It is a hot and sticky 25C in Louisville, Kentucky, and the young man is dressed accordingly in a polo shirt, bermuda shorts, long white socks and shoes. Like a local, Abdull Grafar Ghulami refers to the city as “Luhvul” and points out that aside from thoroughbred horse racing and Kentucky whisky, Louisville’s claims to fame are as the home of Muhammad Ali and Colonel Sanders.
Ghulami, 24, is proudly driving an older model car. He smoothly navigates the sharp turns of the city’s overhead highway maze. The GPS tracker he consults is the only outward indication that he is not yet entirely at home in this city.
Ghulami had never heard of Louisville until nine months ago. It probably would never have been on the Afghani man’s radar except for his inclusion in the first group of refugees from Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island to be transferred to the US under a refugee swap deal with Australia. The Australian government negotiated with the Obama administration for the US to take up to 1,250 refugees detained by Australia on Manus Island and Nauru.
Ghulami was a computer science student when he fled Kabul because it was too dangerous to return home. The Taliban beheaded Hazara on the highway to his parent’s home in Maidan Wardak province, he says.
He arrived by boat on Christmas Island and was transferred to Manus on 10 September 2013. He was recognised as a refugee in 2014, but nothing changed: “2015, 2016, 2017 as a refugee but same place, same detention centre, same bed, same restrictions. I live the same as a non-refugee, as asylum seekers,” he says. “All of us were hopeless and helpless, we thought we’d never get out.” In the last year he fell into a “deep depression”.
‘At first I didn’t believe it’
Suddenly, last September, Ghulami was given a few days’ notice that he was among those going to the US. “At first, I didn’t believe it,” he says. The first airlift of refugees happened with such haste, they were given all the necessary vaccination pills at once, leaving him dizzy. On arrival, he says, “I was just like in shock and I didn’t know where I am, how I’m doing.”
When his regained his bearings, “I felt like I am just born now because after very long time in detention, I got my freedom so I feel very good. That was a great time for me”. A Pakistani refugee from Manus was also sent to Louisville. They were met at the airport by caseworkers from the Kentucky Refugee Ministries, a non-profit organisation.
“Before we even arrived, they already took an apartment for us,” Ghulami says. “They pre-arranged everything so we came directly to our own house and started living.”
The apartment was furnished with secondhand furniture, the fridge was stocked with food and they were given new clothes. Medicals were organised. They received US$350 a month for the first three months.
Six weeks into his relocation, Ghulami asked the Ministries’ employment section to help him find a job. A Swedish-owned company producing cooking oils took him on. Working five or six nights a week as a machine operator has enabled him to move from the apartment where he was first placed. “It was not in a good area,” he says.
For the first two years on Manus, Ghulami had attended English classes, but after that, he says, the detainees had no energy to study. One reminder he kept from Manus is a large dictionary he was given. He plans to study English again when he can afford to reduce his work hours. His caseworkers speak clearly and he can understand them, “but it is a little bit hard for me to understand local people”.
After four years of incessant heat on Manus, a severe winter that brought snow was a shock and another challenge. “Last winter I had a really hard time in here without a car. I went to work by bus and came home by bus.” A couple of times bus delays made him late for work and his pay was docked. He decided a car was a necessity and took on extra shifts. His caseworkers organised driving lessons.
Ghulami’s new apartment is in an older prefabricated two-storey row of flats in a leafy outer neighbourhood. It has carpets and a mismatch of furniture provided by the Ministries. There is no television. He shares with an Afghan migrant he met in Louisville. “We live very simply here,” he says apologetically.
‘I lost those years for nothing’
The years of being left in limbo on Manus have left an imprint. “That experience I think will always remain in the back of my mind. I can’t forget it even if I want, because we had a really hard time,” he says. No one in Louisville knows the Manus story, even the Refugee Ministries. They are shocked by his descriptions of his time there, he says.
For the first few months in America, he found it hard to leave Manus behind. “When I was asleep, I feel like I am still there because I was sleeping in this one bed for four years, the same thing repeatedly, repeatedly.” He sought help and was given sleeping tablets and antidepressants, but the insomnia that plagued him on Manus returns intermittently.
He still flinches and feels scared at sudden noise, a legacy of “the attacks from locals, from police, not one or two or three times but a lot of times”. He recounts seeing Australian guards taking away “trouble-makers” and beating them.
In February 2014, the slightly built Ghulami was with a group of detainees who sought refuge in the corner of a compound as police and locals burst in and started savagely beating detainees, resulting in the death of Reza Barati. “A lot of firing of gunshots happened. A lot of people were injured and one Iranian guy died,” Ghulami says.
Even now, he says, he jumps when he hears shouting, fearing something terrible is about to engulf him. “I am scared always, all the time.”
How does he feel about the Australian government? “I don’t have any feeling about them. I am trying to forget them,” he says in a rising voice. “They are treating people unfairly. They are using people like a human wall to stop the boats. They are doing the same as people smugglers.
“I feel very bad that I lost those years for nothing.”
The land of opportunity
The Pakistani refugee who arrived in Louisville with Ghulami went his own way. “It was hard at first because I didn’t have anyone to show me what to do, what not to do, from my own community I mean, just the agency and the little bit of English that I know.”
He can speak his own language with a young student he met, also an ethnic Hazara from Afghanistan, who lives nearby with his family. Communications with his own family in Afghanistan are difficult, but he can speak to them by phone and for them, he says, the most important consideration is that he is safe. He also has phone contact with other Afghan refugees from Manus who have since been resettled in the US.
He says he is “happy to have a normal life”. He hopes to resume his computer studies and looks forward with optimism in the US, “the land of opportunity to do what you like”.
A tangible benefit of his new life is being able to cook and eat when he wants to. “It is a big pleasure,” he says. On Manus, meal times were fixed, and in any case, the food was mostly undercooked rice and overcooked meat. “Sometime when I am cooking, I get memories … the food was tasteless, it was just to feed people.” Now, he says, eating “completely belongs to me”.
“No one can interfere with my life.’’