I first met Navid* while sitting in my car in Toronto.
It was a bitterly cold February day. I had just finished giving a lecture on migration and religion to a group of undergraduates.
Now, I was staring at a tiny phone screen, talking to a refugee in the searing heat of Papua New Guinea.
“I’m desperate, and there’s no hope for me here,” he said. “Can you help me get out?”
Navid found me because I am part of a private refugee sponsorship group in Toronto that is working to resettle a half-dozen men from a little-known refugee detention center in Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.
Canada has a unique refugee sponsorship program that allows private citizens, including faith communities, families and groups, to raise funds to sponsor refugees.
These private groups raise funds to cover the refugee’s first year of life in Canada and provide emotional and social support with resettlement.
When I heard that refugees from this Australian-run detention center in Manus Island could be resettled in Canada, I felt compelled to take action.
Although I was born in the United States, I married an Australian and spent a decade living there, taking out Australian citizenship.
My family was living in Australia in 2001, the year the government instituted the “Pacific Solution.”
This policy declared that all asylum-seekers attempting to reach Australia by ocean would never reach the mainland, but instead be sent to “offshore processing centers” in the South Pacific.
As Australian Prime Minister John Howard stated at the time of the policy’s creation, “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”
Successive governments have played to anti-refugee sentiment, promising to “stop the boats” and protect the mainland from “illegals.”
These asylum-seekers, the overwhelming majority of whom have been recognized to have genuine claims to protection, are fleeing war, torture and persecution in countries, such as Iran, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Somalia.
All of them risk their lives on perilous boat journeys to reach safety in Australia. Not all survive.
Those who do are typically intercepted and sent to processing “camps” paid for by the Australian government and run by unscrupulous private contractors whose prior experience is in military and prison security.
Men, women, children and families have lived for as long as seven years in these camps.
Suicide attempts are a weekly occurrence, food is barely available and medical care is non-existent. Some have died for lack of antibiotics and basic medications; typhoid outbreaks are common.
Refugees have been murdered by guards and local residents. Those living in the camps are not allowed to work or attend school, and until very recently, they were not allowed to resettle in any third country.
As I spoke with Navid, he impressed me with his intelligence and kindness, and above all, his resilience.
We soon spoke with each other daily on Facebook Messenger, getting to know each other through the minutiae of everyday life. What did you have for breakfast? What are you reading? How many siblings do you have?
I discovered that he loved astronomy, and I would send articles on newly discovered planets.
I sent pictures of my dog, and he shared photos of the beloved camp dog, “Lilly,” a mongrel who had been adopted by the men.
Even though they had barely enough to eat, the men would give part of their meal to Lilly so that she wouldn’t be hungry.
Navid kept much of the darker parts of detention camp life from me, but I followed refugee activist groups online and knew what was happening there.
One day, a man set himself on fire; another day, a man in his camp swallowed a razor blade.
Gradually, Navid told me his full story.
Like many Iranians, he had grown up in a Muslim family. But as an adult, he began taking music lessons from an Armenian Christian woman, and through her met other Christians.
One of them gave him a Farsi Bible, outlawed in Iran, which he kept hidden in his room. He began reading the Bible and asked his teacher questions about her faith.
He said a new feeling came over him after meeting his teacher and her friends. It just felt like everything made sense, and he felt so happy, so “light.”
Eventually, Navid found that he wanted to become a Christian, an extremely dangerous decision for those in Iran who are not born to a Christian minority.
Although Iran’s constitution formally recognizes a number of other faiths (including Judaism and Christianity), in practice the country regularly intimidates and detains Christians, and some have been sentenced to death.
One night, Navid’s music teacher asked him to help with a church concert. As he left the church, Navid was approached by two secret police who kidnapped him, put him in the back of a car and drove him to an abandoned garage.
They beat and tortured him for hours and tried to force him to sign a confession stating he was a Christian.
Eventually, they put Navid back in the car, drove him to a large roundabout in Tehran and pushed him out of the car while it was still moving.
Navid was terrified and knew he had to flee; it was clear that the police now had both him and his family under surveillance.
Leaving Iran, Navid took the route that so many refugees on Manus take, going first to Malaysia, then to Indonesia, where a smuggler arranged for a fishing boat crammed with a hundred other bodies to set off on its perilous journey.
There was no room to move or lie down on the boat. At one point, the craft started taking on water. Navid was sure he would die.
The boat eventually was picked up by the Australian navy. Navid and his boat mates were elated.
They believed they were being rescued and taken to safety in Australia. Instead, he was forcibly transported in handcuffs to a remote island off Papua New Guinea, where the Australian guards told him there were cannibals waiting to eat him.
Laura Beth Bugg is Assistant Professor in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto.