‘Free, I’m free!’: The day I was released from refugee detention
After being held for eight years by Australia’s government, an Afghan refugee celebrates his chance at a new life.
Ahmad Zahir Azizi sits at his kitchen table beaming at the camera, barely able to contain his laughter, as he speaks over a video call.
Just weeks earlier, he was released from immigration detention in Australia and granted a temporary bridging visa after more than eight years in state custody.
I had interviewed Azizi via video call countless times before, but never had I seen him smile like this, let alone laugh. Every time we saw one another, he seemed broken. I thought he had given up.
Now, I smile with him, and ask: “Can you tell me again about the day that you were released?”
Azizi gets up, closes his window, and yet again, he begins telling me his story.
Raging seas and sinking boats
In 2013, Azizi, now 37, fled Afghanistan after he was targeted by the Taliban for his work with coalition forces.
He left his wife and four children behind, hoping to bring them to join him when he had found somewhere safe to settle.
He bought passage out of the country, headed to Indonesia, then took the last leg of his journey to Australia on a tiny, decrepit fishing boat. “It [was] two nights and two days,” he says.
The boat was very old, built from wood, and more than 50 people were squeezed inside.
The weather was wild. The sea raged “up and down” and on the final night the boat broke and water flooded in, forcing the crew to pump it out in a desperate attempt to stay afloat.
They called for help via satellite telephone, Azizi says, and connected with the Australian navy.
Eventually, a “big ship” came and brought them on board and as everyone was moved, their fishing boat sank underwater behind them.
The navy boat brought Azizi and the other asylum seekers to Christmas Island, an Australian external territory northwest of the continent that houses an offshore immigration detention centre.
He was put through countless health checks and tests, he said, and given “different vaccines”.
“After three days … they ask me, we want to send you to Manus [Island].”
At the time, Manus Island, in northern Papua New Guinea, was home to a notorious immigration detention processing centre set up by Australia, known for continued human rights violations over the years it was in operation.
“Because I didn’t understand about Manus … I say OK [it’s] up to you,” says Azizi, adding that Australian officials told him they were sending him to Manus Island for “process[ing]”.
From that point, Azizi entered a world of guards and regulations.
He and the other asylum seekers were put on a plane to Darwin and from there to Papua New Guinea.
“[There was] more security than refugees [in the plane],” he says. “When I come down to the airport … two guards were there, more security was there and [they took] me out from the aeroplane and put me on the bus.”
At first, Azizi was held inside an offshore processing centre on Manus Island which had been reopened in 2012 and continued operating until 2017, when it was closed after a Papua New Guinea court ruled it illegal.
Countless reports highlighted “filthy living conditions”, assaults and high rates of mental illness in these compounds, describing the immigration detention centre as being “cruel, inhuman, degrading and violating prohibitions against torture”.
Azizi remembers the 20-foot (six-metre) shipping container he was given to sleep in, which was divided into two rooms, each housing four people. There were 270 people in his compound, he says, and it was crowded.
The shipping container he lived in had no windows, no fresh air, he remembers.
In January 2015, Azizi was finally given official refugee status, although he continued to be held in the detention camp. He was never told the reason why.
Then, in 2017, the gate was opened and the camp closed. Azizi was moved to new accommodation in Lorengau, a town elsewhere in Manus province.
It was around this time that he met Jane, a 74-year-old Australian woman who has grown so close to him that she now considers him a son. They had connected on Facebook and in 2018 Jane went to Manus Island and met him in person.
“He was allowed out [of his accommodation] from six in the morning until six at night, so he would come every morning and cook breakfast for me,” Jane says.
She remembers lining up at an ATM one day with Azizi, when she went to withdraw some money. “There’s always a line, a big line to get the money, Azizi couldn’t stand in the line,” she says.
Azizi explains that it’s because of how much time he spent in lines while in detention. “Go to breakfast, you stay one hour [in] the line; if you’re going for lunch you stay one hour in the line; if you’re going for dinner you stand one hour in the line.”
Park Hotel prison
Then, in July 2019, Azizi was brought to mainland Australia under a short-lived medical evacuation scheme with a range of physical illnesses.
His ailments: “Number one, my migraine, my headache; number two is my tooth… my stomach; my blood pressure; my legs; and my arm is numb,” says Azizi.
