How tea, dates and watering cans smoothed Afghans’ path through quarantine

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The first thing Gulghotai Bezhan thought of was tea. Afghans can survive without food, she jokes, but not tea. “It’s so important, especially when we are stressed, we drink a lot of tea.”

Ms Bezhan and other members of Victoria’s Afghan community had been approached by COVID-19 Quarantine Victoria (CQV) to assist with one of its most challenging operations yet in the pandemic.

Afghan Women’s Organisation Victoria president Gulghotai Bezhan.Credit:Wayne Taylor

The state’s hotel quarantine program had just days to prepare for the arrival of six rescue flights carrying 761 Afghans evacuated from Afghanistan’s chaotic, turbulent capital.

Complicating an already massive logistical exercise was a city in lockdown and the need for interpreters on the ground to be double-vaccinated.

Ms Bezhan, the president of Afghan Women’s Organisation Victoria, immediately swung into action and compiled a list of Afghan comfort foods.

She remembered her own craving for Afghan bread when she migrated to Australia in 1996 – difficult to find in those days but now widely available – and added that to the list alongside tea, of course, (green and black), green sultanas, Slanty chips, Torshi Lavashak (Persian sweets), cardamom and zahedi dates.

People arrive in Australia from Afghanistan last month.Credit:Defence Images

But there was a hitch: Ms Bezhan lives in Berwick and her favourite Afghan supermarket – Bestway in Dandenong – was well outside her five-kilometre lockdown zone.

“So I called them and said we need this, this, this and they put the list together.”

The food packs were delivered to the quarantine hotels to welcome the Afghans on arrival.

Afghan-Australian Neamat Rahimi quarantined at a hotel in Epping, after being evacuated out of Kabul with his wife Fouzia and four-year-old son Mirwais.

Neamat Rahimi, with wife Fouzia and son Mirwais.Credit:Justin McManus

They were greeted with almonds and pistachios and served chicken biryani, a popular dish in Afghanistan cooked with dried fruit and rice.

“I give thanks to the special properties of those who prepared really delicious foods for us,” he said.

Mr Rahimi said Fouzia, who had never been to Australia before, was surprised by the Afghan food.

“I explained to her that in Dandenong they have everything in the shop. The same things they have in Kabul, we have as well.”

People leaving Afghanistan for Australia last month in the wake of the Taliban takeover.Credit:Defence Images

CQV Commissioner Emma Cassar said the contribution made by the Afghan community, Victorian Multicultural Commission and CQV cultural liaison officers had been incredible.

She had watched the distressing footage of air lifts from Kabul airport and knew that ensuring the quarantine program was culturally appropriate would be critical.

“It was really important for us to make their first experience in their new country as pleasant as possible and when you overlay that with hotel quarantine, it’s not easy,” Ms Cassar said.

”It’s not easy for you and I to do, let alone someone who’s just fled a war torn country, so it was so important for us to get right.“

The Rahimi family in hotel quarantine in Melbourne.

CQV cultural liaison officer Yusuf Liban, who came to Australia as a refugee, reached out to his networks to source prayer packs, with prayer mats and Korans donated from mosques across Victoria.

“Being a Muslim myself I understood that in times of hardship and distress, when people do feel overwhelmed, they tend to develop a stronger connection to their faith,” Mr Liban said.

Mr Liban and a local Imam plugged the co-ordinates of each hotel room into a live Google map and satellite map to determine the direction of Mecca, with the details included in their prayer packs.

“Of course they didn’t have a compass, so the interpreter could then tell them pray towards the doors if you are on the east side of the hotel or pray towards the TV.”

Mr Liban was also responsible for ensuring the male and female hygiene packs – which included shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant, shaving cream and sanitary items – were religiously and culturally appropriate and did not contain alcohols or gelatine, which can be made from pigs.

He liaised with the logistics teams to modify the bathrooms with watering cans sourced from Bunnings – “In Muslim countries toilet paper is not very common and people use water to clean themselves” – and washing buckets for them to wash their clothes.

Many entered the hotel with the clothes on their backs and a few belongings in plastic bags. Kmart donated more than 2500 items of clothing, CQV provided 400 tracksuits, underwear and socks and Victoria Police, CFA and SES donated backpacks, stuffed toys, colouring books and pencils.

Ms Cassar watched all the flights arrive from the Melbourne airport control room. “You couldn’t help but cry,” she says.

She describes mixed emotions as people walked off the planes; fear and trepidation as well as happiness.

“When people first get off the plane the first thing they see is people in PPE, which is really daunting,” Ms Cassar said.

But they visibly relaxed, she says, when they saw interpreters at the health screening areas, who allocated them to the most appropriate hotel.

“The staff kept saying they wanted to come and touch and grab their hands and say thank you, but because of our IPC (infection prevention and control) requirements and social distancing it was a really hard thing for staff to manage,” Ms Cassar said.

CQV Commissioner Emma Cassar.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui

The final 236 Afghans on the rescue flights will be released from hotel quarantine on Saturday.

The federal government and AMES Australia – which provides settlement support to migrants – will be responsible for their resettlement.

AMES Australia chief executive Cath Scarth says they will be assisted with finding accommodation, connected to health and education services and provided with language tuition.

“It’s been fantastic to see how many Victorians have come out and offered support to the newly arrived Afghans in so many ways.”

In a couple of weeks the Rahimi family, who are now staying with relatives in Sunshine West, will settle into their own home.

But Mr Rahimi’s happiness is marred by his concern for his sisters who are still in Kabul.

“I’m really worried about them,” he says. “They are not safe.”

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