Manus Island refugees put 'that hell' behind them for fresh start in the United States

Manus Island refugees put 'that hell' behind them for fresh start in the United States

Manus Island refugees put 'that hell' behind them for fresh start in the United States

Updated 3 October 2017, 18:40 AEDT

Former Manus Island refugees know little of their new home in Louisville, Kentucky, but they are just happy to be out of "that hell" in Papua New Guinea.

Standing in an almost empty bedroom, Abdul Ghafar Ghulami unzips a back pack.

Key points:

  • First refugees arrived in the US from Manus Island last week
  • Refugees accuse Peter Dutton of telling lies about Armani jeans
  • Manus Island described as "that hell" by former detainees

He pulls out three pairs of pants, a few T-shirts, several document folders and an Oxford English dictionary.

He puts them in a pile on the floor.

"That is all I brought from Manus Island," he says, turning the back pack upside down and shaking it to make his point.

After spending four years and 15 days on Manus Island, Abdul arrived in Louisville, Kentucky last week as one of the first 54 refugees from Papua New Guinea and Nauru to be resettled in America under a deal struck by the US and Australian governments.

His meagre pile of possessions is one of defiance — he is upset at Immigration Minister Peter Dutton's suggestion that the refugees who left Manus and Nauru for the US had 'Armani jeans' waiting for them to wear once they got out.

"Why is the Minster telling the lies? This is the proof, this is my life," he says, pointing to the pile.

He looks down and picks up a plastic ziplock bag. Inside are two ID cards from his time in detention and a palm-sized piece of red fabric.

"From home I just have this," he says.

"This is nothing, just a piece of fabric but because my mother give it I keep it till now."

It's the only thing he has left from the home in Afghanistan he fled more than four years ago.

'Welcome to the USA'

The suburban Louisville apartment Abdul is sharing with fellow Manus detainee, Jawad Hussain, is sparse and run down.

On one coffee table sits a card. "Welcome to the USA" it reads, with glitter covered red white and blue stars glued to the front.

Jawad says it is from the local school children — it came in a package they got from the resettlement charity that is helping them settle in.

Jawad is a Shia Muslim, a persecuted group in the north-west tribal areas of Pakistan where he fled in 2013. Abdul is Hazara, an ethnic group in Afghanistan often targeted by the Taliban.

They were both determined to be genuine refugees in 2014, three years before they left Manus Island.

They both look exhausted.

To get to Louisville they had to fly from PNG, via Manilla, LA, and Chicago.

"We don't have our relatives or friends, so it is hard to in the first stage to resettle in a different country — and US of course is different — but we are happy, we are happy to be here," Jawad insists.

Abdul says he only found out days before departing Manus Island that he had been accepted into the US.

"I felt [at] that time very good and impressive," he says.

"Until I get to the airplane, I didn't believe that."

After being promised resettlement in countries from Malaysia to Cambodia only to be left to languish on Manus Island, it was only once he well and truly left PNG that he told his friends and family he was free.

"When I fled and left Manus Island, I called them and text them that eventually I got out from that hell," he says.

Both men repeatedly refer to Manus Island as "that hell".

Five men died while they were in detention, and they say trauma of their time in PNG lingers.

"It is still my mind and everything is there," Abdul says.

"Still I have nightmares, and I feel I am there."

They are trying to remain optimistic they can move forward.

"In US is the country of opportunities," Jawad says smiling.

"US is country where you can get a good job, or get a good education so it just depends on person," he says.

Neither Jawad nor Abdul knows much about their new city. Jawad lists off the things he knows Kentucky is famous for; KFC, whisky and horseracing.

'Prison is better' than Manus Island

Both men are adamant they lost interest in settling in Australia long ago, as their time in Manus Island dragged on.

"Even prison is better. Why? Because a criminal knows how long they have to stay there, but we didn't know that," he says.

Authorities say they plan to shut the Manus Island detention centre by the end of October.

"It is not one chapter that you can close then it is a history," Jawad says.

"Australia make a history of cruelty … and the people will remember this."

So far only 54 refugees from PNG and Nauru have been settled in the US.

Abdul says he is still in contact with many of his friends in Manus Island, and they say conditions there are getting worse.

"I am very happy right now, but my happiness is not complete until all of my friends get out from there and just feel free and resettle wherever they want and I think that will be my complete happiness day," Abdul says.