When Jamshid Rahimi Azar fell down last month, there was nobody to help him.
“As I was going out I had a fall on the asphalt in the front yard,” he told BuzzFeed News. “I was experiencing sharp pains and had to crawl back to the stairs as I was feeling extremely light headed.”
Rahimi Azar’s right leg was amputated above the knee in December 2019, after treatment for a cancerous tumour in his muscles was unsuccessful. At the time of his surgery, the Iranian man had been waiting for more than six years for his refugee claim to be heard by the Australian government.
Then the coronavirus pandemic struck. Now as he is learning to live without his leg, even the limited support he was expecting is out of reach.
“The prosthetic leg is not the right fit for me and I am constantly falling and injuring myself,” Rahimi Azar told BuzzFeed News. “I have lost all self-confidence and hope.”
Restrictions to limit the spread of COVID-19 mean most of his medical appointments have been cancelled, according to a report written by his treating psychologist in April.
“He has not received appropriate treatments such as physiotherapy for adapting his amputated organ to the prosthesis. This has caused him to fall many times during the previous month,” wrote psychologist Dr Hoda Barazandeh.
She concluded that his isolation and physical condition have left his mental health in a critical condition.
“I feel I have fallen into a well,” Rahimi Azar said. “I have no support and I have no ability to get out of this deep hole.”
His psychologist wrote that Rahimi Azar was still learning to move with one foot and was unable to do daily tasks such as cleaning and cooking. He lives in a sharehouse, but he is not close with his housemates and they are out at work during the day. His house also has stairs that are difficult for him to navigate. He is no longer able to drive.
Rahimi Azar is one of 13,000 asylum seekers on bridging visas in the Australian community waiting for their status to be resolved. As an asylum seeker, he cannot access the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). He has a caseworker, but they are not medically qualified. He is desperate for a carer, more appropriate accommodation, and equipment including a better-fitting prosthetic and a wheelchair.
Without a carer, Rahimi Azar would normally rely on friends for support. But even that is difficult right now.
“Due to the social distancing rules, his friends stopped visiting him and he feels much more isolated and forgotten,” Barazandeh’s report stated. “Since he does not have anyone in Australia to support him, he is feeling isolated, hopeless and helpless.”
Rahimi Azar used to work as a chef and pay taxes in Australia, but is now unable to work and struggling financially. According to a January 2020 letter from a doctor at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, Rahimi Azar will be unfit to work in any capacity for the next two years. He receives $820 a month in an asylum seeker payment from Centrelink, of which $200 is left after rent. He was already struggling to pay for medication to treat his asthma.
Both the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre’s letter and the psychologist’s letter advocate for Rahimi Azar to receive the disability support pension, which is double the payment he currently receives.
But Australia’s welfare agency Centrelink has told Rahimi Azar’s caseworker he is ineligible for the disability pension because of his visa status. As an asylum seeker, he is ineligible even for the JobSeeker unemployment payment.
Rahimi Azar, 41, has lived in Melbourne since 2013, after being held at Darwin’s detention centre for three months.
Asylum seekers who arrived by boat around that time — known as the “legacy caseload” — were barred from applying for protection until receiving a formal invitation from a government minister, which could take up to four years. And even then, they could only apply for temporary visas.
In April 2017 Rahimi Azar was finally able to apply for a five-year safe haven enterprise visa. But he is still waiting for an interview with the Department of Home Affairs. The department did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ questions about the lengthy wait, but it is not uncommon: at the start of April 2020, almost 6,000 people from the same broad cohort of boat arrivals were waiting for the department to decide on their applications.
Even if his claim succeeds and Australia recognises him as a refugee, the fact that Rahimi Azar arrived by boat means he will only be eligible for a temporary visa, and therefore won’t be able to access the NDIS or the disability pension. However, he might be able to get the “special benefit” welfare payment — equivalent to Jobseeker — and the coronavirus supplement. The only other alternative is for home affairs minister Peter Dutton or acting immigration minister Alan Tudge to exercise their so-called “God powers” to grant him a visa.
Rahimi Azar began to experience pain in his leg in December 2018. That pain was only diagnosed as cancer in mid-2019. By that time, the cancer was already metastatic in the muscles of his right leg. It was amputated 10cm above his right knee in December 2019 at a Melbourne hospital.
The decision to amputate has brought him “intensive psychological pain”, his psychologist wrote, “and he has been unable to get used to a life with one leg”.
Rahimi Azar told BuzzFeed News that the loss of his leg makes him feel “defenceless”.
“I keep the lights on at night as I am afraid I will not be able to defend myself if something were to happen,” he said. “I sincerely plead publicly for the home affairs minister and immigration minister to consider my needs with compassion. May they hear me.”