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Mohammad: suicidal and walking blindfolded in Murray Bridge

By Nicholas Procter - posted Monday, 9 February 2004

It's cold out, it's overcast, but I haven't seen a more glorious day in this area for quite a while. It's absolutely gorgeous because we don't have to live in fear.
-LINDA RIVERA, when a harrowing three-week ordeal came to an end when police arrested two suspects in the sniper shooting spree that left 10 slain and three wounded in the United States. (New York Times, 25 October 2002)

The important point is that Linda Rivera no longer needed to live her life in fear and uncertainty. The unidentified sniper and his accomplice had for three weeks during 2002 closed schools, emptied shopping malls and busy streets, and turned petrol stations and outdoor restaurants into uninhabited sculptures. The knowledge of a sniper on the loose deliberately targeting innocent people at random and without mercy had robbed the city of its freedom and humanity. People in the streets of Washington had been used as target practice. Ten people were dead.

Every day when we turn on the television we are confronted with images, sometimes shocking, that depict a changing and unpredictable world. Of course, we can choose to turn our eyes away, but for many people global change affects their daily lives and is inextricably linked to what they say, do, think and feel. Global change constitutes a revolution of sorts that raises many pertinent issues affecting our social and emotional lives. As Anthony Giddens explains it, globalisation is no longer an “out there” phenomenon. It is “in here”, impacting on the most intimate aspects of people’s lives. Globalisation has resulted in a world no longer determined or restricted by national boundaries - information, technology, capital and people can cross the globe more or less unimpeded. As a result, the character of society has changed.


When people travel or migrate they bring with them their personal histories and interpretations of phenomena that are mediated through recent experiences such as trauma, dislocation, persecution and feelings of belonging or not belonging in a society or culture. Mohammad (not his real name) works at the meatworks in Murray Bridge in South Australia. He came to Australia by boat as a refugee more than two years ago to live in a democracy. He said"

The boat I came here on looked more like a coffin than a boat. But it was a risk I had to take to escape war and fundamentalism in Afghanistan. I lived everyday in fear in my country. I could not tell the truth about anything. Daylight could not be called daylight if the Taliban did not like it. We could not trust people in government to help us have human rights, as the government of Pashtuns and Tadzjiks did not want us there. We could not question them. We had to obey blindly.

For our newest arrivals, many of whom are refugees and asylum seekers such as Mohammad, suicide is a real option. This is due in part to everyday experiences being collapsed into and made an integral part of parallel, related local situations, rather than being external or unrelated. When Mohammad arrived in Australia he was placed in Port Hedland Detention Centre. He was interviewed many times by Immigration officials and was eventually granted a temporary protection visa (TPV). He was told that the three-year TPV would give the Australian government time to find out if he was a good person, a person of good character. Mohammad said, “OK, so they don’t know me, that makes sense. I will work hard and show them that I am a good person”. But now, nearly three years later, he is feeling terribly let down by what he was told and uncertain about his future.

Local and global issues and influences are intimately connected and difficult to reconcile. People escaping persecution can have a continuing sense of fear and mistrust. Mohammad described this phenomenon when he said"

Everything that I have done, every time I go to the doctor or Centrelink, the government knows what I am doing. They record it here. If I do anything wrong they record it here. And I have done nothing wrong. I am still hearing day and night over and over in my head what Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, told us:
Uzbeks can go to Uzbekistan
Tajiks can go to Tajikstan
Hazaras can go to Goristan (graveyard).”

Personal histories and experiences that might appear disparate and worlds apart can continue to deeply influence interpretations of local experiences. For example, Mohammad feels that his fate in Australia is now back with those who persecuted him in Afghanistan. Mohammad is a Hazara. He gets worried and frightened when the Australian government uses an interpreter to ask him questions, because the interpreter is usually a Pashtun or a Tadzjik. “ …the people who did not want us in Afghanistan do not want us in Australia”, he said. Mohammad finds it hard to trust others. “I lived in a society that it was hard to trust others. It takes time for us to trust others.”


He worries about having to return to Afghanistan after his TPV expires. “People are being kidnapped or killed for money when they return to Afghanistan from Australia”, he said.

Mohammad takes medication to help him sleep and anti-depressants prescribed by a GP after he attempted to kill himself. Mohammad says that all the Afghan people he knows in Murray Bridge are taking tablets at night and/or during the day to help them cope and to stop them from killing themselves. Mohammad described his experience of living:

I feel that I am being pushed to the edge of the world. Whenever I go walking in Murray Bridge, I don’t even know if am in Australia or Afghanistan. I know I am in Australia but I don’t belong. I’m here but the future is not clear. I feel as if I am walking blindfolded on the moon. It is like I am not really here (Mohammad points to the ground) … and I am not really anywhere. It is a strange feeling. It is like I am dead. But it is not like I am not alive either. It is more like being both dead and alive at the same time. Sometimes I talk to myself when I walk. I don’t know why I do this … perhaps to stay strong. It just happens that way. And now I feel that what Mullah Omah said should happen to me is actually happening to me. I am going to the graveyard like he said I should go.

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An earlier version of this paper was published in Australian Mosaic, issue 3, Winter 2003, the magazine of the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils Of Australia (FECCA). Speaking of Sadness is published by Multicultural Mental Health Australia under the National Mental Health Strategy.

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About the Author

Associate Professor Nicholas Procter teaches mental health at the University of South Australia and advisor to Multicultural Mental Heath Australia. His most recent book, Speaking of Sadness and the Heart of Acceptance: Cultural Healing Uncovered is published under the National Mental Health Strategy.

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Related Links
Feature: The Final Cry for Help
Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils Of Australia
Multicultural Mental Health Australia
Nicholas Procter's home page
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