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Refugee to nurse: student's incredible journey from Iraq to Sydney

25 August 2016

Six and a half years ago Maha Kamil arrived in Australia with her family as an Iraqi refugee. What she has achieved since leaving the war-torn country is remarkable.

When she got here the bright and bubbly nursing student, who is in her final year of study, didn’t speak one word of English. Just one year later, as a Year 10 student, she decided she wanted to go to university.

After sharing this ambition with her careers adviser, she took their advice to attend the University of Sydney’s Open Day. Maha says she had absolutely no idea of what to expect, what university was like – even what a degree was.

Travelling from Western Sydney with a friend and cousin, she does remember one thing vividly from Open Day – how it felt setting foot on the campus for the first time.

“When we got to the campus from Redfern station, I just fell in love. I knew this is where I belong. I fell in love with the atmosphere, the campus life and the vibe as well. I just thought ‘could I be studying here’? Really?”

Feeling welcomed and speaking with many different students and staff who shared their experiences is what brought Maha back to Open Day in years 11 and 12, this time with lists of questions.

“In Year 11, I had specific questions about where I wanted to be so I could narrow things down and know which degree to focus on. I also had other things in mind – I knew that I didn’t only want to come here and finish a degree. I wanted to graduate and make a difference.

“In Year 12 when I came along again, my questions were more refined. I knew that I had a lot to give and wanted to fine-tune where I could employ the skills I had.”

Giving is something that Maha has definitely achieved in the past three years of her Bachelor of Nursing (Advanced Studies) degree. Learning from others’ experience, and sharing hers with others to help them create their own, has been a recurrent theme in her involvement outside the classroom and in her workplace.

In the first year of her degree she secured a role as a paid undergraduate nursing student in a hospital, and has worked there ever since. She has also been involved in a number of programs as a student ambassador and mentor, including having the opportunity to return as a student volunteer to the Fairfield Intensive English Centre – where she first learned English.

Juggling full-time study, working, and getting involved was a lot to manage, but receiving a Sisters of Charity scholarship made that balancing act easier, Maha adds. This year she was chosen to help establish a society for scholarship recipients within the nursing faculty. It gave her and other students the chance to meet scholarship donors and share how they have benefited from donors’ generosity.

Now, with graduation on the horizon, looking back on the time that has passed since her first visit to the University, all the hard work, and the many opportunities she has put her hand up for, there is only one way to sum it up:

“There is no limit to the goals that you can set for yourself, and you can actually make them come true as a student.”

“I know I’ve made myself proud. I hope that, at the end of my experience when I do graduate, I have made my parents and my friends proud. And then I want to go back to the school I’ve come from and tell them, ‘well, you can do it.’ That would make all the difference.”