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The last family on Nauru

Jun 23, 2020 • 15m 53s

After almost a decade in detention, Mustafa and Salah are the only family left on Nauru. This is the story of their wait.

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The last family on Nauru

249 • Jun 23, 2020

The last family on Nauru

Archival tape -- Mustafa:

So my name is Mustafa, and my age is 22 and I’m from Iraq. I’m here refugee in Nauru, I’ve been here for like seven years. We are the last family in Nauru, my dad and I. And they took all the family. Ok so you took all the family, but what about me? I came to Nauru when I was 14 years old… Why am I the last family?

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

After almost a decade in detention, there is only one family left on Nauru.

Mustafa and Salah have been acknowledged as refugees, but their resettlement has been rejected by the US.

Today, Hannah Ryan on their long wait to leave. She interviewed them for The Saturday Paper.

**

Hannah, can you tell me where this story starts?

HANNAH:

So this story begins in Baghdad, in Iraq, in 2013. Salah's brother had been killed and Salah had reason to think that he might be next.

Archival tape -- Mustafa:

My dad, he lost one of his brothers, and it was getting more hard on him, they started threatening him. No schooling there. I stopped schooling there, I don’t go out much because it is very dangerous.

HANNAH:

And so they decided to flee. Salah didn't have enough money to bring with him his wife and his younger son. So he just took Mustafa.

They flew through Abu Dhabi, through Malaysia and then onto Indonesia, where they got on a boat to Australia.

Then they were taken to Nauru, this place that neither of them had ever heard of. And Mustafa describes it as a real shock when he got there.

Archival tape -- Mustafa:

Everyone have very long beards, everyone don’t like to talk, you know people crying, people couldn’t sleep.

HANNAH:

He talks about the heat and seeing the tents and just wondering how they're going to sleep and how they're going to live like that.

Archival tape -- Mustafa:

The camp is like tents. And I think even if it's an animal, an animal in the tent will not survive.

HANNAH:

So it's been almost seven years, so they arrived at the end of 2013. And in fact, they're actually the last refugee family on Nauru. Now, everybody else is either a single man or there's one single woman.

RUBY:

And what has that been like for them? What have they done for the past seven years to cope?

HANNAH:

So for Mustafa, he's developed this hobby, which is bodybuilding or fitness modeling, as he calls it. in his first year in the camp, actually opened a gym.

Archival tape -- Mustafa:

And I was like, very interesting. Like to go to the gym, do something because it was very boring inside at the camp.

HANNAH:

He said that back in Iraq, he was actually more into soccer. He was a goalkeeper, but it wasn't possible to play that in Nauru. So he started lifting weights.

Archival tape -- Mustafa:

My first time I was just like lifting weights, you know, impress the people, impress the girls.

So I was there and a couple of friends from different countries. I was like the younger person, I was like around just 16 years old.

So I started training with them and they were teaching me how to lift weights, how to lift the bar, the dumbbell.

A lot of people, they told me you're not going to be good. You are very skinny, blah blah and I don’t listen to anyone I always listen to myself.

And this became a lifestyle. Like, I love, love this sport.

[Clinking of weights hitting the ground]

HANNAH:

The way that he talks about it, I think it's a real way for him to have a sense of progress.

Archival tape -- Mustafa:

Because this thing is the same flower. If you the flower does it like don't give the water to the flower, it will die. And I can’t stop.

HANNAH:

You know. Mustafa hasn't been able to study the way that he wants to. He hasn't been able to have a career in that sort of thing.

Archival tape -- Mustafa:

Bodybuilding is not about you having muscles or just lifting weight. Bodybuilding is all about mentally, physically and emotionally you have to mix it all together and you have to train.

HANNAH:

Nauru obviously doesn't have a whole lot of great medical facilities and it doesn't have a lot of medical staff either, so anytime you need any kind of tertiary level medical treatment, you will need to leave Nauru.

So back in 2016, the Australian government started looking around for other states that might agree to take sick refugees on Nauru and provide them with the medical treatment that they needed.

