Welcome to How I Bounced Back — a monthly column in which I chat to people who have overcome incredible hardship and built their lives back up. After the past two years, we need a reminder that obstacles can be overcome and there is light at the end of the tunnel, even when we feel the opposite is true. Through these stories, so generously shared, I hope you will be inspired to keep going, no matter how tough times may seem.
“We had to choose between a bad and a very bad situation, we chose the bad one.”
In 2012, Hamed Allahyari fled his home country of Iran after a neighbour reported him for being part of an atheist group.
Allahyari had become an atheist at the age of 19 and joined the group about six months later, aware of the dangers of doing so but thinking the authorities would never find out. When his secret was revealed, there was little time to formulate a plan although it was clear that one needed to be made, and fast.
“As soon as I heard this I knew I needed to leave,” Allahyari says. “But I had a restaurant with other food partners, and I didn’t know what to do. My friend called and told me they were going to Turkey, I thought about trying to get to Turkey because I knew the language. My dad was a retired army general, so I thought maybe he’d help me, but then I realised it was just as dangerous to tell him.”
A friend then suggested Australia to Allahyari, and, although he knew nothing of the country (this was before smartphones were common in Iran so he wasn’t even able to do a quick Google search ) he knew it would be safer than where he currently was. To add another layer to his already urgent situation, Allahyari’s then-partner revealed that she was pregnant with his child.
They left for Australia within a week.
“There was no time for backup plans,” Allahyari explains. “When we arrived in Indonesia we paid someone to come to Australia. We thought it was going to be a cruise boat, but when it arrived in the middle of the night, we realised it was a fishing boat. It was nowhere near big enough for everyone.
“They told us we would board a bigger boat during the journey, but that didn’t happen. We looked at the boat and I said to my ex-partner, we may die on this boat, what’s the plan? I needed to leave Iran, but she didn’t, so it needed to be her decision. She said let’s go. We had to choose between a bad and a very bad situation, we chose the bad one. I realised that if I was going to die, I wanted to die at the hands of the ocean, rather than the Iranian government. After 38 hours we arrived at Christmas Island.”
The next five months were spent in a detention centre — an experience that would break many. However, despite the uncertainty of his situation, Allahyari was determined to remain positive and hopeful for what his life could look like once beyond the walls of detainment. He made friends with some of the detention centre officers and made sure to keep busy, only spending time in his room to sleep.
“My experience doesn’t really reflect that of most,” he admits. “That’s not to say it wasn’t hard. The food was horrible and the guards tried to convince you that you’d never make it to Australia, but there was still a sense of relief that we didn’t die in the ocean.”
“It was then I realised just how difficult it is to make a living as a refugee or asylum seeker, or even an immigrant, in Australia.”
Upon being released from Christmas Island, Allahyari arrived in Melbourne on a bridging visa, which he quickly found was not exactly conducive to starting a new life as the restrictions on it made it almost impossible to legally work. Once he was able to seek viable employment, Allahyari discovered that having a resume full of restaurant experience in Iran, instead of Australia, meant that no one was willing to take a chance on him.
“It was then I realised just how difficult it is to make a living as a refugee or asylum seeker, or even an immigrant, in Australia,” he says. “For the first two years after I arrived I was supported by Centrelink via the SRSS ( Status Resolution Support Services) program. I volunteered with the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC), which provided me with a way to do what I love and build community connections whilst helping others.”
Eventually, Allahyari began running cooking classes with Free To Feed, an organisation connecting refugees with paying diners wanting to learn about their culinary heritage. This opportunity then led to Allahyari being able to start a small catering business, serving food at markets and festivals with other asylum seekers.
Having received plenty of great feedback during his cooking classes, and being asked repeatedly if he had a restaurant that patrons could visit, the talented chef realised that people were looking for good Persian food in Australia and that a business opportunity lay within that.
“In 2019, I was lucky enough to start Cafe Sunshine & SalamaTea House, a social enterprise cafe-restaurant that gives asylum seekers and refugees work and experience,” Allahyari says. The restaurant is a bonafide hit, with the chef’s Dadami (which translates to “Dad’s Dip”) dubbed one of Melbourne’s Best Snacks by the Victorian government in partnership with Melbourne Food & Wine Festival.
“If I lose everything, I start again. I’ve always got a plan B.”
However, like so many small businesses and restaurant owners, Allahyari once again faced a dire situation when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, forcing the hospitality industry to shut down for extended periods of time.
Once again, Allahyari found himself having to tap into those reserves of positivity and hope.
“Life is up and down. Right now it’s down, soon it will be up,” he says. “I’ve developed a lot of resilience through what I’ve experienced and this definitely helps put things into perspective. If I lose everything, I start again. I’ve always got a plan B.”
He continues, “You have to believe in yourself. I tell myself just to hold on and keep trying. So many times I thought about going back to working as a tradie but feeding people is what I love, garnishing dishes is like art. It’s what makes me happy.”
Other things that make him happy these days include being surrounded by good people, his friends, volleyball team, his kids and watching them grow up, and being able to provide a good life for them.
“I feel very lucky,” he says.”
In terms of what he would love for others to take away from his experience, the restaurateur urges people not to give up when times get tough and instead think about diversifying their offerings instead.
“When times were tough with the restaurant I started offering online cooking classes and during lockdowns I started selling picnic packages that are still selling really well to this day,” he says.
“Also, make sure you understand what support you are entitled to, whether that be grants or COVID relief payments. It’s important to stay across every little thing that could help sustain and grow your business.”
As for his own learnings from everything he has been through, Allahyari, who is still on a protection visa and therefore hasn’t seen his mother in 10 years, says he has learnt when to be patient and when not to be. “Sometimes good things will come in time, whereas other times you need to push for what you want.
“In these tough times, I have a saying I always repeat to myself and my friends. It sounds cliché, but I always tell myself to live in this moment, and that everything you deserve will come to you. I will get my permanent residency eventually, I will see my mum eventually. Thinking about things you can’t control will only bring you stress, it doesn’t help.”
“It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”
In the meantime, Allahyari says there are several things the Australian government needs to do when it comes to how Australia treats asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants, including changing its detention policies and considering refugee rights as human rights.
“From my personal experience, the majority of Australians welcome refugees with open arms and these policies don’t represent the support that’s shown to asylum seekers and refugees like myself,” he says. “I’ve been here for ten years, I’ve built a life and have a community that I actively contribute to in a positive way and yet I’m still not a permanent resident. All my friends who fled Iran to Europe are all citizens now. It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Additionally, Allahyari urges the Australian government to reduce the barriers to employment for refugees when they first arrive in the country, so that they may find employment faster.
“Thirty-eight per cent of humanitarian arrivals are still unemployed after three years of settlement,” he explains, citing the need for a system overhaul.
“There also needs to be more incentives to hire refugees and asylum seekers, from increased subsidies and grants for businesses employing members of our community. In my experience, there is no lack of willingness to work among refugees and asylum seekers, only a lack of systems that enable them to seek and keep employment.”
To find out how you can help the ASRC, click here.
You can read previous instalments of ‘How I Bounced Back’, here.