Refugees find their paradise right here
A FEW years ago Mohammad Ahmadi was faced with a decision: stay in Afghanistan to be hunted by the Taliban, or take his chances on a boat to safety.
He decided to risk his life on a boat.
Commonly known as John, the Hazara refugee had already seen his father killed by Taliban forces, who regularly conducted searches of Hazara homes, looking for a forbidden item which would condemn its owners to death.
"If they found a religious book, they would kill you," John said.
"The Taliban would say 'if we kill one Hazara, we go straight to paradise'".
Unfortunately, John's story is not uncommon.
He is sitting in the Chandler McLeod office with eight refugees from Afghanistan who are working on farms around the Granite Belt.
All are Hazara - a Shiite minority in Afghanistan.
Seven out of eight came to Australia by boat, paying between US$6000-$10,000 for their passage to Australia.
When I ask why they decided to risk their lives on a boat, I get a simple reply.
"It's better to kill ourselves, because we are not safe in Afghanistan and Pakistan".
John explains that coming by boat was anything but the easy option.
"It was a gamble," he said. "Sometimes you think you're gone. The boat is not a strong boat."
The men tell me it is normal to have nearly 100 people packed onto a tiny old boat for the 15-day journey from Indonesia to Australia.
Hassan Kahi had a particularly harrowing journey.
On his first attempt to make it to Australia, the boat started to take on water.
As the passengers tried to throw the water out with buckets, they were discovered and taken back to Indonesia.
Despite being registered with UNHCR, Hassan was stuck in Indonesia for two years, one of which was spent in a detention centre, or a "prison" as he describes it.
Muhammad Reza also had a close brush with death.
Reza had a narrow escape from Quetta - a town on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Crammed into a car with nine others, Reza fled as their vehicle was peppered with bullets.
"We were lucky, we escaped from that area," he said.
Somehow, these eight refugees made their way to the Granite Belt.
However, most of these men remain isolated from family and friends, haunted by news from home.
Some of the men tell me six people were taken from their village only a few days ago - a punishment for "having a party" and "dancing to music".
This group know how lucky they are to have escaped, but have not forgotten those left behind.
I ask John how he likes Stanthorpe life.
"For me, Stanthorpe is paradise," he said.
John and friend Arif Alizada shared their stories with the Stanthorpe community following the screening of a refugee documentary at Artworks on Davadi last month.
The evening struck a chord with many locals, especially Amnesty International supporter Peter Burton.
Upon seeing the strong community reaction to the evening, Mr Burton was inspired to put his long-standing plan for a Stanthorpe Amnesty International group into action.
Since then, the wheels have been turning, with the town's first Amnesty group meeting to be held tomorrow night.
Mr Burton said the group would initially focus on refugee rights.
He said politics had given people a warped view of refugees.
"There's a group of like-minded people who think that politics is ruining Australia's attitude towards refugees," Mr Burton said.
The group will spread their message through public events, film nights and letter-writing sessions.
Mr Burton said he was keen to see more young people getting involved.
He said joining Amnesty was more than just a handy addition to your resume.
"It's good character building, and it's also a way to express yourself," he said.
Stanthorpe's first Amnesty International group meeting will be held at 6.30pm tomorrow, April 17, at Artworks on Davadi. For more information, phone Peter on 0477951051.