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I am a boat person. I like to say that to people. It is crazy to risk your life on a fishing boat, but I thought, ‘If I’m going to die it’s better to die in the ocean from a shark than at the hands of the Iranian government.’

My mother taught me to cook when I was fourteen. I have many happy memories of watching her prepare meals for our family. Once I was old enough, I asked Mum to let me cook too. It made me happy to see my family eating my food.

When I was eighteen, I moved into a share house with friends. I quit my job as a plumber and made a deal with my housemates: if I cooked for them, they would cover my rent. I didn’t know how to cook many dishes to start with – only simple things like omelettes, spaghetti and rice. So I would call Mum and ask for advice. She was never in a rush and would patiently guide me through the dishes over the phone. Soon my friends were saying, ‘Wow, your food is better than our mothers’.’ After training and working as a chef in Tehran, I opened my own restaurant with two of my friends, it was a shisha shop, and a very successful business.

I didn’t know how to cook many dishes to start with … So I would call Mum and ask for advice.

Unfortunately, I had to leave all this behind because of my religious beliefs. I was an atheist and it wasn’t safe for me to stay; my life was in danger. In Iran, if your parents are Muslim then you are a Muslim, it’s even on your National ID certificate and you can’t change that. If you do, then by law the government can execute you.

I only had one week to leave the country or I would be arrested. Everything happened so quickly. I found someone in the Tehran Grand Bazaar who could help me escape. I was trying to go somewhere nearby, like Turkey, Azerbaijan or Armenia. I never thought of coming to Australia, but that was the only option. I left everything behind. I didn’t even say goodbye to my family or friends. If I communicated with them, they could also be arrested.

The fishing boat was small, there were 113 people on board but it only had capacity for sixty. We spent thirty-eight hours crammed tightly together – it was like dancing with death.

When I arrived in Melbourne, I handed out my résumé to over fifty restaurants and cafes all over the city, but nobody wanted me. They asked for Australian qualifications and references. Some said my English was not good enough. Only one person offered me a job, washing dishes for $8 dollar per hour. It would have been easy to give up, but I didn’t.

I was lucky to find the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. I joined the English classes and volunteered in the kitchen. I cooked Iranian dishes and discovered that many Australians hadn’t tried Persian food. The feedback was always positive, and people kept asking if I had a restaurant. It was my dream to open my own cafe, and in 2019 I launched SalamaTea, a social enterprise that employs refugees and asylum seekers facing the same difficulties I faced when I first came to Australia.

It was my dream to open my own cafe … in 2019 I launched SalamaTea, a social enterprise that employs refugees and asylum seekers.

SalamaTea is a small cafe but I employ as many people as I can. My goal is to train people and give them enough confidence to gain employment. It doesn’t matter if they can’t speak English or if they don’t have qualifications or a reference; we take them on. Finding job opportunities is one of the most important things for people seeking asylum in Australia. So many people face the same difficulties I did when I tried to find work. The constant rejection can cause depression. People lose hope and don’t feel like they are part of a community. I wish I had two or three SalamaTeas, so I could employ more people.

One of our most popular dishes is ‘Dadami’, which means ‘from my father’. It is a very special recipe to me. When we were kids, whenever my father visited his sister in northern Iran, he would bring back a big tub of labne. We loved eating it, but we would get sick of it after a while. So Dad created this dip as a way of using up the leftovers. I remember Mum used to make a bread roll with Dadami in it for my school lunches. Now when I eat Dadami it brings back a lot of memories. It’s more than just food. It’s my culture.

The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in partnership with Black Inc., has published Seeking Asylum: Our Stories, featuring the stories of refugees, shared in their own words. 100% of net proceeds go directly to the ASRC to support and empower people seeking asylum. Out now in all good bookshops and