“If you are stay[ing] in one container, [you do] not have freedom, not have [a] doctor, not have good food, not have anything; you must [stay] sick,” he says.
Al Jazeera contacted Australian Home Affairs to ask about Azizi’s descriptions of his conditions in detention, and other aspects of this story. The department said it does not comment on individual cases, but that it is “committed to the welfare of detainees” who have access to things including “health services, appropriate food … educational programs, cultural, recreational and sporting activities … and clean, comfortable sleeping quarters”.
After that, Azizi was moved around Australia to different immigration detention centres and hotels. Again, he was not told why.
Home Affairs told Al Jazeera that, in general, decisions on detainee placements depend on a number of factors, including the operational capacity of each facility and the safety and security of detainees and staff.
Meanwhile, Azizi’s wife and children were still left behind in Afghanistan. He had hoped to bring them to safety once he sought asylum, but was unable to help them from inside immigration detention.
During his time on Manus Island, he lost countless family members to Taliban violence, he says.
Helpless, Azizi could only watch as the situation back home grew ever more dire. In 2020, he lost his older brother to the Taliban.
“I remember that day,” Jane says, recounting the phone call she received from Azizi. “I was at a shop … and I … went and sat in the car and listened to him telling me.”
Azizi was “absolutely distraught”, she says. “All I’ve got is the phone, I mean I couldn’t [do much], I’m not there, I only had the phone.”
His 14-year-old son said he wanted him to come back to Kabul so they would all die together ... Azizi was beside himself.
In Afghanistan, on the way back from his brother’s funeral, Azizi’s family had been attacked by Taliban fighters waiting along the road.
“My brother [had] guns, if [he did] not have guns Taliban [would have killed] all my family,” he says.
“They went in two cars and one car was completely a write-off,” says Jane.
Then, in early 2021, the Taliban began its sweeping offensive across Afghanistan, quickly gaining control of the country in just four months and taking Kabul in August.
But Azizi was still locked up and could only watch from afar as his family was pushed further and further into danger.
Still held in detention throughout this time, Azizi felt unheard and wanted to speak out via the media as a way of pleading with the Australian government to evacuate his family.
In the interviews we did, there was fierce emotion behind his words. And when he spoke, he kept coming back to one thing: without his family, there was no need for his life.
“That’s the worst I have seen him, I think,” says Jane. “That’s when his 14-year-old son said he wanted him to come back to Kabul so they would all die together. I mean, Azizi was beside himself.”
‘Azizi, is this you?’
It was in late 2021 that things suddenly changed for Azizi.
In June, he was moved to Park Hotel, which is used for immigration detention in Melbourne, where he contracted COVID-19 as the disease surged among the detainee residents.
He again spoke out, describing a poor diet at the hotel and the lack of help he had received.
Throughout this time, Azizi said he couldn’t imagine ever being free.
“I [was] thinking, just whole my life I will stay in detention,” he says. “Sometimes I was thinking I’m not [a] criminal, why [are they keeping] me in detention?… I [helped the] coalition but still [Australia] is keep[ing] me in detention.”
In early November, an Australian Border Force (ABF) officer came to the hotel to gather requests from the refugees. “She was looking for me … [but] I understood this is all bulls**t,” says Azizi, adding that he thought the reports would simply end up in a rubbish bin.
Azizi did not write a request or speak to the officer.
Then, two days later, everything changed overnight.
He was lying in his bed watching news from Afghanistan on his phone, when security came into his room to tell him that ABF officers wanted to meet him. The same officer who had come to take requests from the refugees a few days before was waiting downstairs.
“She says ‘two days ago I saw you but you did not talk to me’. I say yes because it’s not help[ing], just you are writing and putting [it] in the rubbish [bin],” he recounts.
“She is laughing and says ‘I have very good news for you’. I say, what is that good news? And [she says ‘the] minister has signed your visa’. I say what kind of visa? She says ‘a bridging visa’.”
“She says ‘this is your paper, you have [a] visa, you can go’.”
After a long time, my father is free. My father is not a criminal and should not be a long time in detention.
Azizi was given half an hour to gather his belongings, take a shower and say goodbye to his fellow detainees. He said he spent at least 10 minutes frozen in his room, wondering what to do first. Take a shower? Pack his clothes?
He called his family and told them the good news.
Azizi’s 14-year-old son remembers the moment clearly. They were woken in the middle of the night by his father’s phone calls.
