2 Feb 2024

The online friendship which helped an Afghan refugee's journey to New Zealand

From Nine To Noon, 10:05 am on 2 February 2024

Hussain Shah Rezaie had been stuck in an Indonesian detention centre for nine years when he decided he wanted to become a writer, in English.

The young Afghan refugee's search for online resources eventually led him to Helen Sword, an Auckland academic who also ran an online writing community.

"Writing has worked yet as a rescuer to the daunting difficulty of my life as a refugee," Hussain wrote to Helen in his introductory email.

She invited him to join the writing group and later supported his relocation to Auckland.

Academic and writing tutor Helen Sword and writer Hussain Shah Rezaie

Academic and writing tutor Helen Sword and writer Hussain Shah Rezaie Photo: Sampford Cathie / YouTube screenshot

You can read Hussain's writing on his Substack page Walk With Hussain.

Although Hussein's letter was "a beautiful piece of writing, so eloquent", Helen says she wasn't sure if he'd respond when she invited him to a Zoom writing workshop.

"My expectations were fairly low, right. But there he was, he came. I work mostly with academic writers in this community, people with PhDs. Hussain arrives there and is talking to the other people [with] this beautiful smile and excellent English.

"It was kind of a no-brainer to welcome him into the community and then try to help as I could which basically included him sharing little pieces of the writing that he was doing with other people who were there who were doing very different kinds of writing.

'By coincidence, a a professor of kinesiology in Texas had told me a week before that she'd be interested in funding a scholarship to the community so I got her to fund Hussein for his $15 a month. And he started coming along."

For quite a while, Sword did not know much about Hussein's personal circumstances, just that he was an Afghan refugee based in Indonesia with English so good she assumed he was a full-time English student

In 2021, when the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, they started having more personal conversations and Helen realized she needed to try to do something to help her student.

From colleagues at the university, she found out about the Community Refugee Sponsorship Programme which allows community organisations to bring in people beyond NZ's annual quote of 1,500 refugees.

"I had a little company with my husband to run my writing workshops. And we were able to apply to become a community organisation and request to sponsor him."

After nine years in a detention centre, Hussein says the prospect of making a new life in Aotearoa enabled him to start "seeing himself in the future" and to feel hope again.

"I start feeling like like a normal human being, people normally don't relate to those experiences because theyre not kept in a forever Limbo of uncertainty, I started feeling normal to put it in two words."

His "normal" and "relatively safe" childhood in rural Afghanistan had come to an abrupt end when Hussain was just 14 and his father went missing, presumably killed by the Taliban.

"I had to take the responsibility to take care of my family, just like the burden on the shoulders of every elder child in Afghanistan, or more so in the area that we were living."

While crossing the same border his father went missing at to collect supplies for the family shop, Husain was stopped by the Taliban who found alcohol - which he wasn't aware of - in his truck. 

After a beating, he escaped and made it to Kabul where with the help of a so-called people smuggler - "People known as 'smugglers' can be lifesavers" - he got a flight to Delhi,  Malaysia and finally Indonesia.

Hussain says "detention centre" is not the right description for the Jakarta facility where he ended up, a place where residents were treated as criminals and given no idea how long their stay would be.

"It is structurally built as a prison where refugees were being punished for escaping their countries.

"It was a very, very difficult time and I was separated from my family, they were the most important part of my life, and I was at the age of 16, amongst like, 300 males … I was going through a series of mental and emotional distresses."

Yet whenever there's an imprisonment there's also "pushback", Hussain says. His own form of that was self-education.

"First I started learning English, which I didn't know except a couple of words ... I self-studied English through YouTube videos, listening to podcasts, and later on reading books.

"Then I took on self-studying psychology which really helped me, to cope with the emotional and mental distresses that I was going through. And that enabled me to help other refugees as well.

"And then I switched to writing, telling my story … I knew that I had a lot to write and I had no resources available to help me, except the online courses and books and lectures.

"No one in my surroundings was writing, no one in the Indonesian community was writing in English as well. Inside the refugee community, as well, no one was writing. I was trying to find resources online. That's when I came to meet Helen."

Based now in New Zealand, getting to know a new country has its challenges, Hussay says - "Lots of times, I feel like a child" - but he's enjoying a warm welcome.

"Being surrounded with people who genuinely think about you, who genuinely trying to help you is something that I didn't have back in Indonesia. This was what we were lacking,

"Before coming to New Zealand, the Afghan refugees in Indonesia were protesting for over 26 months on the street, door to door street to street. And there hasn't been a single incidence of Indonesian people coming to us and asking what is what is your problem? How can I help?

"Here, even without shouting out my plight and people offering their help is something you cannot find in other places."

People who've escaped persecution in their home country are done a disservice by the label 'refugee', Hussein says.

'We do not hear refugees who become a doctor, who became an engineer, who are an engineer who are a doctor, who is someone useful.

'The general perception of refugees is people [who] the government is helping and they are unable to help themselves or to give back to the community.

"That hasn't been my experience. Even at the corner of those helpless places, there are people who are able to help."

If a war were to break out in New Zealand, every person would instantly become a refugee, Hussain says.

"Imagine like a doctor or a politician, an engineer, everyone can become a refugee. So that's the case for refugees to escaping their countries. They are not helpless and they can give back to the community. I hope that that mindset or that perception changes."