And eventually, in 2017, they found someone to agree. And that was Taiwan. They go there in groups and they stay there while people get treatment. So that can be for up to months, which is what happened with Mustafa and Salah.

Archival tape -- Salah:

I went on the private jet from here to Taiwan and when we arrived at the airport, I can’t wait to just put my leg on the ground, I want to walk, see the streets, the people..

HANNAH:

So they flew together at the start of 2019 to Taiwan and stayed there for a couple of months.

Archival tape -- Salah:

Like my feeling was super energy, like positive, smiling all the time. I said wow that's freedom, when you have freedom.

RUBY:

And can you tell me about their time in Taiwan?

HANNAH:

Yeah so Mustafa is so, so dedicated to his training that even when he had this upheaval and ended up in a different place entirely, he immediately found a gym to keep working out at.

So he found this gym in Taipei. He started training.

Archival tape -- Mustafa:

And the owner of the gym, he offered me to compete for fitness model.

HANNAH:

The gym owner sort of asked him what he's up to and told him about this championship, this national fitness modeling championships, which happened at Taipei University.

Archival tape -- Mustafa:

The thing is I don’t have a coach. I’m the coach for myself. So I called my friend and was telling them I'm going to compete for a fitness model. I need some program, because I have just one month. And they said, are you crazy?
And I said, yes, why not? They said, because you have to at least have for three months. And I just like you know, I hang up the phone. I said, I don't want to listen to anyone. And I will work it.

HANNAH:

So he started, you know, planning his meals. He cut out sugar. He increased his protein and did this intense training regime and actually did get ready for the championship.

That moment where he's standing on stage and competing in this championship. He's the only one kind of. Of his ethnic background. and you know, all eyes were on him. People were wondering who he was, where he'd come from.

Archival tape -- Mustafa:

It was a very good experience just to stand up on the stage and show everyone who you are.

HANNAH:

And he ended up placing sixth out of more than 30 competitors.

Archival tape -- Mustafa:

I said how? How are these people going to choose me from 33 people? and they just called my name and I was like freaking happy.

I’d been working all these years on myself and I get my certificate and my name on it and that's very important to me.

[Clapping]

HANNAH:

So Mustafa actually was offered a contract to train at the gym where he'd been spotted, and he was also offered a contract to work with a clothing company and be sponsored by that clothing company.

Archival tape -- Mustafa:

I have a lot of offers to clothing company sponsor and training. Like you know training there with them as a team.

HANNAH:

But he had to go back to Nauru because these medical transfers to Taiwan, they're only temporary. So he wasn't able to take up those opportunities.

Archival tape -- Mustafa:

They offered for me to stay with them there and I tell them my story and they say, oh wow, I’m very sorry to hear that.

RUBY:

We’ll be back after this.

[ADVERTISEMENT]

RUBY:

Hannah, we’re talking about Mustafa and Salah - the last family on Nauru. Salah has watched his son grow up in detention - what was it like for him to see him succeed at this contest in Taiwan?

HANNAH:

So listening to Salah talk about his son's body building, it's actually quite endearing and perhaps a familiar kind of sentiment where his dad is is very proud of him, but he doesn't fully understand exactly what is going on with bodybuilding and what it's all about.

And that memory of his son in Taiwan. He's obviously very proud that his son worked so hard for this goal and kind of met the goal. But he also dwells a little more on the on the sad side of the story.

So for him, he told me that his son was asked when he entered this championship, which country are you from? And he didn't know how to answer.

RUBY:

And so you said that this is the last family left on Nauru. Why? Why is it that they're still there after so long when others have been able to leave and resettle elsewhere?

HANNAH:

Mustafa and Salah have both been recognized to be refugees under the Nauru refugee status determination process.

But the main avenue for resettlement for refugees, which is the US refugee swap deal, wasn't available for them. They did apply twice, but they were rejected both times.

