Young, smart and unable to pursue a future

Amir Douraghi Nezhad came to Australia as a small child and grew up here, studied here and achieved an ATAR of 91. But despite all that, he will be forced to pay international student fees to study at university.

Last year he graduated from his Brisbane high school in the top 10 per cent of the state. To pursue his education in nursing, and achieve his dream of helping his fellow Australians, his family is pouring their savings and house deposit into privately funding his education.

The situation is echoed around the country for .

Amir and his family got on a fishing boat in Indonesia in 2010, when he was 7 and his brother a preschooler.

They spent 14 days at sea, surviving on water and dry instant noodles. After their boat sank late one night, they spent more than an hour in the ocean, in pitch darkness, before being rescued. Somehow, everyone on the boat survived.

Despite their horrific journey to Australia, the family has thrived here; working, paying taxes and studying. Amir began his Australian schooling as a grade 2 kid who spoke no English. Last year he graduated in the top 10 per cent of Queensland students.

Now studying nursing, he hopes to transfer to medicine after completing his undergraduate degree. But it will be costly, the nursing degree alone will be about $120,000.

The family hold temporary protection visas which, despite recognising them as refugees owed Australia’s protection, under government policy can never be converted into permanent protection visas.

Thousands of young people who grew up in Australia in these circumstances are denied places at universities and TAFE because they cannot afford the international student fees Australia imposes on people on temporary visas. More than 500 people living under community detention orders are forbidden from enrolling in tertiary education at all, as well as working.

There’s honestly no rhyme or reason to it, Amir says. People are truly suffering. They’re playing with people’s lives. It’s costing me my future.

Despite this, Amir still wants to give back to this country by becoming a doctor.

There’s enough to go around, he says. Your success doesn’t take away from our success. I would like to sit down with someone who’s against refugees; I would like to understand their mindset.

This issue represents a sharp policy difference between the two parties: if the Coalition retains power, nothing changes. If Labor wins, it has promised to grant permanency to more than 19,000 temporary visa holders who have been recognised as refugees but must reapply for their visas each three to five years.

A spokesperson for Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews said if temporary protection visas were abolished, it would act as a beacon to people smugglers.

Regular re-assessments of Australia’s protection obligations to people who came illegally by boat ensure that these people can return to their country of origin when it is safe to do so, rather than settle here permanently.

Labor’s home affairs spokeswoman Kristina Keneally said converting these visas – only available to people Australia has recognised as refugees – into permanent visas would let them get on with their lives.

These are people who have lived in the community for a decade – they work, they pay taxes, they’re part of the community.

But there will be no such pathway to certainty for more than 11,000 asylum seekers and refugees on temporary bridging visas living in Australia, regardless of who wins government.

Aaliyah* was 19 when she came to Australia with her family in July 2013, the second boat to arrive after then prime minister to resettle everyone who came by boat to that country, or a third country.

Aaliyah and her family were sent to Nauru, where they spent two years. There, she was sexually assaulted. She saw a mother hang herself in front of her children, and watched people set themselves on fire. She was medically evacuated to Australia and spent years in detention and community detention before being granted a bridging visa that gives her work rights but no access to HECS.

Aaliyah was two years into a dentistry degree in her home country, which The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald have agreed not to name, before her family fled. Now, without tens of thousands of dollars a year to spare, she is unable to study.

All my 20s have gone, and I have nothing left for myself, she says. I feel lost. Study would be some identity, but I can’t do anything. I have nothing in my resume … what can I say [to employers]: ‘two years of studying, nine years ago? ’

For these students, the only hope is a scholarship, but these are hard to come by.

Refugee Education Special Interest Group, which advocates for refugee students, estimates there are only several dozen scholarships available around the country.

The group’s chair, University of NSW senior lecturer Dr Sally Baker, said denying young people an education was a lost opportunity for Australia, as well as the students.

It creates these huge inequalities, and it’s just such a complete waste of talent and opportunity.

Avantika, 19, is one of the lucky ones. She has lived in Sydney on a temporary visa since 2014, two years after her family came to Australia by boat.

With the support and encouragement of Durga Owen, a Western Sydney lawyer and refugee activist (herself a former Tamil refugee), Avantika applied for a scholarship at Western Sydney University.

When the call came through telling her she’d been successful, Avantika initially thought it was a hoax.

She is determined to make the most of the rare opportunity she has.

It gave me hope, she says. I wanted to study medical research and get into work, so I can support my mum.

*Not her real name

The Age and Herald undertook this project courtesy of a grant from the Michael Gordon Fellowship, administered by the Melbourne Press Club.

The Morning Edition newsletter is our guide to the day’s most important and interesting stories, analysis and insights. .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *