It’s cold in the American mid-west city of Minneapolis and Mehdi’s in a rush to get home.
“If I was to stay outside for an hour or two, I might freeze, like actually freeze,” he laughs. “And I wasn’t expecting that.”
The 24-year-old refugee is a long way from Melbourne’s notorious Park Hotel, where he became the face of Australia’s treatment of ”illegal maritime arrivals” after Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic joined him and 32 others as an unexpected guest.
Djokovic was incarcerated in the hotel when he arrived in January for the Australian Open without the requisite COVID vaccination.
Mehdi, who goes only by his first name to protect family members in Iran but sometimes uses the alias “Ali” as a last name, likes keeping to himself.
But sensing the number one seed’s arrival could be a game changer, he took a punt. “It’s my birthday today, my ninth in detention,” he tweeted.
Media outlets like the BBC, Al Jazeera and The Washington Post were soon clamouring to tell his story. Suddenly Australia’s unresolved refugee detention policies were being scrutinised around the world.
“And then finally, the Australian media took notice,” he says.
So, he kept at it, tweeting things he was teaching himself to play on the guitar, tweeting the articles he was writing for The Saturday Paper, tweeting a poem he wrote, which was about staring at the tree outside his permanently locked bedroom window at the hotel.
“He’s a talented writer and musician, and he managed to convey the horror of indefinite detention and really captured the hearts and imagination of the Australian public,” says Jana Favero, advocacy head at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.
Mehdi and his cousin Adnan Choopani were only 15 when they fled Iran and arrived on Christmas Island as unaccompanied minors in July 2013, two days after the Rudd government decreed that no-one arriving by boat would ever be allowed to reside permanently in Australia.
Within a year, both were recognised as legitimate refugees. But successive Coalition governments left the cousins in the twilight zone of indefinite detention. Mehdi and Adnan were not resettled in a safe third country or allowed to live in the Australian community while the resettlement process was underway.
Sydney-based human rights lawyer Alison Battisson estimates that by late last year it had already cost taxpayers $6 million to keep them under lock and key.
“It’s beyond belief and acceptability,” former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s wife Tamie Fraser says.
In December, Mehdi and Adnan initiated legal action, accusing the Commonwealth of failing to get them to a country other than Iran, where they had come from, or either of Australia’s two offshore processing facilities – Nauru, where they had developed serious mental illness, or Papua New Guinea.
Eight weeks ago, submissions were completed and Federal and Family Circuit Court Judge Jonathan Davis was considering his orders.
“Suddenly two one-way tickets to the United States appeared,” Ms Battisson says. “Border Force officers escorted them to Melbourne Airport and finally they were free.”
Since arriving in Minnesota, local support groups have found the cousins a two-bedroom rental property, helped pay the bills and provided medical assistance.
“As soon as we came here, they treated us with dignity,” Mehdi says. “Australia has never done that.”
Former immigration minister in the Fraser government, Ian Macphee, says the Coalition’s track record with refugees makes him ashamed to be Australian.
“People like Mehdi have committed no crime and yet have been locked up with no idea of when they’ll ever get out,” Macphee says.
“The inhumanity of it is appalling, it’s racist and it’s hidden from most of us.”
On March 24, Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews announced Australia had agreed to New Zealand’s offer to take some of the boat arrivals, an offer made nine years ago.
Mehdi welcomed the news but was sceptical: “I think they’re just trying to say before the election, ‘Look, we made a deal’.”
Three days before Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Australians would go to the polls on May 21, the Department of Home Affairs emptied the Park Hotel of detainees. Most are now living on short-term visas in the Australian community.
But the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) estimates there is still one refugee left in an unidentified alternate place of detention in Melbourne, five in transit accommodation centres, as well as 112 on Nauru and 104 in Papua New Guinea.
“When some are now able to live in the community [on short-term visas], why did they keep so many locked up all that time, and why are some still locked up?” Mehdi asks.
Even though his days are now spent discovering some of life’s simple pleasures that many Australian teenagers take for granted – like exploring bookshops and seeing live music – Mehdi’s still calling for the release and safe settlement of all boat arrivals. He wants Australia to be held to account for its treatment of asylum seekers.
Thrown together by chance
Mehdi and Adnan are Arabs from Ahwaz in Iran. Once, it was part of an autonomous Arab sheikhdom, but after oil was discovered there in 1925, the area was forcibly brought under the control of Iran, which sought to “Persianise” the Arab population.
Mehdi’s family lived in the city and Adnan’s lived in the countryside. But the cousins used to catch up at family gatherings.
“We would play with the sheep and chase the chickens,” Adnan said. “It was a good time.”
Adnan was very close to his eldest brother Adel who remembers him as a “very active, very friendly” boy. According to Adel, Mehdi was a brilliant soccer player and a star student at school.
But life for Arabs got harder and harder. Often denied work, they were impoverished, despite living in an oil-rich area. Speaking Arabic was banned and the two families saw fellow Arabs arrested for speaking out against the discrimination.
“It was a fear you grew up with,” Adnan said.
Keen to protect people they know who are still in Iran, the cousins don’t want to go on the record with what they witnessed.
Adel and his wife fled Iran with their baby in 2011. They arrived at Christmas Island by boat and Australia accepted them as refugees.
Two years later, Adnan tried to join them.
Little did he know that Mehdi had also secretly made the decision to flee.
The cousins met unexpectedly on a boat headed towards Australia in the middle of a storm.
It was a bittersweet moment. Adnan’s relief at the reunion was overshadowed by the fear they were about to die together. “It was terrifying,” he says.
Miraculously, they made it to Christmas Island where asylum seekers were known only by their boat name and the order in which they had disembarked. Mehdi was ANA20; Adnan was ANA23. Nine months later they were flown to Nauru for processing.
There the unaccompanied minors impressed their Australian teachers.
“Adnan was a tall, handsome, very charming young man, with a happy face,” former program manager Jenny Leahy says. “He was an extrovert.”
“Mehdi was quieter,” former Save the Children teacher Tracey Donehue says.
In 2014, Nauru upheld their claim for refugee status. But they were left on the island awaiting resettlement in a third country. They were beaten by guards and punished for objecting. As the years went by, some friends were airlifted out.
The bond forged between them in that maelstrom remains unshakable.
“No-one would tell us what was going on,” Mehdi says.
He began to self-harm.
Adnan’s medical records show that he tried to kill himself twice.
“They couldn’t see a way out,” says former Save the Children teacher Gabby Sutherland. “Their youth had gone; their lives were just vanishing in front of them.”
In April 2016, the United Nations had a team on Nauru gathering information from refugees. A young married man died after setting himself alight in a desperate bid to draw attention to the plight of detainees.
The next day Ms Leahy looked up from her desk and saw Adnan holding a protest sign and gesturing that he wanted her to attach it to his clothing.
“His lips were sewn together,” she recalls. “It was his way of saying, ‘Enough is enough, what more do you want from us? Just give us an answer’.”
After it was removed from Nauru in 2018, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) reported the mental health of asylum seekers there was among the worst the organisation had ever seen in all its years of caring for trauma and torture victims.
“This policy [of indefinite offshore processing] predictably destroys the will to live on innocent human beings,” the organisation said.
Its findings were supported by a recent Greenwich University study that warned other countries like Great Britain against implementing similar methods of detention.
By 2019, Mehdi’s mental and physical health broke down so severely that Australia agreed to medevac him to Brisbane with Adnan as his support person.
Despite requesting they be allowed to stay with Adnan’s brother, who lives in Sydney with his wife and four children, and having the backing of Adnan’s psychologist for that, the cousins were locked up in Brisbane for the next two and a half years.
During this time their mental health deteriorated further. Adnan was hospitalised after swallowing razor blades.
‘Mysterious Mehdi’ becomes a leader
Mehdi is quick to say he’s no protester, and until COVID hit the Kangaroo Point Hotel where he and Adnan were locked up, he certainly was not a protest organiser.
He tried protesting to the guards that conditions in the hotel were unsafe. He tried going on a hunger strike.
When that didn’t work, Mehdi decided he needed to connect with the outside world, so he went out onto the balcony facing the street and held a sign reading, “Let us free. 7 years too long”.
Adnan recorded the guards telling him to stop.
Over the coming days, other refugees joined the cousins in this public protest.
Locals noticed what they were doing and soon activists gathered outside. Mehdi started gaining traction.
When the United States indicated it might take them last year, Mehdi and Adnan were flown to Melbourne for medical checks and ended up in the infamous Park Hotel.
There they first heard of lawyer Alison Battisson. She was running a case in the Federal Court for another refugee in the hotel.
