Mehdi Mohammadi* tells his story calmly, without tears of sorrow or rage, using the simple English he has learned in the past couple of years.
At 18, he is a sculptor working on a commission at Aquila Estate’s cellar door outlet in Carabooda. He is also a refugee from Afghanistan. Hearing the tale which links these lives is an experience to challenge the imagination at least for those people who have known nothing of war and persecution.
Mohammadi says he was born in the capital Kabul as one of 11 children. His wealthy father ran a transport business until fighting broke out in the country about a decade ago and he lost his job. His oldest brother, Nik Qadem, became a working and teaching artist after finishing university and military service. Another older brother, Abbas, also took up art and Mohammadi followed.
“I was learning by doing it. I was eight years old when I started drawing and painting.”
The family belongs to the Hazara ethnic minority and once the Taliban (of the Pashtun ethnic group) came to power in 1996, life became more difficult and dangerous.
For artists it was especially fraught; the fundamentalist regime – which infamously destroyed two giant statues of Buddha in 2001 – saw the depiction of living creatures as un-Islamic. Nik Qadem was killed by the Taliban, and Mohammadi gave up art to work as a panel beater. It was even frightening to go to a shopping centre, he remembers.
“They were capturing people from the city and they would send them to the frontline, to carry ammunition and dig the ground for (battles).”
And that’s precisely what happened to him and several others captured and spirited away from the panel beating shop into the mountains, he says. On the fourth night of carrying ammunition they were caught in a fierce battle. Mohammadi heard a big bang behind him, and woke up later in a cave. He was injured – with schrapnel in his back – as was a friend who was there too, crying. Another friend was dead.
They were then deposited at a mosque, where his family came to retrieve him.
“I couldn’t go to the hospital because it was full of the soldiers, the Taliban.”
A doctor friend of his father helped Mohammadi to recover.
His father, by then in hiding but returning to the family home at night, arranged for his escape. He told his 16 year old son to go with a friend who sold carpets into neighbouring countries.
Travelling with the carpets in a van he arrived in Peshawar, and then Karachi, in Pakistan.
A people smuggler made him a passport and from there he flew to Malaysia and then Indonesia.
He says he had been there about 18 days when he was told he would be going to Australia . He had no real concept of the country, beyond vague images of kangaroos and beaches. The first time he saw the ocean was on the night he was about to board a fishing boat bound for Australia.
At this point, the story is interrupted as a cheerful woman arrives at the winery with Mohammadi’s lunch. This is Dunia Russell, the surrogate grandmother figure who is helping him get started as an artist in WA and has come to love him like one of her own children. She found him a place to work on his sculptures near Aquila Wines whose manager, Elaine Darby, saw his work and commissioned him to carve a giant stone eagle for the winery. For Russell, whose background lies in radiography, helping Mohammadi has meant a steep learning curve: “I’m a world authority on Donnybrook stone; ask me anything.”
But back to the story, and the boat.
The water was a little rough and Mohammadi remembers hoping he wouldn’t drown. He had no idea how far away Australia was – but reasoned that it would be better to die on the way than at the hands of the Taliban . “It will be dying, at least in freedom.”
There were more than 200 people crowded on board. He likened them to the sheep he’s since seen ready for export at Fremantle. Eventually, what appeared to be a dark cloud rose in the distance – Christmas Island. From there he was transferred to the Curtin detention centre, near Derby.
He remembers not understanding what they were guilty of,”and there was a prison”. Some officers were good, he says, but others treated people badly. And there was no knowing how long you would be there.
“You didn’t know (what was) going to happen. We were talking with people who had been there, like, three years and we were shocked.”
People were angry, fighting and even asking to be sent home. Mohammadi says he decided it would be best to try to learn English. When his teacher left the centre, an Iranian detainee took up the basic lessons.
After 4 ½ months, in October 2001, he was granted a three year temporary protection visa. He has since applied for a permanent one.
He was brought to Perth, where he began living with fellow Afghan refugees.
“I didn’t know anyone, and I didn’t know the culture and the city. Everything was new.”
He studied at high school until he turned 18 last year.
One day, Russell turned up to visit one of Mohammadi’s housemates. At the time she was running tea rooms in the strawberry farm in which this friend worked, and had been helping him and others with their English. She asked Mohammadi about his hobbies and he explained that he painted – “actually I’m not a good painter” – and sculpted. He showed her a painting.
“I nearly fell over,” she remembers . “When Mehdi said he wasn’t a painter I thought,”Well, bloody hell, what is he if he’s not a painter?” Then he showed me pictures which were smuggled out of Kabul – things that Mehdi did before he left. And I just couldn’t get it out of my mind.”
She took him to see renowned WA artist Leon Pericles to get some guidance. Helping him reach his artistic potential has become almost her full-time project since she sold her tea rooms last October.
“The pay is s…,but the work’s terrific,” she says with a big laugh.
The eagle commission will give people a chance to see his work.
Today Mohammadi says his family are outside Afghanistan – he thinks somewhere in Iran. For his own part, he hopes to continue making art here. “I really want to do something for Australia and for myself.”
In his sculptures he says he is trying to show the beauty of nature and the stone. In Afghanistan his brother had told him you could turn stone to gold, and make it valuable.
“I’m trying to make something out of nothing – and something good.”
The “West Weekend Magazine” is a trademark of West Australian Newspapers Limited 2009.
*”Mehdi Mohammadi” is now known as “Mehdi Rasulle”.
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