supplement the household’s meagre income from her father’s bread-baking micro business. She took up jobs at a shopping centre, working 12–14 hour days. Working illegally opened her up to employer exploitation.

“Most of the time I wasn’t getting paid,” she says. She saw her future cloaked in darkness. In the film, she explains: “People say ‘why you easily cry?’ I don’t cry for fun, I cry because of the pain to my heart.”

Hughan, who sometimes slept on the floor with the family in their shoe box apartment, says at the height of Zahra’s depression it was heart-wrenching to get on a plane home not knowing if she’d survive the long wait for a visa.

Zahra’s hair was falling out and the stress and uncertainty led to a suicide attempt. “It got to the point where I felt very useless … I thought maybe it would be better to end things,” she says. “Thank God, I had my family who made me more strong and gave me hope that things would get better.”

The family danced all night in their lounge room when Australia finally accepted them as refugees.

As the months and years wore on, her parents briefly contemplated a boat journey to Australia, but when another family they knew drowned at sea, they abandoned the idea. “They had a little baby, they didn’t put their life at risk on purpose, they were just fed up,” Zahra says.

When good news finally arrived that Australia had accepted them, the family danced all night in their lounge room to music on YouTube. It was a joyous end to 18 years living as refugees.

Hughan says since arriving in Melbourne, Zahra and her younger sisters Zeinab and Sakina are focused on achieving and making up for lost time. Zahra won a scholarship to study nursing at Monash University and has recently finished a work placement at an aged care facility, while her sisters are at secondary school.

“I just want to be able to help Australians,” Zahra says.

Hughan hopes the documentary will inject a bit more empathy into the public debate and demonstrate the desperation and hopelessness of people trying to decide whether to get on a boat.

“It’s a roll of the dice,” she says. “Even if you’ve got your UN card it doesn’t mean you’ll be resettled, because only 1% are ever resettled.”

Journey Beyond Fear is showing on Sunday 28 October at the Cinema Nova Melbourne, followed by screenings around the country

THE AGE - OCTOBER 21, 2018


Documentary charts refugees' years in exile hell, en route to Australia

In Australia, most 14-year-olds go to school, but as an Afghan refugee in Malaysia, Zahra had to work to support her family.

She put in 15-hour days at a shopping-mall gift stall and once, for several months, Zahra’s boss refused to pay her.

It was one of a thousand indignities suffered by Zahra, her parents and two sisters in 18 years living in limbo before the United Nations settled them in Australia.

A new documentary tells how there was no money for Zahra to have a rotten tooth removed, so she lived in pain for years.

The girls’ education was a few years' unofficial lessons at a community centre.

Zahra’s first job, at 14, was selling men’s underwear. She earned less than $A2 an hour, and again, sometimes wouldn’t get paid.

Her family shared their dank tower flat with other families. A Malaysian neighbour called Zahra and her sisters ‘‘dogs’’.

'It was so hard, to live': Afghan refugee Zahra, pictured in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, lived in limbo until age 17 in 2014 when the UN resettled her family in Melbourne.

'It was so hard, to live': Afghan refugee Zahra, pictured in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, lived in limbo until age 17 in 2014 when the UN resettled her family in Melbourne.

But the worst thing for the family, as exiles in Iran, then Malaysia, was the almost unbearable feeling that they didn’t belong, or have a future.

When Australian filmmaker Robyn Hughan first met the family in 2011, she didn't know that three years later they would be among the 1 per cent of refugees resettled by the UN every year.

They now live in Melbourne.

In seven trips to Kuala Lumpur to film, Hughan found them determined to love each other, laugh and even dance, despite the crushing despair of waiting for a visa.

The result is the documentary feature film Journey Beyond Fear, that premieres at Cinema Nova on October 25.

Made with a haunting soundtrack by Melbourne musician Alyce Platt, Hughan hopes it smashes stereotypes about refugees, such as the belief that they all live in camps, whereas 65 per cent live in ghettos on the outskirts of cities, as did Zahra’s family, in Kuala Lumpur.

Another fallacy is that getting a refugee visa is easy.

As the film begins, in October 2011, the family tell Hughan they had seriously considered taking a boat to Australia. What stopped them was that an Afghan family they knew had drowned that way.

Filmmaker Robyn Hughan shooting footage for the documentary Journey Beyond Fear outside a Kuala Lumpur housing estate.

Filmmaker Robyn Hughan shooting footage for the documentary Journey Beyond Fear outside a Kuala Lumpur housing estate.

But waiting on bureaucrats to maybe resettle them, or maybe not, was a different kind of hell.

‘‘Living in limbo and not knowing what your future is, I think that just destroys people’s hope,’’ Hughan said.

Hughan was touched the family were so welcoming, despite their past.

Zahra’s parents fled war in Afghanistan, where close family members died, and spent 12 years of persecution in Iran, where their three children were born, before another six miserable years in Malaysia.

The film documents how Zahra, now 21, became severely depressed.

Zahra says now: ‘‘I remember thinking, 'I don’t want this life any more. What if we don’t get resettled in Australia?' It was so hard, to live.’’

Zahra describes arriving in Australia, with its magpies, trams and beaches, as the happiest time of her life.

Most importantly, she got to go to school, and is studying nursing at university.

She called for compassion for refugees who were treated like ‘‘rubbish’’ in many countries, but ‘‘everyone deserves to be happy’’.

‘‘They don’t put their life at risk, if it was for nothing. Having a purpose, growing up, getting an education, having a job, being happy, being protected, is what you need in your life.

"If you don’t have those things, you’re not living in this world.’’