The boat ride was 50 hours long but the journey took 16 years.
After experiencing religious persecution in their native Iran, Shala and her family decided to attempt to relocate. They moved to Pakistan but after 12 tortuous years and further persecution they sought a better life in Australia. After coming to Australia, multiple stays in detention centres and hospitals have prevented Shala from finding the peaceful life she seeks.
Shala was born in Iran into a Muslim family, but her father had always been interested in Christianity. Long before marriage and children, her father had been trying to convert his religious practice to christianity.
“Iran is a Islamic country. They do not want their people practicing a different religion, which was a big issue for my dad,” Shala says.
Iran is an Islamic republic where 99.4% of the population are Muslim, and the Christian minority experiences hostility and violence, particularly those that have converted from Islam.
Both of Shala’s parents were teachers whilst in Iran and were only allowed to practice Islamic teachings.
“One day my dad was telling his students about Christianity … as a result they suspended him from his job and banned him from ever teaching again,” Shala says.
Shala and her family moved around a lot when she was a child as they began to realise the repercussions of shunning the official religion of Islam.
“My father could not find a good job because he had been banned from ever having a government job,” Shala says.
After settling into one city in Iran for 10 years, Shala and her family were practicing as Christians and going to underground churches when one of their neighbours who worked for the government became aware of what they were doing and reported Shala’s father.
“It then became an issue and they came and warned my dad … sometimes they would arrest him,” Shala says.
In Iran, Christians are sometimes arrested and released without any charges laid or ever told why they have been arrested.
One day some family friends came over for bible study in their home and their neighbour who worked for the government reported them once again and came looking for Shala’s father.
“My father and one of his friends escaped, but those people came in and started smashing and hitting my dad’s friends. It was really bad,” Shala says.
“I was 17 or 18 at the time and I remember my mum just pushed me and my siblings into a room and looked the door … They searched everywhere for my dad.”
It would be 10 long days until Shala and her family would hear from their dad.
“We didn’t hear directly from him, but from one of his friends that he left Iran and escaped to Pakistan via boat.”
Concerned for their welfare, Shala’s mother decided to relocate her children to her husband’s parents house, where Shala’s grandfather would help them reunite with Shala’s father in Pakistan.
“When we moved to Pakistan it was April, 2001. Everything was new for us. New language, new people, new environment, it was really frustrating for us to learn so many new things,” Shala says.
Having no support in Pakistan and not knowing anyone there, Shala’s father reached out to one of his friends who directed him to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR who would help them apply for a visa in Pakistan.
“For my father it was really difficult. He didn’t know what to do, he didn’t have an income and needed a job,” Shala says.
“For us it was really scary. Even Pakistan was a Muslim country, even worser [sic] than my country,” Shala says.
Before leaving Iran, Shala had completed high school, but had plans for future study and work to make a future for herself.
Shala went to university in Pakistan, studying first as a dental hygienist and then began studying a Bachelor of Psychology.
“I worked both these jobs after I graduated. In the morning I would work as a dental hygienist at the hospital and in the afternoon as a psychologist … It was difficult, but I was really enjoying it,” Shala says.
“My parents always pushed us to study hard … My sister graduated as a Pharmacist, my older brother in I.T. and my younger brother as an engineer.”
After applying to the UNHRC, Shala and her family were given an interview after a year and a half of living in Pakistan.
“My mum and dad explained to our case officer why we left Iran, they tried convincing her we all still wanted to practice as Muslims … but it took two years for our visa to be considered and we were rejected,” Shala says.
Shala’s family re-applied for another visa, but their case was closed and they never heard back.
“We requested for a new case officer, we wanted to explain … It took 13 years and we weren’t ever accepted,” Shala says.
With tension rising in Pakistan towards those who did not practice as Muslims, Shala and her family had to move around.
“We used to go to another city and stay in the church for a few days or a couple of weeks and then return when it had calmed down,” Shala says.
In 2007, Shala’s brother was walking home from work one night when he was shot by one of his colleagues who had been harassing him for being a Christian. Luckily he survived and was able to identify who had shot him, but the police refused to act on it.
“It’s just corruption in that country. It’s all about the money,” Shala says.
With Shala’s parents becoming more worried about the safety of their eldest son, they decided to apply for a student visa for him in another country.
“My brother got accepted as a student visa and would move to England … We were really happy and since 2007 he has been in England and his life has been totally changed,” Shala says.
In contrast to her brother’s fortunes, Shala began to struggle to the point she became depressed and attempted suicide.
It was at this point Shala’s family decided they would talk to a smuggler and try and move to Australia.
“When we spoke to the smuggler he said we would definitely have to pay money … six thousand per person … we had faith and trust that we would make it,” Shala says.
Three days before Shala and her family were scheduled to leave for Thailand, where they would go via boat to Australia, Shala’s father and younger brother were attacked by the Taliban.
“My dad was so badly injured we took him to the hospital … The doctors told [us] he would be on bed rest for at least a month, he could not move and would have to take lots of antibiotics,” Shala says.
Having already paid the smugglers to leave in three days, Shala’s family had a tough decision to make.
“I decided to stay with my dad and send my mum and siblings with the smuggler,” Shala says.
Three days later, when my siblings and Mum were passing the boarding gate, Shala’s mum was stopped, denied access onto the plane and arrested.
“My father was devastated, but told my siblings to leave and they did … we drove to the jail where my mum was, paid for her to be released and were told she had 24 hours to leave the country,” Shala says.
“Two days later we went back to the airport, it was really scary and again the same guard was on duty. My father told me to split up and we would meet up before getting on the plane.
“When we finally got on the plane we were thanking God, we were really happy. I was crying, my dad was crying.”
At last, Shala was on her way Australia to hopefully be reunited with the rest of her family and live a good life, free of mental and physical pain.
“Three days after reaching Thailand we left via boat with 86 other passengers towards Australia … we were really happy and kept being positive,” Shala says.
“For those 50 hours on the boat it was really disgusting. Not enough food or water, it was scary.”
While one journey was over for Shala, another one would begin after she reached Australia with continual relocation and physical and mental health issues still a recurrent theme in her life.
You can read part two of Shala’s story here.
Note: Shala’s name has been changed at her request.