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Warning from Iraqi family who found safe haven in the Kingdom

Hashim Fahram and his family fled Iraq and sought a safe haven in Cambodia
Hashim Fahram and his family fled Iraq and sought a safe haven in Cambodia. Eli Meixler

Warning from Iraqi family who found safe haven in the Kingdom

Iraqi family who found safe haven in the Kingdom warns that not all asylum seekers may be as lucky

For the Fahram family, Cambodia has proven a haven after escaping their war-torn homeland, Iraq. Business is booming at their small Daun Penh restaurant, where Hashim Fahram, his wife and four of his sons serve up home-style Arab meals, making up to $250 a night.

“Why do we stay here for more than one year? Because [Cambodians] are friendly – very nice people,” Fahram said this week.

Ahead of the arrival of the first group of refugees to be resettled in Cambodia under a controversial deal inked last year between the Cambodian and Australian governments, the Fahrams could be seen as an example of a displaced family making a go of it in the Kingdom.

The Fahram family are doing a steady trade at their Phnom Penh restaurant
The Fahram family are doing a steady trade at their Phnom Penh restaurant. Eli Meixler

Their story of fleeing their hometown of Fallujah last year, after fighting between the government and the Islamic State militant group intensified, is not dissimilar to that of many of the refugees the Australian government hopes to relocate from its detention facilities on the island of Nauru.

Under the terms of the agreement, which include a $31 million aid package to Cambodia, Australia may resettle an unlimited number of refugees in the Kingdom from the island, as long as they volunteer.

While reports announcing the impending arrival of the first five asylum seekers this week proved premature, Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton told the ABC on Monday that the first plane “won’t be far off”.

On Thursday, General Khieu Sopheak of the Ministry of Interior announced that one individual – an ethnic Rohingya man from Myanmar – had volunteered to be resettled and yesterday a refugee advocate said an Iranian had also put their hand up.

While Australia promised that the refugees will be well looked after, with “cash in hand and in a bank account” and “villa-style” housing, Fahram warned his family’s success may be hard to mimic without the right background or resources.

“I live here not as a refugee, I live here as a businessman,” he said.

Fahram – who was a blacksmith in Fallajuah – first came to the region in 2009 to seek a master’s degree in business at Kuala Lumpur’s International Islamic University. His wife and sons lived with him until 2012, when new regulations prevented them from renewing their visas and they were forced to go back to Iraq.

Muslim refugees pray at sunset at a camp for asylum seekers on the island of Nauru
Muslim refugees pray at sunset at a camp for asylum seekers on the island of Nauru. AFP

Fahram left Malaysia early last year after tuition prices became too high and brought his wife and sons to Cambodia where it was easy to get visas and start a business.

“I didn’t get [refugee status] – someone told me it was because I went to Iraq and came back again,” said Fahram, who is in Cambodia on a one-year ordinary visa.

With no formal assistance, he borrowed about $10,000 from friends in Malaysia to open his restaurant. He had hoped to work as a blacksmith instructor but couldn’t find enough pupils.

“I’m a blacksmith – I want to do my business, I like my business so much, but here I cannot,” said Fahram, who jury-rigged an oven for the restaurant out of spare metal parts.

Denise Coghlan, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Cambodia, said she predicts the success of resettled refugees in finding jobs to vary widely depending on the demand for specific skill sets.

“If you’re an accountant, or a doctor or an engineer, possibly you’ll get by. If you’re a farmer, I think it’d be quite difficult to get a piece of land that you can use,” she said, adding that she didn’t have information on the vocational backgrounds of the Nauru refugees.

Social networks, Coghlan said, would also be crucial.

“If you can build up your own circle of friendship it might not be so bad,” she said.

Rachel Ryan, spokeswoman for Australian Greens party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, who opposes resettlement in Cambodia, said it is unlikely that refugees would arrive in Cambodia with many resources.

“It is very atypical from most cases we understand, where language is a barrier, poverty is a barrier,” she said.

Merryn Royle, media adviser for Dutton, declined to comment other than to say she is “pleased to see that [Fahram] has settled so well in the community”.

Generally, Fahram said, life in Cambodia was bearable if you were employed. The streets were mostly safe and his family had access to life’s essentials.

However, he doesn’t consider Cambodia his final destination. He said he was thinking about moving to the West – perhaps the US or Australia if he could get residency – while his wife Muna was fixated on returning home.

Still, he saw no reason to leave Cambodia in the foreseeable future.

“My wife is still thinking about Iraq, [and] our hometown. But I tell her it’s not safe – we should do this business.”

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