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Life under threat: the search for safety

"They called it Titanic… it was 1:00am when we boarded the boat. The first question my son asks me - 'Hey dad, is it a safe boat?' I said 'Yes, it's safe'."

Iranian refugee Mehdi, his then wife, and his children - a 14-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter - spent 10 nightmarish days on a barely seaworthy boat headed from Indonesia to Australia. Mehdi, a marine engineer, knew it wasn't safe but felt it was their only option. It had been a long time since his family had been safe.

He and his family, who spent six months in a detention centre in Darwin, were granted refugee visas at the end of 2012 and now live in Sydney. His children go to school, he works two jobs, volunteers in the community, is studying for a diploma in community service, and is hoping to enrol in a nursing course in the future.

"During this journey many people assist me - directly and indirectly. Red Cross the first one," says Mehdi. "The majority of people that I met (in Australia) are very nice and positive people. They accept us. We can find hope for the human race. It doesn't matter: refugee or not refugee - we're all human."

Mehdi and his family fled a very different life in Iran - safety was never assured. Born into a political family, growing up in a city decimated by war, Mehdi has known trouble since he was a child. He talks of a teacher disappearing and of loved ones who lost their lives to violence and conflict.

"It was the first day of the school … for about 72 hours I couldn't eat anything. All fear, you know? … about 200 metres (away), the next street, bombardment by jet fighter. It was the start of real fear in my life."

Blacklisted by authorities since he was a university student, Mehdi knew if his children were to have a safe future they must leave Iran. "It wasn't a safe place for them."

He had little money but with the help of "friends and the universe" he was able to get plane tickets to Indonesia for his family. With just a few days notice they packed up their lives, telling friends and colleagues they were going on holiday.

Landing in Jakarta they were questioned for hours by Indonesian airport officials but eventually allowed to enter as tourists. Not knowing what would happen next, Mehdi and his family spent four anxious weeks moving from city to city, unable to speak the language, and robbed by people smugglers claiming to want to help them. "Every day a hard day. My daughter was crying every night, she missed her friends."

Then word came of a boat to Australia. "I knew that it wasn't seaworthy, (but) we didn't have a choice. We couldn't go back."

He can barely talk about those days at sea, 80 people crammed together with no shelter and little food. "Two or four times the engine's broken. My ex-wife close to died because of seasick. My daughter after a couple of days started same process. There were a couple of Pakistani guys - gentleman, very kind and real human, they handed us many things. I never forgot this."

Their boat was stopped by authorities off the coast of Australia and Mehdi and his family were taken to Darwin and a detention centre. Later they were granted permission to live outside the detention centre and in the community while waiting to find out if they would be granted refugee visas.

"When we arrived in Sydney airport, we met two nice guys (from Red Cross) with two nice smiles. It was a window of hope. When I found them I feel relaxed after about two weeks of stress. Oh, there is someone that I can trust."

The family, eligible for assistance under a Red Cross-run government-funded program, were given a simple flat and a small living allowance. "The Red Cross officer showed me how to do many things, shopping, banking, how to go to medical centre, catch the train, buy the ticket, how to involve your children in the school."

After 14 months Mehdi and his family heard news they had been accepted as refugees. It's been a hard journey; they had to leave behind family, friends and everything they knew. Mehdi is often exhausted and plagued by nightmares, but his family is finally safe. "We are happy now, we are all happy."

Every year all over the world, countless parents like Mehdi flee war and conflict in their homeland. Desperate and with few options, they search for safety, and a future free of danger, for their children.

In Australia, Red Cross provides humanitarian assistance to asylum seekers and refugees. With no resources, family or friends they are some of the most vulnerable people in our community. We provide support based on need, without discrimination, regardless of someone's legal status, how they arrived in Australia or their stage in the visa process.

We advocate for the fair and humane treatment of asylum seekers and refugees in Australia, and for better community understanding of their difficult journey. It is a journey most people cannot imagine, and no one should have to go through.

You can support Red Cross' everyday work with refugees and asylum seekers in crisis by donating online or by phoning 1800 811 700.

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