Sydney student Yaser Naseri's journey from hell to hope

19 June 2018
How a University scholarship helped a refugee find his feet

After his traumatic escape from Iran and a tragic accident on the open sea, a scholarship transformed Yaser Naseri's life.

Yaser Naseri

Yaser Naseri, who arrived in Australia as a refugee, is studying commerce at Sydney, thanks to support from University donors.

It's early morning on 17 December 2011. Yaser Naseri is trying to sleep below deck on an old boat lurching in the waves as it heads from Indonesia towards what he hopes is a new life in Australia.

The boat is meant to transport produce, not people, but there are about 250 asylum seekers crammed on board – too many, as it turns out. There are Afghanis, Syrians, Iraqis, Sudanese and Iranians like Yaser. Women and families on the upper deck, single men below.

Yaser watches the ceiling as it seesaws above his head. Right, left. Right, left.

"Then it went right and it didn't come back," he says. "The water rushed in. The noise was crazy. I grabbed the edge of the table I was lying on and hung on.

"Then I don't remember. I think the water pushed me out a window. I'm in the ocean and the boat is a long way off. There are people all around, all their stuff – baggage, luggage. We're not wearing life jackets.

"Close to me there's a bit of broken wood from the boat with a few people hanging on. So I swim to them and grab hold. We can see the boat has capsized. It's upside-down. The waves are very strong. There are dead bodies. People are crying because their families are dying in front of them and there's nothing they can do. People are shouting - Jesus, Allah, God. We can't see any land at all."

People are crying because their families are dying in front of them and there's nothing they can do.
Yaser Naseri
Yaser Naseri

Yaser Naseri spoke no English when he fled his home in Iran for a new life in Australia.

Yaser, now 36, is telling this story over a coffee at the University of Sydney's Wentworth Building. He's in his second year of a commerce degree, supported by an Access Scholarship. He has been living in Australia since 2014, when he was resettled with help from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

It has been seven years since he left his mother, father, brother and sister in Iran. When he fled his home, he was 29 years old and a member of the Iranian Green Movement, demanding civil liberties and protesting what many believed was the fraudulent election of then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Some of Yaser's friends and fellow activists in Iran had been arrested. One was shot dead by the militia. It was only a matter of time, Yaser believed, before the same happened to him.

He fled to Jakarta by plane, hoping to make his way to Australia. From Indonesia, he tried several times to catch a boat, only to be stopped by officials.

Eventually, he made it onto that ill-fated passage. Of about 250 people on board the boat that day, just 47 survived.

Yaser lived because he could swim. He pushed through waves five metres tall and heaving with corpses to clamber onto the capsized boat. It was slippery and heeling with every wave, but somehow he managed to hang on.

When he spotted a seagull, he knew it meant land was close. "I will never forget that bird," he says. "It gave us hope."

People get used to life – it's a habit for them. But I'm a bit different. I appreciate life.
Yaser Naseri

They had been in the ocean several hours when a speck appeared on the horizon – a lone Indonesian fisherman. His boat was too small to carry everyone left alive, but he took those he could without capsizing – just 34 people.

Yaser was among those who made it onto the fishing boat, forced to speed away from the survivors still in the water. As soon as the fishing boat reached a patch of reception, they called for help. It took three days for the authorities to mount a rescue. By that time, there were just 13 people left alive in the water to save.

These days, when Yaser wakes up in the morning at his share house in Glebe, he feels glad to be alive. "People get used to life - it's a habit for them," he says. "But I'm a bit different. I appreciate life."

That's not to say that things are easy. When he left Iran, he spoke no English. He spent years honing his language skills so he could study commerce at university but, he says, "because of my English, my work is doubled. I need all the words I don't know translated, so it's a bit more difficult".

"And it's not just English. It's how to study. How to manage all this information, how to adjust. It's all new for me."

Studying hard enough to pass takes most of his time, so a job is not an option. He was struggling to get by on Centrelink payments when an online search led him to the University's Access Scholarships and bursaries for students in financial distress. Both programs are funded with help from the University's donors.

"At that point, I didn't have hope," he says. "But then I applied and it came through. It was awesome."

The scholarship has given him support for the duration of his degree, while the one-off bursary payment allowed him to buy a laptop (the first he has owned), a backpack and groceries, as well as catching up on his rent.

He has made friends at University and is doing well in his studies. When he graduates, he hopes to work in e-commerce and perhaps run his own business.

He speaks to his family in Iran regularly and dreams of one day bringing them to Australia.

Since he left his homeland, Yaser has been surviving from moment to moment, but he has never stopped dreaming of and planning for his future.

"There was no option to go back," he says, "so that meant no giving up."

When leadership is for all of us, it is leadership for good.

Generous scholarships, entrepreneurial programs and industry placements equip our students with the support and leadership qualities they need to take on great global challenges.

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