Mehdi Ali’s Been in Australian Detention for 9 Years, Last Week Novak Djokovic Was His Neighbour

“I came to Australia in July 2013 and since then till now I’ve been detained in cruel circumstances in offshore and onshore processing centres.”

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Until last week, The Park Hotel in Melbourne was a fairly inconspicuous place. The building, housed in the city’s CBD seems quite normal from the outside, but take a closer look and you will be able to take a glimpse into the horrors that residents have faced during their lifetime.

The accommodation isn’t used as a bed and breakfast. Instead, it houses around 35 refugees and asylum seekers, many of whom have been imprisoned in makeshift confinement for months.

But it wasn’t until Thursday afternoon when Serb tennis legend Novak Djokovic was detained at the same hotel that the world actually began noticing the abysmal conditions people were forced to live in.

Nearby streets became crowded with activists, protesters, journalists and police, but sadly, they weren’t raising their voice for refugees and asylum seekers, but rather, they were demanding for Djokovic to be released.

Mehdi Ali is just one of the many refugees housed in the hotel, but his journey didn’t begin here. Ali was 15 when he first arrived in Australia by boat. Fleeing his home country, Iran, Mehdi faced systemic oppression as a member of the Ahwazi Arab minority. Leaving his family behind, the young teen was seeking sanctuary. Now, in 2022 Mehdi is no longer a teenager, he has grown to be a man, celebrating his 24th birthday on January 7. Let that sink in. Mehdi, and so many others, have been detained for nine years with no end in sight.

“I came to Australia in July 2013 and since then till now I’ve been detained in cruel circumstances in offshore and onshore processing centres,” Mehdi told me over a Zoom call from his hotel room. “Through my journey, I’ve experienced trauma and frustration. I’ve witnessed self-harm, I’ve witnessed terrible things that have happened to the refugees and now I’m telling the world what happened as a protest.”

Despite the Australian government swiftly recognising Mehdi’s claim for protection — which means the country is legally obliged to keep him out of harms way — the formality has not brought him safety or a better life. In the last nine years, he has been held in Nauru, Brisbane and now Melbourne’s Park Hotel with absolutely no end in sight.

The infamous Nauru Australian Immigration Detention Centre particularly plagues Mehdi, leaving him with PTSD due to the horrific scenes he witnessed. He has watched as his friends burned themselves to death out of desperation, he himself has been beaten, abused and incarcerated for no reason at all.

“It was a small island, especially when we were in detention, we were in tents in terrible circumstances. Our life was basically us trying to survive. There was limited water, we had to wait for the rain to collect water to shower, to drink and that’s just an example.”

Mehdi has never been found of wrongdoing, nor has he been convicted of a crime, yet the Australian government treats him less than a criminal.

“The main problem is, criminals, get sentenced for the crime they committed, so they know when they’ll get out, and they can manage their time till then. But the tragedy is that people in detention don’t know when they’ll get out,” he said. “They may get out today, tomorrow, or three years from now. And that uncertainty is affecting people’s mental health and psychologically, it’s very up and down. It’s terrible.”

Djokovic’s family and the government of Serbia have denounced the conditions under which they say he was being subjected to at the Park Hotel, but before him, asylum seekers at the hotel shared the same grievances.

Shortly after Christmas, photos of maggot-infested food and bugs crawling in rooms began to surface online. Several people claimed the windows of their rooms had been screwed shut, denying them fresh air. And in October and November, 22 of the 46 refugees held at the hotel tested positive to COVID.

“The quality of food is really bad, although I’m not eating anyway because I don’t have an appetite to eat. There is no fresh air in our rooms, and we cannot open a window. I spend most of my time in the room,” Mehdi said.

Speaking to the New York Times, human rights lawyer Alison Battisson, who represents some of the residents of the hotel, said Australia’s detention system was purposely set up this way to “make the conditions so awful you choose to go back to the place of harm you came from.”

“That’s what Mr. Djokovic has found himself in — this deterrence policy nightmare,” Ms. Battisson said.

As for Mehdi, his days feel excruciatingly long. Shut out from the rest of the world and confined by the four walls of his hotel room, he is stuck in purgatory. His youth seems to be slipping away from him and each day becomes harder than the next.

“I try to come up with methods to survive and to come up with methods to keep myself busy. Sometimes I get down and lay down on the bed the whole day and whole night doing nothing. I lay down depressed, but I try to stay strong for my survival. Writing helps, breathing helps. Speaking out is also a part of my existence and making people aware of the cruelty that’s happening here.”

Unlike the average person, Mehdi is not easily able to phone a friend when he wants to experience some familiarity. His own mother, who he has not seen for close to a decade, is difficult to reach and speaking to her comes with its own set of obstacles.

“Sometimes I speak to my mother even though it’s complicated to reach her. By speaking to them I’m putting them at the risk of danger and I’m also putting myself in danger too.”

The media coverage surrounding Djokovic’s detainment is bittersweet for someone like Mehdi, who, for years, has been trying to raise awareness about the horrific conditions asylum seekers are confronted with. Up until now, he hadn’t had much luck, but in one week, the world knew about the tennis number one’s plight. The story was front-page news on every media outlet around the country, but what they failed to mention was Djokovic’s neighbours in the hotel who were suffering more than he was.

“I’m getting excited that they’re finally finding out about (our circumstances), but it’s after nine years. The local media hadn’t covered our story during all those years and now they’re paying attention because of Djokovic, and that’s kind of sad,” Mehdi said.

However, he is holding on to the possibility of Djokovic using his platform to speak up against Australia’s arbitrary practices, after all, he has witnessed it first hand. But unlike the asylum seekers and refugees who he was accommodated next to, the athlete has a safe home to return to if sent back. Mehdi and those like him did not travel to Australia with a first-class ticket on a plane, and they certainly did not arrive in the country to play tennis.

“Mr Djokovic is not being held captive in Australia,” Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews said on Friday, emphasising that he is able to exit the country if he decides to drop his case. “He is free to leave at any time that he chooses to do so and Border Force will actually facilitate that.”

Meanwhile, people like Mehdi are anxiously waiting for the day they can taste freedom, unsure if it will ever come. Through his hotel window, he can see the busy streets of Melbourne, and he wonders if they know just how lucky they are.

“They can walk, go to the cinema, go to a cafe and have a cup of coffee. They can go out whenever they want. The freedom that they have, I want them to appreciate that, because I’ve been dreaming about it for a long time, and I haven’t experienced it for nine years.”

He also had a message for those searching for ways to help him and other refugees stuck in Australia’s barbaric detention system.

“First, pray for me, second, raise your voice and protest by my side. And third, change the vote.”

Concluding our chat with my heart feeling heavy, I asked him one final question, unsure of what his answer will be: “If granted freedom, what is the first thing you’re going to do?”

He responded: “I’m going to take a walk. I’m going to walk as far as I can.”

To stay up to date with Mehdi’s journey, follow him on Twitter.

If you would like to find out more information on how to help asylum seekers and refugees in Australia or want to donate to the cause then visit Amnesty International.

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