The Buddha of Dandenong

Persecuted in their homeland, separated by oceans from their families and denied support from officialdom, a group of Afghanis have found a way to create a sense of peace and permanence in the suburbs of Melbourne.

(This article was originally published in The Big Issue Australia's "Safer Shores" edition on refugees, in May 2015.)

A group of four men, Hazara asylum seekers, are visiting the Heritage Hill gardens in the outer Melbourne suburb of Dandenong. They stand in the rain admiring their handiwork. Beside them community mental health worker, Nadine Hantke, is making jokes about their stoic wooden carving. “When it first got made one of the guys said it looked a bit like Tony Abbott,” Hantke recalls, “because of the big ears.” The men laugh.

Aman, the shortest and in his mid thirties youngest of the men, with piercing green eyes and fair skin, remembers another comparison: “When we finished him everyone said he looked like me, because I’m so short.”

 

Sal Sal, the wooden Buddha the men helped carve, stands nestled between bamboo trees. At 1.5m, the carving really is just a fraction shorter than Aman, who considerately adds, “He needs a roof or something, otherwise he’ll get damaged by the rain.”

This Buddha is a diminutive replica of one of the ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan: towering figures carved into the sandstone cliffs of central Afghanistan 1,500 years ago. The original Buddhas (Sal Sal and his wife, Shamama) silently watched over the people of Afghanistan from around 500 AD until the start of the 21st century. Despite converting to Islam centuries ago, the Hazara people – whose ancestors made the Buddhas – revered them as symbols of their heritage and culture.

But in March 2001, at the height of their power, the Taliban attempted to destroy all religious idols throughout Afghanistan. Bombarding the Buddhas with artillery before detonating tonnes of explosives in and around them, the magnificent stone figures were reduced to rubble.

The Buddha's of Bamiyan, before and after the Taliban attack in 2001.  

Now, in a quiet nook of these suburban gardens, Sal Sal is standing watch again. Not quite the giant of old, but a captivating presence all the same. “Sal Sal is here for everybody: Australians, other refugees; not just us,” says Ali*, a broad-shouldered man in his mid-fifties with a wide smile and belly to match.

Aman, Ali and about 20 other Hazara asylum seekers spent four months making Sal Sal. The project was facilitated by the Southern Migrant and Refugee Centre (SMRC) and Ermha (formerly the Eastern Region Mental Health Association), in response to concerns about asylum-seeker mental health.

Without the support of family or friends – and having suffered significant trauma and loss – sleep problems, anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses are common among the Hazara men. They weren’t accessing conventional services like counselling, so facilitators Ashleigh Newnham (SMRC) and Hantke (Ermha) asked them what they would like to do instead. Sal Sal was the result.

Ali (left) and Aman (right)

check on Sal Sal. 

“Sal Sal is an important part of our history. When we got the chance, we all decided to make Sal Sal,” says Ali.

All the men involved in the project are on bridging visas; having arrived by boat, they are waiting to find out whether they’ll be able to stay or get deported. Their visa regulations don’t allow them to work or access education, so finding something meaningful to do has been a struggle. “I want to be busy, if not then I’ll get mental problems,” says Aman.

Remaking Sal Sal has therefore meant a lot. “Making something so precious and historic from our country made us feel happy,” Aman says.

The group have all been through the detention centre circuit: first Christmas Island, then Darwin, then regional centres like Melbourne and Adelaide. Eventually they found their way to Dandenong. Over the years, as more and more refugees fled Afghanistan, a considerable Hazara community grew in the area.

 

“Our people have been persecuted for generations, even before the Taliban began targeting us,” says Aman. Maltreatment of the Hazaras primarily stems from the fact that they are Shia Muslim, whereas Afghanistan and Pakistan are predominantly Sunni.

Aman’s family fled to Iran when he was a small child, after his father was killed. He spent 25 years there, working as a builder, getting married, having two children. But life was hard. “We didn’t have any documents and were discriminated against. My children couldn’t even go to school,” Aman explains.

