How Ali Rabea fled a life of oppression in Bahrain to forge a new future in Australia.
Imagine walking down the street in the middle of the day, minding your own business, only to find yourself pulled off the pavement and arrested for a crime you did not commit.
Or imagine that you are a journalist, and a story you’ve written about the political situation unfolding in your home country has provoked the anger of the authorities, who are willing to threaten you until you change your views. While it may sound far-fetched to those of us who enjoy the freedoms of a democratic society, for Ali Rabea it was a daily reality.
The University of Wollongong graduate moved to Australia from Bahrain almost seven years ago, a decision that was motivated by his desire to study here and to leave the tension and conflict of the Persian Gulf monarchy. Now, he can’t go back.
“I came to Australia on December 26 – Boxing Day – in 2010. In Bahrain, we have always had an unsettled political situation, but three months after I left, the uprisings, which were part of the so-called Arab Spring uprisings happening everywhere in the area, began and since then the situation has been very bad,” Ali says. “I’ve been living in Australia ever since. I can’t go back because the situation is not safe anymore, for anyone, but especially for me because of my journalistic activities.”
I loved journalism because it’s doing something good for people. It’s showing them the truth about a situation.Ali Rabea
With a population of around 1.4 million people, Bahrain is an Islamic island wedged between Qatar and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East. Bahrain has been ruled by the House of Khalifa since the late 1700s, and human rights have remained a central point of concern for the nation’s residents to this day.
Ali, a journalist, says his life in Bahrain was ruled by censorship and repression. For journalists in the nation, the freedom to pursue stories of their own choosing was a luxury they generally could not afford. It was a thrilling and terrifying atmosphere for Ali, who has always been drawn to a career in the media.
“I care about newspapers, I love to read,” says Ali, as he enjoys the sunshine one Friday afternoon in Wollongong. “When I was young, about 10 or 12 years old, I would wait for my brother to come home from his work because he would bring me the papers. I thought about doing something in politics, but I ended up in journalism.”
In Bahrain, he worked as a journalist for the mass media and also in public relations for the Ministry of Health. An avid sports fan, Ali had his own hour-long radio show about European football, on which he was the producer and analyst.
“Working in the media was fun and scary at the same time. It’s not like a normal job where you go to work and nothing happens – there was always drama, and I loved it. But there were many times when I was threatened for articles in foreign media. Never local media because you’re not allowed to do it.”
He wrote about sports for the local media, but in order to reveal the truth about the political and social situation that was occurring in Bahrain, he adopted a pseudonym and penned stories for foreign media. It took a few years for the authorities to discover what he was doing and who he was, but Ali says once they uncovered his pen name, the pressure began.
“They used to send people to tell me to be careful, to threaten me. They would use the carrot and the stick. They would offer for me to join the Correspondents’ Club, so I would get lots of free travel and gifts and vouchers, but I refused and so I was the bad boy for that.
They used to send people to tell me to be careful, to threaten me. They would use the carrot and the stick.Ali Rabea
“The main reason I loved journalism was because it’s doing something good for people. It’s showing them the truth about a situation. You risk your life to report on things that they don’t know about.”
Ali came to UOW to pursue his Masters of Journalism in early 2010. His thesis focused on the sports media in Bahrain. After graduating in 2012, he undertook another Masters, this time in Creative Arts, which he completed a few months ago. He is now hoping to pursue a PhD through UOW, again focusing on the topics of media and politics in his home country.
Political exile, and his new life in Australia, is at times lonely for Ali. He has no family here, and his chances of visiting Bahrain are virtually non-existent now. He would love to see his family, but he does not like his chances of being able to leave the country again.
Despite the isolation he sometimes feels, Ali loves his new home and the freedom it brings. It is a welcome relief after a childhood spent under the oppression of the Bahraini monarchy. “It is tough being in Australia, I miss my mum and dad, I miss my family,” he says.
“But I love Australia, I love Wollongong. I never want to leave. I remember talking with a friend who was born and raised in Australia, and I was telling him that people back home are often arrested for protesting or could be walking down the street, and arrested and sentenced to jail for something they didn’t do. He didn’t think I was serious, it wasn’t easy for him to understand.
“In Bahrain, since I was 12, I was always worried that something might happen to me or my family. Since I’ve come to Australia, I’m very proud to say that I feel very different, I feel human. When I was threatened, I used to challenge the authorities and tell them that they couldn’t tell me what to do, but you never know what could happen to you and your family. In Australia, they can’t touch you.”
Ali has seen numerous friends, family members and colleagues threatened, harmed, or locked up under the Bahraini regime. They were simply doing their jobs, going about their lives, or fighting for freedoms that those of us in a democratic society often take for granted.
Ali is clearly passionate about political journalism – it is a cause for which he has been willing to risk his life and freedom – but after he finishes studying, he is aiming to focus on sports media, because “you don’t have to tell as many lies”.
I think if you want something, you have to lose something. You have to struggle.Ali Rabea
He believes he might even have a future in teaching, a path that he is experimenting with through his work with Wollongong’s Human Settlement Services. As part of this job as a caseworker, Ali helps Syrian and Iraqi refugees to settle in the region, providing them with support and language services. He describes it as “hard but very rewarding”.
“In the last three years, we’ve received hundreds of families in the Illawarra, mainly from Syria and Iraq. It’s a difficult job, but I’m very happy to see the families progressing, it gives me a lot of joy to work with the families and their kids.
“I know how hard it is to go through it all, to establish your life again and start fresh. Coming to a new country, adopting a new language, it’s hard. But the families are doing so well.
“The other day, I met this girl, who I first worked with a year and a half ago, and she couldn’t speak any English. She is now 11 years old, and her English is better than mine!
“And there was a boy I met a few weeks ago. He was from Syria, but he spent four years living in Jordan before he came to Australia. I asked him which he liked better, Jordan or Australia. He said Australia, because it’s green. I think it was such a clever answer, because even after all he’s been through, he’s still able to be optimistic, to see the green. The refugees, they just want a normal life, so I am so happy to be able to help them.”
This passion for life and for helping others is deeply admirable in someone who has seen and experienced so much. Yet Ali shrugs off the suggestion that his experiences are any more unique than those of his fellow students. Instead, he simply treasures the opportunities that his new life in Australia has presented.
“I think if you want something, you have to lose something. You have to struggle.”