The 25-year-old Rohingyan claimed Home Affairs secretary Michael Pezzullo had failed in his duty to relocate him to a country other than Myanmar, Papua New Guinea or Nauru, as soon as reasonably practicable, and that he should be allowed to live with an Australian friend under Border Force supervision until that happened.
Essentially it was a case against indefinite detention.
When Justice Bernard Murphy was drafting his judgment, Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews granted Don Khan Mohammad Arfan Khan a bridging visa that let him move in with his friend. The case was discontinued.
Ms Battisson decided to try the same argument for Mehdi and Adnan.
Adnan’s brother still wanted the cousins to live with his family in Sydney. And there was a back-up plan.
The rural option
Project coordinator at the Royal Women’s Hospital, Anna Burchell, and her husband offered to look after the young men on their three-hectare farm, if the department wanted them to remain in Victoria.
But when Border Force officers went to the Mansfield property, they said they would have to encircle the property with impermeable fencing, flood light it and keep security guards at each of the five doorways 24/7.
“It was clear they weren’t willing to countenance more humane options,” Ms Battisson says.
On November 23, 2021, she asked the department to remove Mehdi and Adnan to a safe third country expeditiously as the law requires. She gave the department a fortnight to respond.
Initially, Ms Battisson heard nothing back, so she filed in the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia, and asked that while the cousins were waiting on the resettlement process, they be allowed to live with a family in community detention. Again, the respondent was Mr Pezzullo.
“The Commonwealth argued it has no control over the resettlement process to the United States,” Ms Battisson says.
“We pushed back on that for a long time, saying, ‘Come on, a minister in Australia must be able to talk to their counterpart in America’, and we got nothing.”
Come January 2022, Djokovic’s detention turned the Park Hotel into an unlikely Melbourne landmark.
Mehdi’s social media profile was skyrocketing.
Three days after both parties made their final submissions in February, Mr Pezzullo confirmed to Senate Estimates that Mehdi had been accepted by the United States.
“In the court case, the government had argued that the Australian government would never get this information before we did,” Ms Battisson says.
“We only knew that the cousins were being considered by the United States.”
Two days later, the cousins were told they would be leaving for the United States in a fortnight.
“There were approximately 30 people left in the Park Hotel who were medevaced from Nauru and PNG to Australia as well as others in detention centres. So a positive judgment for us would have huge implications for that cohort.”
The cousins were released before Judge Davis had a chance to deliver his judgment.
Like Don Khan, they then argued the Commonwealth should pay costs.
But in handing down his decision on Tuesday, Judge Davis found both sides had argued their cases strongly and made no order for costs.
In response to a list of questions to Karen Andrews, a spokesperson replied: “When we came to office the number of people in held immigration detention was close to 10,000 – today it is a fraction of that, with the majority being character cancellations awaiting deportation.
“It is a compassionate policy that means we can continue to have one of the most generous resettlement programs in the world.”
A new home in Minneapolis
Mehdi asked to go to Minneapolis where he has friends. But he says the city is “big and overwhelming”.
The cousins live about a 10-minute drive from the CBD. Their two-bedroom house feels like a palace, with a kitchen, living room and balcony.
There are second-hand books by American greats including Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway. Mehdi’s devouring them one by one, as well as a guide to opera.
Recently he tried out electric guitars in a music shop.
In the end, he went for an expensive but beautiful handmade Spanish classical guitar to replace the one he had to leave behind at the Park Hotel.
Despite his acclaimed skills, Mehdi’s adamant he doesn’t want to make a career out of performing. Or writing.
“Those are things I love doing and they’re for me,” he says. “When I have to play under pressure I don’t play as well. When I have to write to a deadline, I don’t write as well.”
That might change.
“America’s gain is our loss and shame,” Asylum Seeker Resource Centre’s Jana Favero says.
He isn’t sure what he’ll do as a career, although driving trucks across America sounds good to him.
Mehdi regrets leaving the Australians who helped him along this journey but not Australia.
“When you miss something, I guess it’s because that thing was beautiful- that’s why you miss it,” he says.
“You miss your parents because your parents are beautiful. You miss a piece of music because it reminds you of beauty.
“Prison is not beautiful. Prison is ugly. Torturing people is ugly and insulting people is ugly.
“Insulting their dignity, their self-esteem is ugly. And you won’t miss ugliness.”