I met Hussein (not his real name) at one of the handful of mobile clinics serving refugees. He came to get treatment for his leg, which was swollen. He was walking with a limp, and had his ankle bandaged. He passed me a piece of paper that the doctor had written on – it said, simply, “Rest”.
He needs to rest his leg for it to heal, but he cannot afford to. “I have no money. No rest – if I rest, I die, baby die.” Hussein, now 50, goes on to describe what he does as a living. “Tonight, people sleep, I go jalan-jalan (the Malay word that means to travel for recreational purposes). I go pick bottle, carton, plastic. I buy bicycle hand second for 80 ringgit. I go around for 5 hours. I go to restaurants, garbage bins, to place where people throw bottles. 1 day I get 20 ringgit, 15 ringgit, 10 ringgit.”
“My baby want milk. 1 can is 20 ringgit. Pampers. 1 box is 30 ringgit. My baby, she doesn’t know about money.”
A refugee himself, Hussein adopted a baby girl soon after he arrived in Malaysia. An Indonesian woman he knew got herself pregnant (not with him) and wanted to abort, so he told her to give him the baby instead – that he will take care of the baby. “Her name is Fatimah, my mother name. I love my baby. I take care of her, she 1 kilo. Now she 12 kilo,” Hussein beamed proudly, gesturing with his hands to indicate how big she has grown.
Hussein left behind a wife and 3 children in Iran. “My children same you age,” he says. “In Iran, I have wife, I have house, I have garden, I have shop, I have car. Very normal life. One day, I go to mountain, take honey, 18 km from house. 2 person have gun speak with me – “please help me, I want to go there”. It 4 pm. After 5km, police roadblock. There was shooting. I go down from car and run away. After that, police come and see my car. They know it Hussein car. I forget about home, about children, about honey, about car, I run to Iraq. Otherwise, I will be same like Saddam Hussein – die.” With that Hussein draws an imaginary noose around his neck and pulls it.”
From there he went to Turkey and then to Greece, trying to find a way to go to Australia where his brother lives. The agents there gave him a passport and told him that with this passport, he can go to New Zealand. After two weeks, they said, he can take a flight to Australia. He paid USD10,000 for his passage. The agents dumped him in Malaysia. In Malaysia, two people, pretending to help him, robbed him of everything he had. “Take bag, passport, money, ring, all.” For 4 days he slept outside the UNHCR office before some Iranian people took pity on him and brought him back to their house. Two weeks later, he received a bank card from his brother in Australia. Slowly, things improved.
But his brother stopped supporting him a few months ago, accusing Hussein of forgetting about UNHCR and just spending money. That he has his own family to take care of. Hussein went to the UNHCR for assistance, and is clearly frustrated that he isn’t getting the help that he thinks he deserves.
“Every day I go. 1 month I go 30 days. Every time I go, they don’t say hello. They say why you here? They want to give me 200 ringgit. But my house rent already 250 ringgit. I not asking for money. Just give me house and food. Yesterday they gave me letter, go to hospital. But hospital ask for me thirty ringgit. I no have money!”
His frustration boils over. He looks down for a moment. Then he lifts his head and looks me squarely in the eyes “I like ice”, he says. “I slowly slowy melt. Why wait? One day I take petrol and “chick”.” He makes the sound of the imaginary lighter he holds in his hands.
But after a while, Hussein’s mood improved, and he puts his life in perspective. Taking a small piece of paper on the table, he drew a big inverted “U” with his pen. “Life is like this. A mountain. I am here now”, he says, drawing a circle halfway up the mountain. The then continues to trace his path up and mountain, and then down again. “On way down, life will be easy. I am afraid I die before get to top.” But his last sentence was no longer laced with fear or despair. He said it half jokingly. Buried all this while by his frustration and anger, the real Hussein was starting to emerge.
“Slowly-slowy come out sun”, he says, drawing the sun on the downhill side of the mountain. He looks at me and smiles broadly.