After 6 years, refugee writer tastes freedom in New Zealand

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — For the first time in six years, Behrouz Boochani feels like a free man. When he arrived in New Zealand last week, he simply wanted to smoke a cigarette and take a long walk down the street. Instead of feeling like he is always running, a new feeling has overtaken him: He’s survived.

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A refugee from Iran, Boochani was held against his will at Australia’s notorious offshore immigration camp on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea from 2013 until he was recently moved to the capital, Port Moresby. But even now, the 36-year-old’s future remains uncertain.

He arrived in New Zealand on a temporary one-month visa to speak at a literary festival.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Boochani said he had no interest in returning to Papua New Guinea, but wouldn’t be drawn on whether he’d seek asylum in New Zealand, pursue a claim to U.S. asylum or do something else. Any decision he makes is likely to have implications for international diplomatic relations.

“I’m really focused on my work here right now. I don’t want to think about those things, or ruin my concentration. I don’t want to politicize things,” Boochani said. “I’m a free man. I want to focus on this festival.”

An ethnic Kurd and journalist, Boochani fled from the Iranian regime, eventually making his way by boat to Australia’s Christmas Island. But his escape was not to freedom but instead to a hellish existence on a tropical island.

On Manus, he helped shine a light on the plight of hundreds of asylum seekers by writing about his experiences on a smuggled phone and posting to social media.

He documented unsanitary conditions, hunger strikes and violence, as well as deaths caused by medical neglect and suicide. He says he felt a responsibility to film and write, to challenge the system and expose what was going on. It gave him some catharsis.

He eventually used his phone to write a book, sending snippets in Farsi to a translator over WhatsApp. Called “No Friend But the Mountains,” the book this year won a prestigious Australian award, the Victorian Prize for Literature.

But Boochani couldn’t collect his award or the prize money of 125,000 Australian dollars ($85,000) in person. He was still confined to Manus.

Australia refuses to resettle any asylum seekers who try to reach its shores by boat. It has paid Papua New Guinea and the small island nation of Nauru to house them in camps that human rights groups say are draconian.

President Donald Trump in 2017 reluctantly agreed to uphold a deal struck by his predecessor, Barack Obama, to resettle hundreds of the refugees in the U.S., including Boochani, but the process has moved slowly.

Boochani says he continues to have mixed feelings about Australia.

“A big part of Australian society supported us, and fought against the system, so it’s hard to make a judgment,” he said. “It was very important that the people of Australia become aware of what the government had done. They have done a crime under the name of Australia.”

His anger at Australian politicians came out in a tweet last week after the opposition Labor Party said it welcomed news that Boochani had been able to leave Papua New Guinea.

“Such a rediclilius and unacceptable statement by Labor Party,” Boochani wrote in imperfect English. “You exiled me to Manus and you have supported this exile policy for years. I don't need you to welcome resttlement for me in a third country.”

In contrast, Boochani says he’s been impressed with New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, particularly the compassionate way she handled the aftermath of a March attack by a gunman who killed 51 Muslim worshippers.

Boochani is due to speak at the Word Christchurch festival on Nov. 29. But should he seek asylum in New Zealand, it could create problems for Ardern and her relationship with Australia. Ardern says she wasn’t told by officials or her immigration minister that Boochani was coming and would have liked a heads-up.

Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has vowed that Boochani will never be allowed to enter Australia, even if New Zealand ends up granting him asylum.

New Zealand lawmaker Golriz Ghahraman, who is also an Iranian refugee, met Boochani when he arrived at Auckland Airport.

“He just had a huge smile on his face, and I said welcome to him in Farsi, and he acknowledged that I was of Kurdish heritage as well and we were really happy to see each other,” she said. “And he was just exhausted and really happy.”

Thinking about his future, Boochani says he’ll continue advocating for the refugees and asylum seekers who remain stuck on Papua New Guinea.

“I will try to establish a new life. A simple life,” he said. “Attending events, sharing my story, and helping those who remain, who need support, who need freedom. I’m here to share my story.”