MideastFeast is a tiny restaurant in the back streets of cosmopolitan Phnom Penh — just a counter, some tables and the smell of Syrian and Lebanese food. The Middle Eastern population here is small, and the restaurant’s Syrian owner, Abdullah Zalghanah, knew nothing about the city before he came. He was moved here as a result of the Australian asylum system.
Until eight years ago, Zalghanah was a baker and restaurateur in Deraa, where he lived with his wife and four children. When war broke out, they, like many others, fled to Lebanon. Zalghanah left his family there and went to look for a safe country where they could resettle: ‘I didn’t see a future for my children in Lebanon, what with Assad’s militias hunting refugees, the state of the economy and the consequences of the war.’
In 2012, while working temporarily in Egypt, he had heard that Australia was ‘a peaceful country where you can rebuild your life in six months. In the Syrian community they said Australia was a better bet than Europe. I had a brother there. He’d left before the war.’ Zalghanah was put in touch with people smugglers, who in 2013 got him to Indonesia, where he joined 71 others on a motorboat that set off on the 400km trip to Christmas Island, a remote Australian territory in the Indian Ocean. ‘It was a terrible journey. One of the engines broke down after the first day. More than once I thought we were going to die.’
After four days, the Indonesian people smugglers deposited them on a beach; Australian coastguards found them and took them to a detention centre already housing 2,000 asylum seekers who had tried to reach Australia clandestinely. They were waiting to be transferred to detention camps on Nauru, a tiny island state in Micronesia, and Papua New Guinea (PNG). None had been permitted into Australia as its government had recently revived and toughened its radical policy of expelling boat people, its ‘Pacific Solution’.