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SYDNEY – They gather under the blazing sun and blue skies of an Australian beach, looking out at the water that once symbolized so much misery: Terrifying boat trips marked by sickness and death and the constant dread that their own lives might be nearing the end. But today, the sea will become their unlikely savior.
For these five asylum-seekers, a novel program introducing them to the iconic Aussie sport of surfing is helping to transform both their feelings toward the ocean and their lives and allowing them, at least for a brief time, to forget the pains of the past.
"We know that getting into the ocean and surfing makes everybody feel good," says Brenda Miley, surf school director at Let's Go Surfing, which is providing the lessons. "... I just think it's a win-win because it helps build confidence, they learn some skills, they learn about being a local Aussie."
There is a rush of nervous laughter and chitchat as the men file into the Let's Go shop at Sydney's famed surf haven, Bondi Beach. Inside, instructors Conrad Pattinson and Will Bigelow demonstrate how to put on wetsuits.
Amin, an asylum-seeker from Iran, flexes his muscles under the neoprene and chuckles. He has been urging his fellow Surfing Without Borders buddies along all morning, eager to get on a surfboard for the first time. But he admits his excitement is tinged with anxiety.
Like the tens of thousands of asylum-seekers who have fled to Australia in recent years, Amin's trip involved a harrowing ocean crossing that began in Indonesia, where smugglers pack migrants into rickety boats that frequently break down or capsize. Those who survive the journey are often scarred by it.
Amin's memories of that trip and the relentless seasickness that came with it are dark. Today, though, he hopes to forget all that.
Down on the beach, Pattinson and Bigelow give the men a pep talk. They explain how the current works and the different parts of the surfboard.
"We're going to make a plan to keep it safe and get heaps and heaps of waves," Bigelow says.
Amin eyes the turquoise water, where the swells are gaining strength. He asks how far out they will go. "Not deep," Bigelow assures him.
The students practice standing on the boards from the safety of the sand. Pattinson warns them that if they don't use proper form, they'll lose their balance and "do a helicopter." At this, he circles his arms wildly. The men crack up.
Finally, it is time to hit the water. The men slide onto their boards and paddle toward a sandbar where the waves are breaking. There, the instructors help maneuver the students' boards into the proper position. And when Amin is ready, Pattinson pushes him forward onto his first wave.
Amin presses himself up with his hands, pops into a brief, unsteady crouch and...
"Fell down, no good!" he says. Undeterred, he wipes his face, grabs his board and paddles back out.
One by one, the men make their first shaky attempts as Pattinson and Bigelow whistle and cheer. Flanked by other student surfers, they are largely indistinguishable from the rest of the rookies: Their hips wobble, their arms "do the helicopter," they occasionally collide, and they belly flop more than they stand. But more than anyone else in the water, they laugh.
This kind of joy is exactly what the staff at Settlement Services International hoped to achieve when they launched the surf program last year. They knew their clients were grappling not only with the trauma associated with their boat journeys and the wars and persecution they had fled, but also with the anxiety of settling into a new country.
Sandra Oehman, a case manager at the not-for-profit organization and a surfer herself, researched the concept of ocean therapy, which has been used to help everyone from sexual assault survivors to war veterans. Many find that being in the water and focusing their energy on riding the waves produces a calming sensation that helps clear the mind. Maybe, Oehman thought, it could do the same for her clients.
Her manager, Robert Shipton, thought it was a brilliant idea. After all, their organization's goal is to help asylum-seekers adapt to their new culture — and what could be more Australian than surfing?
Conscious that students might harbor fears of the ocean, instructors took a gradual approach, says Miley, the surf school director. First, they encouraged the men to go in the water just up to their hips, then helped push their boards onto the waves, and calmed any jitters along the way.
The technique worked wonders for the dozen or so participants, who quickly gained confidence and became so enamored with the sport that many of them now surf on their own, using boards donated by locals and the surf school.
"We just found that once we just encouraged people and got them in and gave them that safe space to be in the water, that very quickly those worries about anything that had to do with the water — that just disappeared," Shipton says. "And it's now to the stage where they're like, 'Let's go to the beach, we want to go surfing, let's do it more!'"
Danny, an asylum seeker from Iran who was part of the pilot group, says surfing helped clear his head of the horrors he left behind.
"It was very different from my (boat) journey," says Danny, who like the other students spoke on condition that their last names be withheld to protect themselves and loved ones in their home countries. "My worries when I was in the ocean were gone and I had the feeling of freedom. And I was happy."
Back at the beach, Kumar, an asylum-seeker from Sri Lanka, hops off his board after riding a wave into shore. He can't stop grinning. In his former life as a fisherman, he spent a lot of time on the water. But it was nothing like Bondi.
"I will never forget this," he says. "Ever."
The waves are growing along with the students' fatigue. Amin's muscles are tired, but he isn't ready to quit. Bigelow pushes his board onto a wave. Amin stands up for a brief moment — then pitches face-first into the water. He emerges from the whitewash, claps victoriously at his progress and paddles back out for more.
Another wave is coming. Bigelow counts it down: "3-2-1... Go!"
And this time, Amin has it. He stands up, steady on his feet, coasting atop the water and whooping in glee. "AHHH!" he screams. "It feels good!"
In the shallows, he pauses to catch his breath, face lit by a smile and the warm Australian sun. Today, that miserable boat trip — and the fear that went with it — feel a world away.
"I took a chance in my life," he says of his journey to Australia. "I have to win or lose my life. I didn't lose, I win — because I was stronger than the ocean."
Then, surfboard slung under his arm, he turns and trudges jubilantly back into the sea.