Archival tape - Mustafa:

And I don’t understand. I ask everyone why I’m here, still here. I came here with my dad and no answer. That's the thing, make me crazy, make me mentality drop down a little bit.

HANNAH:

Speaking to Salah, it's very heartbreaking to hear him say how he's watching all the people his son's age leave and his son is left behind.

And so both of them are confused. And there's this question that you always circle back to when you talk to both of them, which is: Why us? Why are we the last to be here? Why are we still here? And so it's tested, I think, both of their resilience.

Archival tape -- Mustafa:

It was very hard because, you know, you've been spending a good days and coming back.

HANNAH:

And actually, Mustafa said kind of for the first time, he feels like his focus on his training is being diminished somewhat.

He told me you can only focus on one thing at a time. And while he's thinking about the other families leaving and his friends starting new lives in the US and being out in the community in Australia, that really takes away from his training.

Archival tape -- Mustafa:

All my friends, I don’t have any friends right now. All my friends they are gone. They are waiting for me in Australia, “when you coming? When you coming?” And no answer.

HANNAH:

You know, in the whole time he's been in Nauru, he's never sought mental health help. But in the last few months, something's changed for him and he's finally had to start seeking help.

Archival tape -- Mustafa:

We have a lot of talented people, smart people - they already lost their mind. And I don’t want to lose my mind. You know we are coming to Australia for a better life. From child I raised myself being here, no studying. I haven't seen my mum.

HANNAH:

It's this sadness, this kind of questioning. Why me and really a game of endurance and patience that they've both had to play.

Archival tape -- Mustafa:

Sometimes I sit with myself and I don't know how I've been patient for all these years, you know. I don’t know

HANNAH:

When you speak to them separately, they'll both end up saying something quite similar about the other one, which is that they can tell that the other one is growing tired, that they're worried about them.

And they both say about the other one that they can see that they're trying to hide that from each other. And they both say about themselves that they're both feeling you're increasingly desperate. But they also don't want to show it.

Archival tape -- Mustafa:

I don't want to give up because he deserves a better life and I want to make a better life for him. This man is... he’s freaking good, he’s legend for me. He’s been with me for father, mother, and best friend… everything.

HANNAH:

So Mustafa’s best option and the thing he's most hopeful about, he's going to Canada. He and his dad put in applications for this private resettlement program last year. So they're just waiting to hear back about that. And hopefully they'll be able to reunite with his mother and his brother in Canada there.

Otherwise, things are becoming tougher for him as he watches his friends leave. But he's still holding onto that belief that one day he will leave Nauru. He just doesn't know when that is.

Archival tape -- Mustafa:

My future is just when I go out from here straight away, I want to compete. I want to stand up on the stage again, because my goal is to stand up on the Mr Olympia, stage - man physique. And that's why my dream. And I can do it.

RUBY:

Hannah, thank you so much for your time today.

HANNAH:

Thank you.

[ADVERTISEMENT]

RUBY:

Also in the news -

People are being advised not to go to or from six local government areas in Melbourne, identified as coronavirus hotspots.

The six councils have been identified as hotspots based on figures showing more than 83 per cent of new COVID-19 cases in the past week were in Victoria.

As a result of the new cases, the Western Australian Premier has announced WA will continue to keep its borders closed… while the NSW premier is urging people in that state to reconsider travel to Melbourne.

**

And the Minerals Council of Australia has endorsed a goal of reaching net-zero emissions, to tackle climate change.

The council said the coal industry could do so by using carbon offsets and carbon capture and storage technologies, but gave no timeframe.

**

This episode was produced by Elle Marsh, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see you tomorrow.

After almost a decade in detention, there is only one family left on Nauru. Mustafa and Salah have been acknowledged as refugees, but their resettlement has been rejected by the US. This is the story of their wait.

Guest: Writer for The Saturday Paper Hannah Ryan.

Background reading:

The last refugee family on Nauru in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem.

Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.
Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

New episodes of 7am are released every weekday morning. Subscribe in your favourite podcast app, to make sure you don’t miss out.

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249: The last family on Nauru