4-minute read

A Refugee Finds a Virtual Friendship of Hope

I am a refugee from Afghanistan, a land that’s been at war for decades, long before I was born. I was in immediate danger of being kidnapped and killed by the Taliban when I fled my homeland and sought safety from UNHCR.


Erfan Dana

Shams Hussaini, also known as Erfan is a 24-year-old Hazara refugee from Afghanistan. He is an activist, volunteer and interpreter for refugees. He fled his motherland in 2014 due to ongoing war and everyday fighting and arrived in Indonesia in 2015. In June 2018, Erfan was released from the detention centre and was moved to community housing where he now lives. It is also a camp. His life is a constant state of uncertainty.

I was 16 years old when I travelled alone on a perilous boat journey here to Indonesia. I found this country strange, and considered myself the saddest person in the world. In my heart I felt my life had become small. I had no friends or family, nobody to guide me, or even help me find a place to stay while I waited to be resettled.

I asked UNHCR about a temporary sanctuary, but I was denied help. I had no choice but to accept being sent to a detention centre, where I was locked up behind prison walls for nearly three long, bleak years.

In prison we didn't have enough food, let alone any educational or recreational activities to keep our physical and mental health in good shape.

For us, trapped in nightmarish, inhumane living conditions, life itself was losing its meaning and beauty. The walls of our hopelessness grew steadily higher, overshadowing even the high concrete walls of our prison.

Cut off from anything resembling normal life, we began each morning in our tiny cells with hope in our hearts for a brighter day that would bring freedom closer. Always the day would end sadly, with disappointing news from the immigration officers who told us we’d never be released from detention until the International Organization for Migration (IOM) came to an agreement with the local government about opening up new community housing here. This was their standard response whenever we asked for our freedom.

When my hope in responsible organisations dealing with our freedom turned bleak, I decided to find something to do, because the fruitful and productive days of my youth were fading away pointlessly in prison. Gradually I developed a passion for writing, which helped me escape from my loneliness and pain, and the ever-present fear of being locked up indefinitely, of being forgotten.

Through my writing, I hope to raise awareness with readers, including advocates and organisations around the globe, about the extreme living conditions of refugees locked behind the heavy iron gates of the detention prisons.

I was still in detention when by chance I met on Facebook the person who would become my best teacher, encourager and mother. I remember vividly how we connected the first time.

(When I was first put in detention the immigration authority confiscated my mobile phone. I had no access to the Internet and I lost connection with my contacts outside. After some time passed, the rules in detention changed. They returned our mobile phones. I contacted my friends living outside detention and they regularly sent internet data for me to stay in touch with them. That was how I had access to the internet and Facebook.)

I had written an article about the awful living conditions of refugees imprisoned for years behind bars in Indonesia’s detention centres. I published the article on my personal Facebook account. In only a few hours the article attracted the attention of many people, including advocates for the refugees illegally detained in Indonesian prisons, without having committed any crime. I received a large number of positive comments from people expressing their gratitude to me for raising awareness about the refugees’ situation.

As I was reading and responding to all the comments, I came across Diana's comment. Her words were full of care and love. The comment was so caring that it compelled me to reach out to her. She accepted my friend request, and I messaged her on Facebook. I thought she wouldn't respond. A few days passed and then one day she replied to my message, which made me extremely happy.

I introduced myself and told her my life story, and our friendship developed. Since meeting her, everything has changed dramatically. Her presence in my life replaced the emptiness and sadness I had in my heart. I gained unbreakable confidence and I no longer felt alone and helpless. She gave me strong wings, and confidence in my dreams. I continued writing, and she kept encouraging me, and helping me with the problems in my day-to-day life.

Five and a half years have passed since that first meeting. Our strong friendship was born out of mutual trust, respect and shared opinions on almost everything we discuss.

We’ve never talked on the phone. I‘ve never heard her voice or seen her picture. I don’t know what she looks like, but no one has a special place in my little world just because of how they look. Her heart is as big as a planet: she accepted someone from the land of war and violence as her son and student. For me, having endured pain and rejection instead of affection and acceptance my whole life, this was the greatest, happiest gift I have ever received.

She fills the roles of mother and teacher, and has shaped my life so positively that I can’t deny it for a second. She has been with me during my worst days. She listens patiently, and cares for me. When we chat, her love, compassionate heart and belief that there’s a place in this world for everyone embodies both her physical and inner world before my eyes. She is a vegan. She always tells me that she can't eat the meat of animals because they are sentient beings: like us, they have emotions and feelings, and their presence is a huge blessing to our environment and ecosystem. She is so principled about everything she does.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, she taught Spanish to little kids. She is a teacher and writer, and I’ve learnt many life-changing lessons from her that I might never have learnt otherwise. I tell every new friend I make that whatever I have and wherever I stand now, is because of her.

We both like to wish on shooting stars. Last night I stood outside, gazing for a long time at the sky full of stars and galaxies. I saw a shooting star, and at once wished this virus would go away quickly, and that I could live freely in a third country, and meet her face-to-face.

(Illustration: Ng Yin Shian)

Erfan Dana is a member of the archipelago, a writers collective that builds community and mentorship with refugee and migrant background writers. The collective was founded to train new writers who are refugees in Indonesia towards professional publication and forge relationships between writers across islands. This piece was written as part of the partnership between Our Better World and the archipelago.

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