From devastation to dream come true for Yaser Naseri

26 May 2023
How hope led to a new life and a world of possibilities
Yaser Naseri (BCom 22) was an entrepreneur in the making before circumstances caused him to flee his home country of Iran. Years later, a University of Sydney scholarship opened the door to a degree and enabled one last family reunion.

Yaser Naseri joins our Zoom call after a busy week in his marketing job.  He’d be forgiven for wanting to wind down for the weekend, but he arrives with a burst of enthusiasm and the kind of energy that immediately draws you in. 

Yaser hails from Iran and arrived in Australia in 2014. His journey made international headlines.

“You might have read this story,” he says.

In 2011, Yaser was 29 years old living in Iran. His involvement with the Green Movement, a civil liberties group protesting what many believed was the fraudulent election of then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had put his freedom and life at risk. 

“I was heavily involved with the protests,” recounts Yaser. “A lot of close friends were arrested. A few were killed. You never know when they’re going to come after you, you don’t know if tonight is the night. I had to leave.”

Yaser tells his story of survival to help others. Photography by Stefanie Zingsheim.

Yaser had friends who had fled through Indonesia, which, at the time, didn’t require a visa prior to arrival. It was the fastest way out of Iran. 

On December 17 2011, Yaser was on a boat carrying 250 asylum seekers bound for Australia. Inside it was overcrowded, and outside, five-metre high waves tossed the boat violently from side-to-side.

When a large wave hit, the boat crashed onto its side never to return upright. Water rushed in, forcing Yaser and his fellow passengers out into the darkness, waves pounding over them.

As the hours went by, Yaser watched helplessly as those around him succumbed to the ocean.  After hours in the water, a small fishing boat appeared – far too small to carry everyone, but enough to save some and alert the authorities. Only 47 of the 250 adults and children making the desperate journey survived. They were taken back to Indonesia and detained.  

After being held for three months by Indonesian authorities, Yaser was able to make contact with the United Nations representatives and apply for refugee status. It took two years for the application to be accepted, and another year to get a visa for Australia.

It was like winning the lottery. I could finally start living my life after being in limbo for so long.

He arrived in Brisbane in 2014 with some English, but little confidence using it. 

“I had a few Iranian friends, but they had no networks, so I couldn't really rely on anyone, but I knew I wanted to go to uni so I started doing a Certificate II in English at TAFE.”

He also volunteered with the Red Cross’ Immigration Centre and the Refugee and Immigration Legal Service (RAILS), which provides free legal advice and education for refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants in Queensland.

Though he was settling in, Yaser found Brisbane to be a little quiet. Sydney reminded him of home.

“Sydney kind of felt like Tehran because it was a big city with a lot going on. Brisbane is a bit small,” he says.

The city also held the promise of a prestigious university education. After discovering that his Iranian engineering diploma wasn't enough to get him in, he took up a Tertiary Preparation Course. 

“It took me another year. So, all this time I was getting ready for university – learning English, doing the preparation course, and on the side I did volunteer and casual work,” he says.

An advisor at TAFE offered help in applying to university and suggested he look at scholarships to support his studies.

In 2017 he successfully secured a place at the University of Sydney Business School through the University's Access Scholarship scheme, which gave him support for the duration of his Bachelor of Commerce degree. 

After such a long pathway to studying, commencing his degree was an emotional experience. 

“I’ll never forget the first time I walked into a lecture theatre,” says Yaser. “For some people, that’s just a normal part of life but for me it was my dream.

I actually cried a few times in lectures because I couldn’t believe I was sitting there. I was thinking, ‘I should have died in the ocean or be stuck in Indonesia, and now I’m here in one of the best universities in Australia.

It wasn’t all easy going. Yaser was effectively starting over at 30-years old, learning to understand a new tertiary system in a new language in a new country.

“I had no idea how assignments and classes worked. It was a bit scary. People who are in high school here develop a foundation and get to test what they like. But starting again makes it harder to choose majors and things like that.”

Receiving the scholarship also meant that he was able to use some of the money saved from his casual work to see his family again after eight years apart.

“I couldn’t go back to Iran, so we met in Thailand. The scholarship really helped me to manage everything to do with my studies and use the little bit I had put aside from working to get to Thailand. I’m so glad I could do it because it ended up being the last time I saw my mum before she passed away.” 

Yaser graduating with a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Sydney.

When the time came for his graduation ceremony, Yaser says, “It was like a dream come true. I thought, ‘wow, if I did that, what else could I do?’” 

As it turns out, quite a bit. Throughout his degree, CareerSeekers, a non-profit that supports refugees and asylum seekers in finding internships, helped Yaser line up marketing internships with companies like Qantas.  He now works full time in marketing with Wesfarmers. He visits the likes of KPMG and Microsoft to share the benefits of employing refugees, donating his time through some of the organisations that supported him in finding employment following his degree.  

“Sharing my story was hard in the beginning, but it’s easy when it’s from the heart so that’s why I kept going. Managers reach out to me and say, ‘Maybe for my next role I’m going to employee a refugee.’ I love to see the impact.” 

When asked what’s next, Yaser’s positive approach and determination once again shine through.

“I plan to write a book on my experience, and I’d like to own my own business, maybe a cafe, or a marketing company. I don’t know yet but it’s a goal.”

By supporting education for all, you can help students from disadvantaged backgrounds to access university through life-changing scholarships, ensure they feel supported throughout their studies and enable them to achieve their full potential. 

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