The teenager, who we are not naming for his safety, communicates via Azizi: “After a long time, my father is free,” he writes. “My father is not a criminal and should not be a long time in detention.”
“My mum can’t believe it when my father calls. She is surprised,” he adds.
After speaking with his family, Azizi went back downstairs to meet the ABF officers and prepared to leave the hotel. The same officer he had spoken to before did a double-take.
“[She] told me ‘Azizi, this is you?’ I say yes that’s me!,” says Azizi, smiling. “‘No, it’s not you’,” he remembers her response, “‘your face is changing, your face is happy, you’re different now, what happened, why?’”
She was laughing, he says.
Azizi was taken to another detention centre to gather his belongings that were stored there. From there, he was put into a taxi and taken to a motel where he was put up by the government for three weeks. He was given two $50 AUD ($36 USD) vouchers, $342 AUD ($248 USD) in cash, and left completely unsupervised for the first time in almost nine years.
I interviewed Azizi a couple of days later for a story about his release. That’s the first time it struck me how different he was from the previous times we had spoken. He was overflowing with joy; he couldn’t stop laughing and his smile was so full of life.
The first thing Azizi did when he reached the hotel was to go to the mosque.
“Inside, I say bless you God because I’m free,” he explains. “After I come [out] I [was] looking behind me, maybe security is come with me … [but there] is no security, [there] is not anything!
“This time I was very happy, really, I was really happy. I say ‘freeeee, free, I’m free!’” he chuckles, “some people stare at me, they say, oh this man is crazy.”
Later on, he took his $50 vouchers and went to the supermarket. “Long time I didn’t eat grapes, I first buy grapes, mango, banana, everything,” Azizi says.
“In detention, there was very little fruit and this was a big problem,” Jane explains. “Only two pieces of fruit every 24hrs.”
Azizi also bought okra – his favourite food – and brought it home to cook. “When … I was staying in detention … they [were] not [serving] okra … eggplant, just … beef, lamb, chicken, beef, lamb, chicken.” Throughout his life, he had rarely eaten so much meat. He missed vegetables.
(Now) I want to think about a good job … and lots of friends ... I will go to see some nice places, and relax.
So far, Azizi’s observations of Australian people have been overwhelmingly positive. They don’t ask invasive questions, they’re not unkind to him like the guards in detention, he says. He has spent a lot of time with friends he made online in Australia over the years: advocates, activists, Facebook contacts.
But it has been quite an adjustment getting used to Australian culture. On the first night of his release, some friends threw a party for him and the other refugees who had been freed.
“When I was gone to that house, these young girls come hug me,” he says. “[It’s] not like in Afghanistan!” he continues, adding that he felt both happy and shocked at the display of affection.
In the weeks that followed, Azizi began exploring Melbourne.
He went to the beach and enjoyed the water and fresh air. He went to an Afghan restaurant and sat down to real, Afghan food, for the first time in years, ordering Kabuli Pulao, a type of pilaf usually made of steamed rice, raisins, carrots and beef or lamb.
“I was thinking I was still in Afghanistan, my country,” he says, smiling.
He then bought extra bread to take home with him. “Because in Afghanistan, people when they eat breakfast and eggs … cheese … milk – anything – is must eat by bread,” he explains.
It is a small manifestation of the autonomy Azizi now has, but he relishes the fact that he can do as he pleases, that he does not need to ask for permission.
He wakes up to the sound of birds rather than the sound of detention camp guards slamming their fists onto his door. The headache he has been living with for years is gone.
But most significant of all, he can now plan for his future. He never used to think long term in detention because he had no idea when or if he would be released. “[Now] I want to think about [a] good job … and lots of friends, every time I will go to beach, I will go to see some nice places, and relax,” he says.
He is also helping his family apply for humanitarian visas so they can leave Afghanistan and they can all start a new life together.
Since the Taliban took Kabul, his son says they have come to search his house countless times. The family is in hiding.
If he could come to Australia, his son wrote in a message, he would finish school and go to university. “I like to be an engineer. My brother wants to be a doctor. My sister wants to be a judge in the court.”
When asked what he would like to say to the Australian government, Azizi relays his son’s words via WhatsApp message: “Please help us to move to Australia so that we can be all together,” he wrote. “Afghanistan is very dangerous and I want to stay with all my family.”