The Park Street Refugees Don’t Need Novak Djokovic’s Help, They Need Yours

Refugee Advocates Rally Outside Detainee Hotel

Two months ago the Park Hotel in Carlton in Melbourne’s inner north was, to many Australians, just another building they passed on their commute. But to refugees, it is a symbol of their oppression and torture — and it took the Novak Djokovic saga to for the world to see it that way too.

Now that the Australian Open is over, it will remain a cruel reminder of a country’s indifference to the detained men even after everyone has stopped talking about it.

For a brief moment, there was a spark of interest — even outrage — in the deplorable way our Federal Government has detained and abused those whose only crime was seeking safety. But the news cycle has shifted and the trapped asylum seekers have been left behind again.

Mehdi Ali is one of approximately 35 refugees and asylum seekers trapped in Melbourne’s Park Hotel. He fled Iran as a child to escape the systemic oppression Ahwazi Arabs like himself face, only to be imprisoned by the Australian government’s own racist oppression of asylum seekers, for nine years. He turned 24 years old in January.

Mehdi has been vocal about his treatment at the filthy hands of our government, taking to social media and even publishing articles about his circumstances in the hopes that he’ll spur the media and Australian public into some kind of action, in the hopes that one day he will be free. And maybe, for a moment, that felt within grasp.

Novak Djokovic, the tennis champion who made worldwide headlines after he was detained in the Park Hotel after allegations of entering the country on an invalid visa, brought media attention to the plight of refugees in a way we don’t often see in this country.

Suddenly, everyone was outraged at the callous way the Australian Border Force treats other human beings. The Serbian community protested outside the Melbourne Park Hotel, some of which discovered the mistreatment of refugees that way. A fire ignited, burning with months of pent-up frustration at our government’s incompetence at pretty much every level of their leadership.

Some might commend the Djokovic saga as an unlikely catalyst that pushed attention to refugees when they were otherwise largely ignored. But as Mehdi points out, it shouldn’t take a celebrity for people to talk about refugees.

“It’s sad that we are suffering for nine years and no one actually covers it from the media,” he told PEDESTRIAN.TV.

“People are finding out about us because Djokovic [was] here. They’re not aware of what’s going on in their own country, and they have a right to know.”

When asked about what he thought regarding the public pressure for Djokovic to openly support refugees, Mehdi had a counter argument — why do we expect more from a sports star than we do from our politicians, the media, or even each other?

“By Mr. Djokovic being here, he brought enough attention to our circumstances and our plight. I’m optimistic that he is going to speak about us, but if he’s not, I don’t expect anything from him anyway,” he said.

“I don’t really see the link, you know? I don’t have any expectations of [Djokovic]. I don’t expect him to do anything for us.

“But I expect the media to speak about us and this issue of detaining people for nine years, and not link us to Djokovic. Why does it need a celebrity to talk about us, to then also speak about us?”

Mehdi, who has become an advocate during his nine years of imprisonment, shared his frustration at the media for constantly waiting for someone else of significance to speak out against his torture — when his words, his rights, should be enough.

“It’s sad. It’s disappointing. I’m putting myself out there, at the risk of danger, and all I’m aiming for is freedom,” he told PEDESTRIAN.TV.

“Nothing else. Not any position, not for money. Just freedom. And it’s sad that I keep repeating myself and my story.

“To you, and other people, it’s just a story. For me? It’s my life.”

Adnan Choopani, Mehdi’s cousin and fellow asylum seeker detained in Melbourne’s Park Hotel, has also been imprisoned by the Australian government for nine years. He spoke to PEDESTRIAN.TV about the terrible conditions he faces every day, which he describes as torturous, with basic items out of reach.

“Imagine yourself living in a place indefinitely for nine years, where you have no control of your basic rights,” he said.

“For your food, you are always served in containers, with maggots [in your food] and mould on your bread.

“People aren’t calling you by your name, they’re calling you ‘detainee’ or by your boat number. For nine years. And you can’t leave this centre in any circumstances. It’s chaos. It’s totally chaos” he said.

According to Adnan, he’s not even allowed fresh air because his windows are bolted down.

“People are [getting] ill. Mentally and physically,” he said.

“And they are still in detention.”

Adnan recalled his friend’s attempt to set himself on fire out of desperation to escape their hellish prison.

“His body was burnt around 50 per cent. [He self-harmed] because he suffers from PTSD from long-term detention. And he still remains in detention,” he said, sadly, his voice breaking.

He spoke of another friend, who died when he was still imprisoned in offshore detention.

“One of my other friends, he died by suicide,” he said.

“They kept him in a fridge for two weeks… to send a message: even if you die, you aren’t going to get to Australia.

“It’s evil. It’s totally evil… they’re just playing politics with us.”

Adnan spoke about his frustration and sadness not only regarding the lack of attention on this issue, but the symbolic nature of coverage as a whole.

“In these nine years, we’ve been chasing a lot of attention, a lot of coverage by media, but it’s just a symbol,” he said.

“It’s nothing really… nothing is happening. There are still people locked up in detention, still people detained in Nauru and PNG, and we just see this corruption business still going on.”

While he believes, like Mehdi, that it’s the media’s job to keep a spotlight on refugees and asylum seekers, he can’t help but feel like the public should take some responsibility, too.

“It doesn’t make sense at all. People are electing the same government who are destroying people’s lives in detention. It’s not only on the politicians — its on the name of the public as well. It’s really sad to see how people are turning a blind eye to all this,” he said.

Adnan has a better proposition for those still waiting for Novak Djokovic to support the refugees he was momentarily detained with: advocate for refugees yourselves. What are we all waiting for?

“We should be blessed that we are living in a ‘democratic’ society, as they say. People should make noise and put pressure on the government,” Adnan said.

“The government has been wasting the public’s tax [money] on torture. They’ve been using all the media and all this budget to commit war against asylum seekers who only want help.

“People should say: ‘Enough is enough — what’s the plan? What’s the plan for these people? Enough of this’. Why do we have to wait for a foreign sportsman to come and be detained with us for the media to care?”

Adnan said that the attention the government’s treatment of him has “gotten much, much lighter” after Djokovic left the country. He wants to urge Australians to take the narrative into their own hands, to push our government to take responsibility for the atrocities and human rights violations it is subjecting innocent asylum seekers to.

“We’re always talking about how they saved people from drowning in the sea, but they’re killing us in detention,” he said.

“I really wish and I hope for the Australian government to take responsibility, and to act human. What I’ve seen, in these nine years… the injustice, [irresponsibility], negativity. I wish to see justice.”

If you need mental health support, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or chat online.
Under 25? You can reach Kids Helpline at 1800 55 1800 or chat online.
You can also reach the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 or chat online.

If you require immediate assistance, please call 000.