We stood at the bottom of the rotten road, gazing with dread at the incline. Fifty kilo suitcases full of books needed to be hauled up the incline. It would temporarily break our new friend, K, to drag one of them up that hill to his lodgings.
My uni-student son, Angus, and I had arrived in Cisarua to see the new volunteer school that the refugee community was establishing. Their children would reach their new lives in a new country with the education to make it count.
Australia had just ensured these Hazara refugees would be trapped in Indonesia for a long time. A now-disgraced Australian politician had likened them to ants, declaring the “sugar” of an onward path to Australia was being taken “off the table.”
The Western occupation of Afghanistan had finally given the Hazara people the chance to take the millstone of centuries of oppression, slavery and genocide off their backs. So many children had been educated over these years, daughters and sons, right through to university level. Many more had gone on to careers in the public service and international bodies. The Western years in Afghanistan brought immeasurable pain, especially in the countryside, but for the Hazara, these were years where they could become proud of their ethnicity.
The community in this mountain town above Jakarta was mixed. Some Hazara had come direct from Afghanistan, since Taliban violence had started eroding their safety long before the West abandoned them last year. Others had come from the refugee enclaves of Pakistan. The latter communities had taken the opportunity to begin makeshift schools, since these people didn’t exist in Pakistan and had no rights. As the older students mastered levels, they would become teachers of the younger students, until the schools were solidly established.
The idea that the Cisarua community’s children should suffer most, deprived of crucial education over limitless years trapped in stateless limbo was unthinkable. So the community members had started to think about how the crisis could be rectified.
I had met K on Facebook. This dynamic youth, the same age as my sons, had lived a life incomparable to theirs. His older sister had left to marry an Australian citizen, and his brother was living in Australia too. His family had packed him out of the refugee community in Quetta, Pakistan, when terrorists blew up his school, killing his friends.
At 16, with false papers – because those were the only identity papers he could get – he took off across the world alone. The challenges he encountered gave me chills. It was only a phone-call from his brother that had him jump from embarking on a rickety boat to Australia. Australia had just changed its laws: if that fate had followed its path, he would have spent hellish years on Manus Island, a prisoner to Australia’s whim, where he would have emerged likely needing years of reparative care.
Instead, now 18 and free, he had already been shortlisted for an international award for a film produced from phone footage telling his story. He was in the leadership group for this dream of a school with three more experienced men. His exuberant personality drew in foreign supporters like me, keen to know more about this project run by volunteers.
The school had become possible because of a chance meeting. Jolyon Hoff, Australian filmmaker, based in Jakarta at that time, had met Muzafar Ali. The latter is an exhibited photographer and had worked for the UN in Afghanistan. He was determined that the children would not be left to sink into the despair spawned of new hopelessness that was besetting so many in the community. Together they planned how the first rent money for a house to become the school would be collected and the lease signed.
Alongside Muzafar, and his family, there was a former Hazara star and TV executive, and a young sociologist. Together with others in the community they inspired the hope and raised the money from what little the refugee community could spare for costs.
The process of establishing this tiny enterprise that grew and grew can be shared in Jolyon Hoff’s documentary, The Staging Post. It is the most uplifting story about the refugee experience that you will find. You won’t regret meeting these exceptional people.
Wonderful women and men came together to teach the students as volunteers. All nationalities in the refugee community were welcomed. The wider community became inspired by the hope fostered here. Women studied English after school. Other women and girls formed soccer teams and learnt to swim and do karate, activities difficult in their more constrained homelands. International bodies like the NSW teachers union and universities joined the project.
Some of the children could not remain in the Cisarua community as years dragged by and the funds to live, work rights never granted, drained away. Others, though, finally found their new homes in new countries. Almost every single child was accepted into age appropriate schooling, and the stories of their shining achievements lift the heart of all of us linked to this school that now mentors and aims to support similar projects across the region.
K was offered a university scholarship, glowing references by esteemed figures, a home and financial support by a variety of Australians. The fact that a close relative had arrived in an irregular fashion meant that Australia did not even contemplate the UN referral of his case.
Instead, America won this determined youth. He has gone on to work and study. He has completed a film course at the California College of the Arts. He has a punishing schedule of speaking bookings to educate about the refugee experience. He has mentored several young women from Kabul through secondary education in America, where he secured their scholarships. (He initially aimed to bring students from the Cisarua community to America, but it proved too difficult to gain visas.) Now he is filmmaking and has set up an organisation to raise money for the education of children in the refugee community around Quetta, where the small cost required can be prohibitive.
Muzafar and his wife have completed university in Australia, and he was recently accorded the 2022 Fred Hollows Humanitarian of the Year Award. The TV executive is in another commonwealth country, where his children keep astonishing all with their achievements.
The path out of limbo in Indonesia is grindingly slow for too many, and their wait is not done. My involvement in this project born of hope and resilience has been one of the best experiences of my life. It doesn’t take much financial assistance for us to enable this refugee community to take care of itself.
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