Zahid, his younger brother Rami and his father emigrated to Australia from Lebanon in the mid-1970s, when Zahid was nine. They settled in Melbourne, where his aunt lived. She did what she could to help the family, coming at the weekends to cook and clean for them. But Zahid’s father could not manage.
‘My father was not able to look after me and my brother’, Zahid told the Commissioner.
He ran away from home when he was 10 and was picked up by police some time later and made a ward of the state. He is not exactly sure of the chronology – he spent some time on the streets, and some in foster homes. But as a 14-year-old, he was sent to a detention centre for boys, where his brother Rami eventually ended up as well.
The institution was a difficult environment for Zahid. ‘I had cultural differences with the place, I wasn’t – you know, their way of things and my understanding of things, we were always clashing and I got into a lot of trouble in there.’
One day he got into a fight with another boy and a youth officer, Richard Whaley, intervened.
‘Whaley grabbed me and took me into the back office and had a go at me and then pulled my pants down and just assaulted me’, Zahid recalled. The abuse became regular, with Whaley dragging Zahid from his cell at night. Zahid knows Whaley abused other boys as well, including Rami.
The abuse lasted five to six months and caused Zahid to run away numerous times. But each time he was brought back to the institution. He didn’t report what was happening to anyone. In fact he had never disclosed it at all until he spoke to the Royal Commission. But its impact on his life has been huge. Much of his adult life has been spent in jail for drug, driving and other offences. He first started using drugs as a teenager, when he ran away from the institution. ‘Before that I didn’t even smoke’, he said.
He was in jail when Rami took his own life – the direct result of the abuse he’d suffered, Zahid believes. ‘He was the only one I’ve had … I’ve looked after him his whole life, and he was gone.’
He was in jail when he spoke to the Commission.
‘I don’t cope very well [outside jail]’, he explained. ‘I start using drugs. I’ve been trying to hide, I have been trying to mask everything that’s going on in my life my whole life, do you know what I mean? I’ve been trying to escape from everything. I don’t want to deal with anything. It’s too hard.’
But he did see some cause for optimism. Before his present incarceration he’d been out of jail for longer than the time before. Now, due to be released in four weeks, he thought he might be able to stay out for even longer. ‘I stayed out for four years without incident, then I went back in for just a minor brain fail, as I like to call it. So I’m getting better … I’m feeling more confident.’
He was hoping he might be able to check into rehab. And he was planning to resume visits to a psychologist he’d seen before. He has seen many psychiatrists over the years, he said, and been diagnosed with depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress. But until this one, he hadn’t found them helpful. ‘They’ve been quick to diagnose and quick to medicate. But most of it has been bullshit.’ He is a practising Muslim and is regularly visited in prison by an Imam.
He was looking forward to seeing his children again. He has several, with different partners. He remains on good terms with them all. ‘Not once have I been stopped from seeing my kids or them from seeing me. I’m a good dad. I’m just a shithouse husband’, he said. ‘I want the best for my kids … I’ve never done anything wrong towards them or towards their mothers. It’s not in me.’
Zahid had never reported his abuse to police. But as an inmate in a correctional facility he’d come across Whaley, working as a prison officer. It had seemed it would be dangerous to pursue the matter at that time. After speaking to the Commissioner, he decided to reconsider, once he’s out of jail. ‘I just don’t want my brother to have died for nothing’, he said.
Zahid believes that the responsibility for his abuse lies with the system that put him in the institution – ‘Why couldn’t they put me with a family?’ he asked – and the institution itself, which allowed the abuse to happen. ‘What do you do? You feel like you’re a number and you don’t have a voice. That’s what they make you feel like. No trust. They take your trust away from you, they take hope away from you. They take all that away from you’, he said.
‘I just hope that this sort of shit stops, do you know what I mean, because it’s ruined many lives. It’s left a lot of people distraught, a lot of people that are stuffed, they’re broken … No matter what you do, there’s something fractured inside them from that instance on … And that’s something that can’t be fixed – it can’t be fixed. I mean, I have suppressed it for a lot of years. Nobody has known anything because I don’t tell anybody anything. I’ve almost married [a few] times, and because I can’t open up to them I’ve lost my relationship with them. My brother has lost his fucking life, his kids have lost their dad. Something has got to be done, somebody has got to be held accountable. The buck has got to stop somewhere.’