Broadcast 6.30pm on 30/07/2003
Mehdi Mohammadi* is 18 and a talented young sculptor – he’s also an Afghan refugee. Mehdi’s story is a remarkable tale of survival; when Dunia Russell heard it she decided to become his surrogate grandmother. Dunia gave up her business and is now devoting the next year of her life to help Mehdi develop his talents and establish himself as an artist and, most importantly help him in his plight to gain permanent residency. Our story looks at the unique relationship that’s emerged between Mehdi and Dunia – why one woman has decided to devote a year of her life to help a young refugee.
GEORGE NEGUS: Now, though, another pretty remarkable duo. This time, not siblings. In fact, they’re no relation whatsoever. The two people involved come from different generations and vastly different cultures. Nevertheless, as Brendan Hutchens found out, the bond between them is damned-near unbreakable.
BRENDAN HUTCHENS, REPORTER: Mehdi Mohammadi is 18 years old. Dunia Russell is quite a bit older. The impact that they’ve had on each other is astonishing.
MEHDI MOHAMMADI: I’m calling her, like, Grandmother and a friend of mine, they are asking, they were asking, “Well, who is that lady?” I’m saying, “Yeah, it’s my step-grandmother.”
DUNIA RUSSELL: I love Mehdi like one of my own kids, there’s no doubt about that. It’s obvious, you know. I’d do anything for him.
BRENDAN HUTCHENS: Mehdi is a refugee from Afghanistan. He had to leave or face being killed. It wasn’t for his political beliefs and he wasn’t a soldier. His life was in danger because he’s an artist.
MEHDI MOHAMMADI: Taliban capture one of my brother, my older brother, who was the artist, who was the teacher, and they murdered him. They killed him because of, you know, doing sculpture and painting and that sort of thing, which is… They think it’s against their belief.
BRENDAN HUTCHENS: Mehdi had to get a job as a panel beater. It was considered acceptable, but that didn’t save him from the clutches of the Taliban. He was kidnapped and taken to the front line.
MEHDI MOHAMMADI: We were carrying the ammunition for them, and they were saying, “If you’re not doing this…” And we knew what’s going to happen to us. And then I heard a big bang behind me and then I didn’t know what happened to me. And when I found out myself, I was in a cave with the other guys and one of them was just dead on the spot, and I was injured too. I’ve got the shrapnel still in my back.
BRENDAN HUTCHENS: Mehdi was left to die, but his family found him and helped him recover before deciding that he had to leave the country.
MEHDI MOHAMMADI: I didn’t know anything about Australia. Just the only things which I could imagine was the ocean and kangaroo. That’s it. I was thinking it’s better to sink in the ocean unless you…you die in freedom.
BRENDAN HUTCHENS: When he arrived in Australia he was put in a detention centre.
MEHDI MOHAMMADI: Detention centre, it wasn’t a good place. The only things which I was thinking in the detention centre was when I would get out of here, which I didn’t know – nobody knew that – when they would get out of detention centre.
BRENDAN HUTCHENS: Eventually he was granted a temporary visa and released to a frightening new culture with a language he couldn’t speak. But he embraced it.
MEHDI MOHAMMADI: It was a bit scary. (Chuckles) But what can you do? You have to cope with it.
BRENDAN HUTCHENS: Shortly after, he met Dunia through a mutual friend.
MEHDI MOHAMMADI: I told her I’m doing some painting and…and she asked me to… “Can I have a look?” and I said, “Yeah, you can.” (Laughs)
DUNIA RUSSELL: Mehdi took me into his bedroom, and there was this painting, and it was just…and in fact, it just changed… I just about fell over – I was just absolutely amazed by it. I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It really…it changed my life, that painting. Mehdi showed me his pictures of his sculpture, ’cause he said he’s not really a painter, which I thought, “Well, this is amazing,” you know? And when I saw pictures of his sculpture, I just…I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I bored all my friends with it, I told everyone, I didn’t know what to do about it, but, you know, we sort of gradually progressed and here we are today, you know?
I love this piece, ’cause it was the first bit of sculpture I saw Mehdi do. I always believed in him, but I doubly believed in him when I saw this. (Chuckles) And I really love it. I came every single day to see him do this. But it was a privilege, it was like magic. Every day I’d come…just like it was rising out of nothing – it was just beautiful. We went to some art exhibitions and I took Mehdi to a couple of artists just to see whether I was imagining it. And it got to the point that I just couldn’t ignore it – that’s really what it amounted to. I just couldn’t…I don’t want Australia to lose this talent. I think we can do…you know? ‘Cause I think Mehdi’s one in a billion, you know?
And it was also just the fact that we’d been having this image of refugees, you know, that whole image of that, and here was what I thought was Michelangelo coming over the seas, you know? (Laughs)
BRENDAN HUTCHENS: Now Mehdi has a place to create his art and a surrogate family, he has the stability he needs to flourish. Dunia has sold her business to devote her efforts to Mehdi.
DUNIA RUSSELL: I said to Mehdi, “Look, I’ve got time now to be your personal assistant or whatever, or grandmother, or, you know…or whatever you can call me,” and we’ve sort of…we’ve, you know, I think we’ve achieved a fair bit, but we’d like to achieve a lot more. I consider myself the luckiest woman in the whole of Australia for doing this, OK? So I don’t call anything a sacrifice, so… And I really believe that, so…
BRENDAN HUTCHENS: How does that make you feel when she says that?
MEHDI MOHAMMADI: Um, yeah, it…it gives me…feel, like, confident, and it makes me, like, work…work harder.
BRENDAN HUTCHENS: Mehdi hopes that he can stay in Australia, get his own gallery and keep producing work. For now, he’s just glad to be alive, and living in freedom.
GEORGE NEGUS: How about that? A positive refugee story. There is life after those bloody awful detention centres, for the lucky ones, anyway.
© 2009 Australian Broadcasting Corporation