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16 years to call Australia home

Ephrem Dehne Wold-Mariam stands proudly by the Australian and Uniting Church flags. After 16 years he is now a permanent Australian resident
After 16 years of living with the constant threat of deportation to a country where he had been a political prisoner, Ephrem Dehne Wold-Mariam has finally been granted a permanent Australian Visa.

At the age of 63 and with deteriorating health, Mr Wold-Mariam has been granted a permanent Employer Nominated Migration Visa (Subclass 856). This visa allows him to work and states that he is eligible for Centrelink allowances, but an assurer is required to pay any Centrelink payments he may receive over the next two years back to the Australian Government.

Mr Wold-Mariam arrived in Australia in 1990 after escaping from Ethiopia. He was allowed to leave Ethiopia only after his wife obtained government permission to invite him to Russia, where she was and is still living. At the time, Ethiopia and Russia had close ties and Russia was conscripting men to fight the Soviet-Afghan war.

Mr Wold-Mariam then obtained a tourist visa to Australia in Kenya and applied for protection when he arrived.

Many individuals in the Uniting Church have been touched by Mr Wold-Mariam’s plight. Rev Shayne Blackman and Rev Dr Rob Bos are two such people.

“When I first came to know Ephrem in 1990, he was a dapper, well-groomed and highly intelligent encyclopaedia of information about Ethiopian history and politics,” said Dr Bos. “He has lived in Australia with constant uncertainty and stress about possible deportation and frequently has nightmares. It makes me wonder if we had processed his application much more quickly and humanely whether his physical and mental health would now be much better than it is.”

UCA President Rev Dr Dean Drayton had also appealed directly to Immigration Minister Senator Amanda Vanstone on Mr Wold-Mariam’s behalf.

A well-educated man, Mr Wold-Mariam has completed Masters degrees in both the USA in English and in Moscow in Russian; neither language his first. Mr Wold-Mariam worked as a journalist for the former Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, who was overthrown by a military junta.

“I was a political prisoner in Ethiopia. The conditions were deteriorating especially because of my ethnic background and my relatives who had been executed. After imprisonment, I was told I was a blacklisted person and if I were again imprisoned, my life would be highly endangered. They told me I would be executed on the spot. That made me desperate not to stay in Ethiopia,” said Mr Wold-Mariam.

“It became a kind of ethnic civil war. They took us to a very inhumane place to be imprisoned. It was a very horrible place … they were torturing people. It was very crowded: 150 persons to a place 4 metres by 4 metres. We were sleeping in shifts. I asked what problem I made to be imprisoned like that? Nobody is answering this question.”

A family friend in Mt Isa sponsored Mr Wold-Mariam to travel to Australia. Once in Australia, Mr Wold-Mariam applied for a protection visa. The answer took four years. The visa was refused. He continued to apply and reapply for visas (with the help of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Service in Brisbane) and after several years was told by officials in Canberra that his case was hopeless.

“If the situation in Ethiopia had been alright I would have returned. Really, I don’t mind. Still now there is no peace,” he said.

Over the years, Mr Wold-Mariam has only been allowed to have temporary work depending on his visa limitations and so has been supported by the community and various church groups throughout Mt Isa, Townsville and Brisbane.

“Still I am dependent for my rent and for my food. It is better than nothing, but I am still dependent. If I had a work permit I wouldn’t have minded to work as a cleaner. The problem was that I did not have the chance to work.

“There are many people who have come from Ethiopia and Sudan who don’t even speak English and somehow they are here, they are working and living a good life.

“They [the Australian Government] are saying they have taken enough from Ethiopia and those who are already here are queue jumpers.”

Currently, the Queensland Synod of the Uniting Church assists Mr Wold-Mariam in rent payments (thanks to money received through past Lent Appeals); St Vincent De Paul gives him weekly food vouchers and has paid electricity and phone bills; the Mater Hospital has helped with medical treatment (after he suffered a stroke and was diagnosed with diabetes in 2003); and Jubilee Community Care have visited him and helped in a host of practical ways.

After his experiences in Ethiopia and with the Australian Immigration Department Mr Wold-Mariam now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

For Mr Wold-Mariam the road has been long and hard. The Australian government has never recognised him as a refugee, although the Minister for citizenship and Multicultural Affairs has now given him permanent residence. He has not been able to leave Australia and thus could not attend his mother’s funeral and has not seen his wife in over 17 years.

However, the type of visa Mr Wold-Mariam received was irrelevant as long as it contained the one word he was desperate to see: permanent.

Photo : Ephrem Dehne Wold-Mariam stands proudly by the Australian and Uniting Church flags. After 16 years he is now a permanent Australian resident