I went to a party last night – a 40th birthday for some twin brothers. We spent money on booze and food, and on an Uber ride home. This Uber ride had a profound effect on me and I can’t stop thinking abut it.
I want to talk about Soltarny.
He was my Uber driver, and after dropping some other partygoers off, I did what I normally do, and had a chat to the driver. I asked him where he was from and the story he told me had me weeping, racking with sobs, as I listened to what this man had been through to find freedom, and maybe hope. When we got to my house, I sat in the car and continued listening to this man; I held his hands as I wept and watched tears roll down that world weary face as he shared what can only be described as an horrific life. I was moved in a way that I don’t know how to describe. It was visceral, it was challenging and I continue to think about it today, and I am sure I will a lot more from here.
Soltarny is from Kabul in Afghanistan and came to Australia, in the end, on a leaky old boat from Indonesia. He wondered if he would survive… But lets take a few steps back. His face is world-weary – he looks old, and although he is not yet 30, he could pass for fifty. There is profound sadness in his eyes, and a constant sound of fear in his voice. He feels safe, for now, but after living a life that none of us could even imagine, these physical attributes are not a surprise. He is a Muslim, a Shia, who have been waging a sectarian war in the Middle East with the Sunni, the dominant sect of Islam, for centuries.
The Taliban, mostly made up of Pashtun tribesman, are Sunni Muslims, and so anyone who was not Sunni and was successful in Afghanistan, was targeted. Soltarny’s father was a moderately wealthy businessman in Kabul and he was Shia. One afternoon, he watched the Taliban cut off his father’s head. He witnessed the Taliban execute his father in the most brutal way, and knew it would not be long before he would be targeted. I don’t know if I could even think about seeing anyone killed in such a hideous manner. I can barely watch the killing of an animal that has been bred for food – the thought of seeing another human executed so viciously, with such inhumanity, is a staggering thought. Imagining that was my father – I cannot think about that at all.
Soltarny managed to gather some money of his father’s and he found someone to help smuggle him out of Afghanistan. Everything he had known for all of his life, every day that had led to this one, was about to be changed irreparably. All because Soltarny and his family practised a different kind of Islam – the tenets are the same, the five essential pillars of Islam are the same – but somehow, they are different. He went first in to Pakistan, and eventually, he made his way to Malaysia. He spent time in a refugee camp there – part of his odyssey to make it to Australia where he thought he might find safety and protection – and perhaps some hope. Malaysia has not signed the UNHCR refugee convention, and as all refugees in Malaysia do, Soltarny had to find illegal work to support himself.
Soltarny was in limbo – he had no place to call home and he was not safe in Malaysia. It was this sense of helplessness and desperation that led him to contemplate the treacherous journey by boat to Australia, but first, he had to get to Indonesia. He somehow managed to make his way there, having paid another people smuggler – in all, $US14,000 – a princely sum of money. Soltarny managed to find a boat and spent weeks worrying for his life as he watched others perish, starve and die of thirst. There was sickness on that boat and it was overcrowded – a more horrible situation you probably cannot imagine.
He survived that journey on nothing more than desperate hope and as he says, some prayers. He prayed to Allah, his God, that he would find sanctuary in Australia. On Christmas Island, what he saw was equally, if not more challenging, than all he had seen until then. Remember, he was a young man at this time. He watched people’s hope disintegrate – he watched them remove blunt razers that had been used time and again to shave faces and harm them selves in an attempt to take their own life. Soltarny watched people stop praying, stop eating, stop thinking and stop wanting to be alive. It is at this time I see the first of his many tears roll down his prematurely old face.
He almost starved, he almost took his own life. That idea of finding protection and safety, or perhaps some hope was ebbing away hour by lonely hour. There was no happiness on Christmas Island – nobody was pleased to be in Australia – this is not the place they imagined our country to be. Soltarny was eventually provided with a refugee visa and was released in to the community, and he made his way to Melbourne. He knew someone that had emigrated here from Kabul many years before and he is still yet to find them. he has done it all alone.
This Uber journey was not a long one but to hear this story and share in the abject sorrow in his voice struck a chord. He is now married, and has children, as well as having a brother here. He has to support all of them as he is the only one who can work. He drives 80 hours a week- 10-12 hours a day – to make enough money to try and provide some sort of life for his growing and extended family.
I want to help Soltarny, and I made a promise to him before I left his car – that I would share his story, and try and do something to help him and his family. He gave me an email address and his phone number. I want to provide something for them, some money or some clothes. He is a small man and he thinks of himself last – he makes sure his wife, his children, his brother and his extended family are looked after. His English is poor, but he understood enough to answer my questions.
I want you to think about this too – we hear from those who don’t know better about the Muslims being terrorists and that they are not wiling to assimilate; that they from ghettos and wont learn English; that all the problems in the world are their fault. It is certainly not cool to be a Muslim in Australia. Yet the reason he is here is because of his religion, because the kind of Islam he follows is somehow different to that of the Sunnis. He worships the same God, subscribes to the same five essential pillars of Islam, and yet his own people wanted to kill him as they killed his father. It is something that I don’t think I can ever understand. Its like catholics killing anglicans all in the name of their particular kind of christianity – the absurdity of it all is playing on my mind.
If you think you might want to help me help Soltarny, please get in touch… email me firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know how you want to help. If this man deserves anything, it is to find that little bit of hope, that safety and protection, and to reclaim the dignity that he deserves as a human being. Maybe you can spare just a few dollars… to him, that is a blessing that we simply do not understand. I want to talk more about Soltarny.