In 2012, Aman and his young family made the perilous journey to Australia, including passage by boat from Indonesia. When they arrived on Christmas Island his son was two years old, his daughter only seven months. “Many people don’t make it, they end up in Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey… Those places are very hard,” says Aman.

Ali used to be a farmer, growing wheat, barley and other crops in the Afghan mountains. He isn’t overly impressed with the beautiful gardens of Heritage Hill. “I’d get rid of all these flowers and plant potatoes, tomatoes…” he says with a broad grin.

“About 20 years ago we escaped from the Taliban brutality.” Ali’s family fled to Pakistan where he made a living transporting goods and livestock from market to market. But, after 16 years, Pakistan became too dangerous as well. “There was no security, people were getting beaten, killed,” he says.

Ali’s family (he has seven children) are now spread across the globe. One daughter married and moved to Sweden, one son won a scholarship to study computer science in Japan. But the rest of his family still live in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where Ali’s brother was attacked four months ago.

“The Taliban know I’m in Australia. My brother was walking home and they demanded $100,000 from him. He didn’t have any money so they shot him. I know that if I go back I’ll be killed, too.”

Ali is living in a flat in Dandenong with other Hazara asylum seekers. The men receive about $200 a week from the Department of Immigration, so they get by sharing their homes and pooling grocery money. “It’s amazing how far they can stretch $20,” says Newnham.

With his limited English, Ali says his biggest day-to-day challenge is all the paperwork. He doesn’t understand all the bureaucratic processes involved in Australian life: getting a tenancy agreement, accessing healthcare, getting a driver’s licence…

 

“They are very strict here,” he says. “In Afghanistan and Pakistan you can do any job.” He receives a lot of letters about his visa status that he doesn’t understand, yet Ali is trying to make the best of his existence. “I exercise every morning, then go to one of the classes [provided by local NGOs], learning English, computer skills or driving. In the afternoons we watch a funny Afghan program on the internet.”

But most of the men can’t hide their frustration. “I feel powerless in this country, my family’s future is out of my hands. I pray to God for help, then the Australian Government,” says Aman.

Spending a few hours each week making Sal Sal was welcome respite from the uncertainty and waiting. The men made an event of it: cooking traditional food, brewing tea and making kites while Sal Sal slowly took shape. Newnham and Hantke provided transport and materials, while the Keysborough Men’s Shed was happy to make their premises and tools available. Men’s Shed regulars would drop by, offering workshop expertise and receiving tea, dinner and Afghan stories in return.

 

But Sal Sal isn’t the project’s only legacy. Working together helped strengthen relationships between the men in the group – some even forged tentative friendships with Keysborough locals. And many developed a strong rapport with Newnham and Hantke, allowing them to discuss mental health issues. Now some of the men receive counselling.

 

When the carving was finished, Newnham and Hantke looked for a place where Sal Sal could be displayed. Heritage Hill seemed perfect. Near the centre of Dandenong, the gardens are easy to access, free to enter, and offer a quiet place to relax and reflect. Sal Sal was installed and the project organisers threw a party to celebrate – inviting members of the Hazara community, asylum seekers, local residents, as well as people from the Men’s Shed and a host of other organisations. “We felt satisfied, a real sense of achievement,” Ali recalls.

Now, despite all the difficulties they face, Aman and Ali still hope for a bright future in Australia. “I was a builder in Iran,” says Aman. “I’d love to study construction here and be a builder again.”

 

Ali is happy to take any job he can. “I could work in a bakery because I can bake, too”.

 

As the rain eases off and the men wander towards the Heritage Hill garden exit, Aman stops and turns to explain: “We are just ordinary people, the same as Australians. We have the same hopes and fears. We just want the best for our families. The only difference is we happen to have been born in Afghanistan.”

 

Whatever happens to these men maybe Sal Sal will remain, quietly continuing the duties of his predecessor. But this time watching over the people of Dandenong.

 

*Aman and Ali’s last names have been withheld due to fears of possible repercussions for their families in Pakistan and Afghanistan.