As the world’s media turned its spotlight to a Melbourne hotel where Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic was being held in detention, a man located just one floor above him marked a miserable birthday.
Asylum-seeker Mehdi, who prefers to just his first name for safety reasons, turned 24 on Thursday – his ninth birthday in captivity after having arrived in Australia by boat at age 16.

“[Djokovic] is detained in the same building as me and I’ve never seen more news crews outside,” he tweeted.

“It’s so sad that so many journalists contacted me yesterday to ask me about Djokovic. I’ve been in a cage for 9 years, I turn 24 today, and all you want to talk to me about is that. Pretending to care by asking me how I am and then straight away asking questions about Djokovic.

“I don’t need good food, or food free from maggots. What I need is a chance to enjoy my youth as a free man, that was wasted in detention.”

He’s one of several people held in the same Melbourne hotel as the world No 1 tennis player who have used the media attention to highlight their treatment by the Australian authorities.

Pro-refugee protestors and police officers stand together under an awning at the entrance to the Park Hotel, where Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic is believed to be held while he stays in Australia, in Melbourne, Australia, January 7, 2022. REUTERS/Loren Elliott
Pro-refugee protesters and police officers stand at the entrance to the Park Hotel (Photo: Loren Elliott/Reuters)

Mehdi is one of about 35 refugees and asylum seekers being held at the makeshift detention centre at Park Hotel, some of whom have been transferred from Australia’s offshore detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru.

The facility made headlines this week after Djokovic was denied entry into Australia on Wednesday over visa issues regarding his vaccine status and taken to the detention centre.

His parents, Srdjan and Dijana Djokovic, likened it to a prison and said the conditions were “terrible”. “His accommodation (is) terrible. It’s just some small, immigration hotel, if it is a hotel at all. With bugs, it’s all dirty. The food is terrible,” his mother said.

Many have been locked inside for months, and have complained about their living conditions and exposure to Covid during the pandemic.

Last month, asylum seekers shared photos on social media reportedly showing maggots crawling out of the food served at the hotel alongside mouldy pieces of bread.

“Imagine Djokovic here eating our food — they can’t feed him this s**t. I thought that even if they sent him somewhere they would send him to a penthouse or a fancy hotel,” Mehdi told Vice.

Food given to Hossein Latifi, an asylum seeker who is detained at the Park Hotel where Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic is believed to be held while he stays in Melbourne, Australia, is seen in this picture obtained from social media on January 5,2022. Hossein Latifi/via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.
Food given to Hossein Latifi, an asylum seeker who is detained at the Park Hotel (Photo: Hossein Latifi/via Reuters)

News crews gathered outside the hotel on Thursday, with pro-refugee campaigners also using the opportunity to protest against the treatment of asylum seekers, chanting “free, free refugees”.

Handmade signs on the windows of the hotel read, “I’m looking for my freedom”, while messages of support are scrawled on the exterior of the building and on the ground.

Mohammed Joy, another asylum seeker who has been held at the hotel for almost two years, called it “Park prison” and “torture centre”.

“We came for safety, not for playing tennis,” Mr Joy told the Australian chat show The Project.

Hossein Latifi, a 32-year-old Iranian who was detained in Nauru in 2013, was brought to Australia in 2020 and initially held in another facility before he was moved to Park Hotel four months ago.

He told Reuters he does not know how long he will be held there or where he might go next.

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“We are refugees, we are innocent people – we’ve not committed any crime. They just keep me like hostage here,” he said.

Adnan Choopani, another Iranian who was first detained nine years ago when he was 15, said: “I don’t wish Australian detention for nobody.

“Novak, you are not alone. You have lots of supporters, we love you, we want to see you succeed … we wish you all luck and wish you freedom, like how we wish for ourselves.”

Asylum seekers at the hotel expressed dismay at being asked by the media about Djokovic more so than on their own plight.

“There is a disappointment: everyone wants to ask me about Novak, what the hotel is like for him. But they don’t ask about us: we have been locked up in this place for months, for years,” Mehdi told the Guardian.

“It is not fair. Please, we want freedom,” Mr Joy said.