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Pakistani? Afghani? Does it matter?

By Marilyn Shepherd - posted Monday, 10 April 2006

This is the story of the Bakhtiyari family. The children, Alamdar, Montezar, Nagina, Samina and Amina, were 13, 12, 9, 6 and 3-years-old, respectively, when they were placed in detention in Woomera.

Their brother, Mazhar Bakhtiyari, was born in custody in Australia on October 15, 2003. His mum, Roqia, was ill for most of the pregnancy and confined to bed for the last three months with diabetes and high blood pressure. Mazhar was almost lost at 11 weeks and again at 26 weeks after the forced "removal" of his uncle from Baxter.

With Roqia considered a flight risk, Mazhar was born under guard. The concern was that she would run from the hospital minutes after giving birth, leaving her baby and five children behind.


Roqia’s first eight months with Mazhar were spent in a motel room in Adelaide, with occasional visits from her husband, Ali, and their older children, but always with guards around. The records from this time in Adelaide chart the despair of Roqia, who was even refused the right to ring Ali in Baxter for many of those months.

Just getting visiting rights for Ali was a war of wills with Annabelle O'Brien of DIMIA (Department for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs) who was determined that Roqia, the baby and the five older children should be forced to visit Ali in Baxter once a fortnight. The point of this cruelty was never defined in the recorded emails, but in the end Roqia stood her ground and Ali was allowed to stay with her at the motel two nights a fortnight.

When Mazhar was about 8-months-old, he and his mother were placed back in detention, but were allowed to move into a house in Dulwich with the other children. However, in an email from Sue Gould (from DIMIA) written at this time, it was made very clear to Roqia and Ali that they were not going to get a visa, they were not going to be able to have a free life in Australia, and Ali would not be allowed to live with them.

The Dulwich house was huge, even with the presence of the guards, and life for Mazhar was terrific for a time. His sunny nature and great beaming smile meant that he was spoiled by everyone who ever came into contact with him.

Many of the guards and carers were loving towards Mazhar, but some were utterly heartless, in line with the behaviour of staff from both DIMIA and ACM (Australasian Correctional Management) .

There was an attitude among some of the "carers", who had been juvenile prison guards, that baby Mazhar and the other children were criminals.


One guard called Tess told me on our first meeting that the children were under guard, serving their sentence, and had to obey the "rules", which seemed to be a moveable feast. After a great deal of talking with Tess she came to understand that the people she was guarding were not criminals, but rather just little children who had suffered terrible trauma and who needed to be treated with care.

Tess was a funny woman. On one hand she could be quite decent, but on the first occasion I arrived with Merlin Luck (of Big Brother fame) to visit the children she came storming down the corridor of the house and manhandled us out the door into the cold.

The older children, Monty and Alamdar, behaved magnificently, and in the end the only loser for the night was Tess, whose own children were great fans of Merlin's and wanted his autograph. As we were unable to go inside, the boys picked up table and chairs and took them onto the front lawn for us. Roqia made Afghan tea for Pauline Frick (from Catholic Centacare)  and we had a tea party with the children on the front lawn. Mazhar was the star of the show at almost one-year-old, while Nagina, one of the girls, was coy around the handsome young Merlin.

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Article edited by Melanie Olding.
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About the Author

Marilyn Shepherd is a refugee advocate who became interested in the plight of Afghan refugees after the TAMPA. She became particularly involved with the Bakhtiyari family throughout their long struggle to stay in Australia.

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