"We want to call Australia home"

Family sitting on a park bench

UQ’s first Refugee and Humanitarian Scholar on Refugee Week

Eight years after being forced to flee war-torn Afghanistan and the Taliban, a first-year physiotherapy student has been awarded The University of Queensland’s inaugural Refugee and Humanitarian Scholarship.

Omid Anwary was just 21 years old and living in Takhar Province in northern Afghanistan, where violent clashes between government forces and Taliban fighters were routine.

The young man made the difficult decision to leave his homeland and his family after Taliban rebels threatened his life.

“We had a fuel station with contracts with NGOs working in the province and I was afraid I would be further targeted by the Taliban after several attacks on the premises,” Omid said.

“It was a big decision, but I had to leave – it was for my own good and my family, too.”

Map of Afghanistan

As Australia celebrates Refugee Week, Omid hopes his story might help influence attitudes towards refugees.

“The decision to leave your home country and your loved ones to travel halfway across the world on a boat is not a decision most people take lightly,” he said.

“I know of so many people that didn’t survive the journey.

“From personal experience, it’s incredibly mentally taxing to escape one jail only to find yourself in another.

A group of Afghan men having their picture taken.

L-R: Omid Anwary, Omid's cousin, Omid's brother Ahmad Navid Anwary. This picture was taken a month before Omid fled Afghanistan. He is wearing traditional clothes and the photo was taken to celebrate his brother winning a gold medal in taekwondo.

L-R: Omid Anwary, Omid's cousin, Omid's brother Ahmad Navid Anwary. This picture was taken a month before Omid fled Afghanistan. He is wearing traditional clothes and the photo was taken to celebrate his brother winning a gold medal in taekwondo.

“We are genuine individuals who want to contribute to our society and be able to call Australia home.”

Image Credit: Adobe Stock

Omid had no idea how his life would turn out when he left his parents and nine siblings and flew out of Kabul for India in 2013.

He was then at the mercy of people smugglers on dangerous and frightening boat trips through South-East Asia.

“I sailed in very small boats, huddled and hidden in smelly fishing holds with dozens of other people.”

He was rescued by Australian authorities in international waters and spent one year in detention on Christmas Island before being transferred to the Darwin Detention Centre in 2014 for medical treatment.

Omid was granted a bridging visa nine months later and released by immigration authorities in Brisbane, with little grasp of English and few friends or contacts.

Image Credit: Adobe Stock

“I remember going to the city for the very first time without actually being guarded by security officers – I was a free man, it was a fantastic feeling not being treated like a criminal,” he said.

“It was amazing to sense and witness my freedom.

“We spent all day at South Bank but one thing that caught my eye that day, something which I can’t forget, was seeing the sense of happiness on the face of a father looking at his children having fun swimming in the pool like every other kid.”

People on a beach looking at a boat

Image Credit: Adobe Stock

Image Credit: Adobe Stock

People swimming in a lagoon

Image Credit: Adobe Stock

Image Credit: Adobe Stock

After 10 days in Brisbane, Omid contacted the only person he’d known from his time on Christmas Island – torture and trauma councillor Christine Cummins, who invited him to join her family for Christmas in the regional Victorian town of Bendigo.

He stayed in Bendigo for two years and started his first job working for the Australian Turntable Company as a technical machine operator, where he cut and manufactured parts for industrial-sized turntables.

By chance he heard of St Joseph’s Flexible Learning Centre in North Melbourne, which was offering to support Refugee and Asylum Seeker students in gaining their Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning (VCAL).

This kindled his dream to study at university, and within two years he had successfully completed the program, receiving the ‘Student of the Year’ award.

Man sitting by a river

Omid on his first visit to Melbourne in 2015.

Omid on his first visit to Melbourne in 2015.

It was his year in detention, highlighting the importance of access to adequate care, that inspired his decision to pursue a career in the health sciences.

He was offered a place to study a Bachelor of Biomedicine degree at Victoria University, which he completed last year.

It was also a busy time for Omid personally.

He met and married Kaitlin three years ago and 12 months later, they welcomed a baby son Kalim.

The young family is now settled in Brisbane after Omid was named one of the inaugural recipients of a UQ Refugee and Humanitarian Scholarship.

Omid has just completed his first exams as a Bachelor of Physiotherapy (Hons) student.

“I’m so privileged to be one of many students studying at The University of Queensland and living in the beautiful nature of Brisbane,” he said.

“This was an incredibly exciting opportunity for me and I’m extremely grateful to all the people that assisted and encouraged me to apply and supported me in the transition process.

“While I recognise certain places from my earlier times in Brisbane, it’s very different to be back with my family and settled into a home, rather than the sense of feeling lost and not having a support network around.

“I feel I’m looking at Brisbane through different eyes.”

Omid said he has always wanted to pursue a career helping people.

“I’m someone that loves to feel connected to people, coming from quite a large and extremely close family back in Afghanistan,” he said.

While playing in the sunshine at the St Lucia campus with his wife and young son, Omid expressed his wishes for his growing family’s future.

“I want my son to recognise how important education is and most importantly what a privilege it is,” he said.

“From my experience over the past seven years, I’m extremely proud to consider myself a part of the Australian community.

“I have met so many amazing individuals with their own compelling stories and know I will be forever changed and shaped by these people and experiences.”

Father and son touching noses together.

Media: Dr Jessica Gallagher, pvcgee@uq.edu.au, +61 435 961 173; Michael Holder, m.holder@uq.edu.au, +61 7 3346 0622.