Imam Zainadine Johnson and his family left Syria after about five months.
Imam Zainadine Johnson and his family left Syria after about five months.

My life as a fugitive in Yemen

AN INTERNET search led Imam Zainadine Johnson and his family to choose Syria as the first destination to immerse themselves in Islamic culture.

They moved from Australia in 2004 to a large mosque in Damascus which also ran as a school.

Imam Zainadine studied Arabic for five months but there were aspects of Syrian life which did not seem correct to him.

He said President Bashar al-Assad had visited the mosque during Ramadan and Muslim men had been told they would need to shave off their beards if they wanted a residency visa.

This and other things prompted Imam Zainadine to move with his family to Yemen.

They arrived in the capital of Sana'a where Imam Zainadine used the little Arabic he knew to catch a taxi to the Al Eman University, the national Islamic university of Yemen.

He was able to register himself as a student and immediately began studying the Arabic language.

His studies continued six-days-a-week for the next five-and-a-half years.

He became fluent in Arabic after the first two years and spent the next three-and-a-half years studying Sharia and Islam.

The curriculum was tough.

It involved a lot of memorisation and referencing books 1000 years old.

"I never studied to get a qualification.

"I studied because I wanted to learn my religion.

"I just kept going and was really interested in everything they were saying."

His wife also studied at the women's section of the university, learning Arabic.

"Yemen was amazing.

"The people were very nice."

He spent the majority of his time at the university.

"It was quite peaceful really."

His family would drive to the Beach of Aden for annual holidays to go swimming and fishing.

But the mountainous desert landscape of the country left Imam Zainadine yearning for Australia.

"I used to get homesick in Yemen.

"I would miss the beach and you would miss the greenery a bit."

He was stranded in Yemen because his travel had not gone unnoticed by the Australian Government.

A year after arriving in Yemen he was notified by email letter from former Minister for Foreign Affairs Alexander Downer that his passport had been cancelled.

It told him he was believed to be a danger to Australia and a foreign country.

"I was like 'wow, what do we do now?'.

"It was just a real shock."

He decided to pay $700 to enact his right to appeal.

There was an ensuing court case in 2006, at which Imam Zainadine appeared by telephone from Yemen.

"We came to the agreement that the government would send me a profile and evidence about why they believed these things on me."

The agreement was he would then have a chance to respond.

He said he received a folder in a post office box but the piece of paper with the evidence was blacked out.

"There was nothing there."

Imam Zainadine said he contacted the appeals tribunal and was told the government was within its rights to withhold that evidence.

He said he was told to write a letter telling the tribunal why the government might think he was a threat.

"I said 'there will be no letter because I haven't done anything wrong. It's obvious I'm guilty because I'm a Muslim'."

He then hung up.

"I lived the next four years as a fugitive in Yemen."

Not having a passport was tough for his family because they did not know if someone would knock on their door and take him away.

"My wife had to travel by herself."

He almost died of typhoid and his children kept getting sick.

His fugitive status was another motivator behind his intense study, having come to the realisation it was the only thing he could do.

"I see it as a blessing from Allah because if that hadn't happened to me I might have packed it in and gone back to Australia."

Imam Zainadine said the years of no communication from the government ended in 2009 when he received a phone call from an ASIO officer.

"He said he wanted to catch up with me about the situation with my passport."

He said the officer was new to his case and was willing to meet him in Yemen to speak with him.

Two weeks later they met in a restaurant, sat and talked.

At the end Imam Zainadine said he was given the options to either come back to Australia, apply for a passport or keep living the way he was.

His past experience with the appeal made him reluctant to spend money on applying for a new passport but he did it anyway.

He said it arrived within a week.

"They knew they had messed up."

He travelled back to Australia with his family shortly after and stayed for about two months.

He used the time to catch up with family as well as give lessons and sermons on Islamic topics around South East Queensland, including with the Sunshine Coast Muslim community.

Imam Zainadine said on his return to Yemen the Yemeni government started to give him a hard time after they learning of his previous passport issue.

So he applied to continue his studies at a university in Jordan.

His family left Yemen in 2010 but they were denied access to Jordan when they arrived.

Imam Zainadine and his family were put into an airport jail and told they would be staying with the other prisoners for six days before being sent to Australia.

He managed to negotiate a better solution.

"I was nice to them and I was respectful and I asked if I could go to Egypt," Imam Zainadine said.

He said the officials were pleased with the proposition so he was allowed to buy tickets to fly his family to Alexandria that night.


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