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Aussie expats fighting for asylum seekers (www.marieclaire.com.au)


Ellie Shakiba, 34, and Nathan Lovejoy, 37

Los Angeles

Nathan is helping Ellie start over in California after she fled Iran and suffered on Nauru.

July 19, 2013, holds terrible significance for Ellie Shakiba. “This is the date that Australia made the policy to transfer people who arrive by boat to Nauru and Manus Island,” she remembers. “And it was the day that I left my country.”

Ellie was living in the south-west Iranian city of Ahvaz and working for a Farsi radio station broadcasting from Amsterdam when she received information that her life was in danger. “The Iranian government considers Farsi media outside of Iran as enemies and everyone who’s in touch with them as spies. If you are anti-war, a feminist, if you talk about freedom of speech, you can be imprisoned or killed,” she explains.

Ellie had no idea how to seek asylum, but previously worked with a journalist who had successfully escaped to Australia. “I just thought, ‘If I’m supposed to die, I’d prefer to die on the ocean than in prison,’” she says. Little did she know what was waiting at the other end.

“It was so difficult and it got worse every day,” she says of life on Nauru. “We were seeing our friends killing themselves or setting themselves on fire. We saw children who didn’t eat or talk. The only good thing we had was friendship.”

Ellie was transferred from Nauru to Los Angeles in February 2019 and initially struggled with the isolation. “Nauru was like being in hell but with people you love,” she says. “America is like being in heaven but alone.”

When she met Nathan Lovejoy, an actor who moved to LA in early 2018 with his wife Jessica, she immediately felt at ease. They bonded over their shared love of film and theatre, and hope to collaborate on a project soon.

Nathan says that meeting Ellie has reinforced his conviction that the path to resettlement needs to be easier. “[The process] seems heavy-handed, unfair and inhumane, but when you don’t have any personal connection to it, it’s still in the abstract,” he says. “Seeing someone as talented and capable as Ellie, you can’t understand what Australia has to lose. We’ve only got everything to gain. It’s crazy to think that we’ve missed out on her.”

Anwar Sadek, 26, and Lisanne Jenkins, 37

Chicago 

Although Anwar (below) never made it to Australia, he’s found a friend
and support in expat Lisanne.

Anwar never wanted to leave his home in Myanmar, but as a young Rohingya man – one of the most persecuted groups in the world – he had few other options. “The [Burmese] government started killing our people in 2012,” he says of the military violence. He had no passport because
the Burmese government refuses to recognise the Rohingya as citizens, so he travelled to Thailand, Malaysia and then Indonesia on a terrifying boat journey. He decided to head for Australia because he was told that the country recognised his claim to asylum. “That didn’t happen. They took me to the camp [on Manus Island],” he says. Again, he was surrounded by violence – though this time at the hands of the detention guards and the local population. “For six years I lost my mind. I don’t remember anything, I was like a robot person,” he says. “To keep people on Manus [Island] and Nauru for so long for no crime … this is cruel.”

After he moved to Chicago in July, Ads-Up put him in touch with Lisanne, a behavioural neuroscientist who relocated from Melbourne six years ago. At their first meeting in downtown Chicago, she brought him an umbrella for the notoriously brutal weather and a radio so he could listen to music. “I asked him if he listens to the news and he said he doesn’t anymore,” says Lisanne. “I can empathise with that.

“I was very pleased to meet an Australian,” says Anwar. “She was friendly and she helps me so much. My hope for six years was to come to Australia; I’m so happy that finally my life has one Australian [in it].” Now he plans to find a job and get his GED, but his biggest dream is to see his parents and siblings, who are living in a refugee camp outside Bangladesh. “I left my country more than seven years [ago],” he says. “Now, I wish to live a simple, normal life with my family.”

Mona Taheridost, 37, and Nicole East, 39

North Carolina

After years of terror and torment, Mona is rebuilding her life with the help of Nicole, who she calls “her angel”.

When Nicole texted Mona about meeting up at a local cafe, a new friend was the last thing on her mind. “I had no idea what to expect,” says Nicole, a brand manager who moved from Queensland to North Carolina seven years ago. “But Mona and I instantly got on, we clicked.”

Mona had fled her home country of Iran in 2013 because she’s Christian, and religious minorities are routinely harassed and imprisoned there. On Nauru, she was told that she would never be resettled in Australia because she had come by boat. Mona says she spent the next five years questioning why. “I asked myself, what’s the difference? We are all human.”

When Mona found out that she’d been approved to resettle in the US, her first response was disbelief, then joy. Though the past two years have been difficult, Mona says Nicole has helped her through her lowest moments and refers to her as “my angel”. She now works at a department store and paints in her spare time. One painting of a ballet dancer is particularly special; she had imagined it while living in Iran but wasn’t able to depict a woman’s uncovered form. The piece now hangs on Nicole’s bedroom wall as a reminder of how far her friend has come. “After everything she’s been through, she talks about how blessed she is,” says Nicole. “It’s inspiring to watch someone rebuild themselves. It really makes you check yourself. You think, if she feels blessed, then I certainly should.”

Visit ads-up.org to find out how you can help.

This article originally appeared in the March issue of marie claire.

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