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Behrouz Boochani Just Wants to Be Free

President Obama, during his final months in office, agreed that hundreds of detainees from Manus Island and Nauru could resettle in the United States. As part of the deal, Australia was expected to grant asylum to an unspecified number of refugees from Central America and Africa. Ghezelbash calls the swapping of politically inconvenient people “refugee laundering.”

When President Trump heard about the trade-off he had inherited, he famously grumbled that it was a “dumb deal,” but he didn’t stop it. Gradually, quietly, refugees from Manus flew off to America. At least 785 people from Manus and Nauru have settled in the United States; more are expected to arrive.

All told, Australia has locked up thousands of desperate people, including children, in de facto prisons on Manus and Nauru. The detentions have been harsh but effective, officials say: The flow of boats slowed and eventually stopped. Asylum seekers are still stuck on Nauru; until last year, they included children. The Australian government recently spent about $130 million to reopen the detention center on Christmas Island — despite the lack of new arrivals to lock up. In other words, the policy is still unapologetically intact, ready and waiting for any boats that make it to Australian waters.

It was a brilliant January day in Christchurch, New Zealand. Screeching gulls wheeled in off the Pacific; swollen roses bobbed in the breeze. In the hydrangea-fringed garden of a spare, tidy house, Boochani sat smoking. He couldn’t smoke inside because the house wasn’t exactly his; it was on loan from the University of Canterbury. Boochani’s neighborhood looked as if Beatrix Potter had painted it in watercolors: prim, ivy-laced cottages and tidy beds of hollyhocks and lavender. It was nice, Boochani conceded. Too nice, sometimes. “It’s too much, you know?” he said. “It’s too much peace and too much beauty. It’s hard to deal with this. It’s like you go from a very cold place to a very hot place.”

Boochani had landed in New Zealand without a credit card or bank account; he had no idea what his book earnings were worth in real terms. The Christchurch mayor and local Maori representatives welcomed him as he stepped off the plane. He appeared before a rapt and sold-out crowd at an event organized by Word Christchurch, the group that had invited him to the country. He was constantly surrounded by people offering help. Somebody took him to buy clothes; somebody else drove him on a run for hair gel. He was shown to a room in an upscale hotel, then later moved to a vacant apartment. The memories of detention were still fresh, and Boochani struggled to adapt himself to an unfamiliar place and lifestyle. He kept signing up for grocery-store discount cards, then losing them. His sleep was crowded with nightmares; his days were full of meetings and public appearances. He had an idea to write a new novel, a contemporary Kurdish love story. He talked with friends about starting a literary journal. More often than not, he drifted around in a kind of daze. “I feel empty,” he said. “Like I never read a book. But I’m OK with that. And, I think, it will come.”

During these early and disorienting weeks, Boochani got word that it was finally time to begin the final steps to resettle in the United States. He’d been awaiting this news for months, but when his chance came, he backed out. Reports of tensions between the U.S. and Iran, immigration crackdowns and political tumult had eroded his eagerness. “I don’t feel safe in America now,” he said simply. “I don’t mean that someone would kill me. But I don’t trust the American system. It’s like chaos there now.”

Instead, Boochani took a bold gamble: He applied for asylum in New Zealand. He accepted a fellowship with the university’s Ngai Tahu Research Center, which specializes in Maori and Indigenous studies — a nod to his Kurdish identity — although the post would remain a secret while his application to stay in New Zealand was pending. Neither his whereabouts nor his plans were public knowledge. Conservative politicians in both New Zealand and Australia were calling for Boochani to be turned out. What would he do then, where would he go? He shrugged; he didn’t answer; instead, he began to roll another cigarette. The right to smoke had become a kind of index by which Boochani took stock of his own liberty. By that measure he was almost free, but not quite. He dreamed of owning a house and smoking with impunity. “I’ll put up a sign that says, ‘Smoking is free.’ I’ll even say, ‘If you don’t smoke, don’t come.’”

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