A Permanent Haven


When Hawraa Alsaai, her parents and her little sister arrived in Australia seeking asylum in mid-2002, the family was traumatised after leaving Iraq. They were among the 200 passengers on the infamous ‘children overboard’ boat, the Siev IV. The family was subsequently detained on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. At the age of 13, Hawraa enrolled at Footscray City College and began to learn English for the first time.

I was in between classes at Swinburne University when Mum rang to tell me the letter from the Immigration Department had arrived. We won’t be on Temporary Protection Visas (TPV) anymore. She was really excited. I was too. Being accepted to stay permanently in Australia is so important to me. Now I am free, and I feel I can speak.

Last year was hard. Dad had wanted me to be a doctor but Year 12 was difficult. I was devastated when the mid-year results came out I didn’t think I had done that badly in the exams. I so wanted to do well and I had worked very hard.

Dad was angry. I would never be a doctor. But I didn’t want to be a doctor anyway.

Eventually my diabetes, which I was diagnosed with in detention, got very bad and I had to stay in hospital for a week. After that I just tried to get on with it. I had work to catch up on.

Meanwhile, I had to decide what to do. I wanted to go to uni and work in the medical field. I had made up my mind about that when I was hospitalised in Cairns with diabetes that first time. I liked the idea of medical radiations but I couldn’t do that because I had not chosen physics at Year 12. But I could do Engineering and Biomedical Science. I needed an ENTER score of over 70 for that.

I needed to get good marks but because I was a refugee on a Temporary Protection Visa I needed more than that. At school they knew about my ‘temporary status,’ but on the Victorian Tertiary Admissions Centre (VTAC) form there was only room for Australian citizens, permanent residents or international students. I was none of these. If I couldn’t get on the VTAC form, I couldn’t get an ENTER score.

The school said I was an international student for the purposes of VTAC, even though it wasn’t true. There are two universities in Melbourne that have special ways for asylum seekers to apply but the only uni that was appropriate for me was Swinburne, and it didn’t.

The day the results were announced, I was so nervous I got someone else to find out my results and tell me. I got 72.35! Surely that was enough to get into the course. I was scared and anxious waiting to find out.

My family’s visa had run out in April 2006. In January this year, we still didn’t know whether the Department of Immigration had decided if we could stay or not the uncertainty was hell. Mum was very stressed and Dad had to go to hospital. He was sick with heart problems. In hospital they took veins from his leg and used them to fix his heart. He was still sick and stressed and Mum was missing my three brothers who we had to leave behind in Iraq. My parents watched the news every day and the war in Iraq was getting worse.

No one at Swinburne understood my situation. Every time we contacted the university, it seemed we spoke to someone new and had to start all over again. Every time, we would get a different story about what I could or couldn’t do; whether I could get in or not. No one ever had any clear answers. Eventually, I got an email from Swinburne saying they would accept me as an international student. But that meant I had to pay full-fees they wanted more than $20,000 for the first year. I didn’t even have enough money to phone my friends.

I had been through so much to get this far. But just before the deadline to accept the offer was up, some friends offered to help find the money. It is really difficult to explain how it feels to have lots of people we don’t know who want to help us. There is much good in this world and it makes it possible to keep on trying.

Swinburne wanted me to pay $9650 before I could enrol. Fortunately this was changed so I could pay in instalments. With $2000 left to pay, another friend got her Visa card out and others promised to help too. I was able to enrol. There was three days of queues I waited for three hours in one.

So many people have helped me. A lovely woman at Swinburne gave me a second-hand computer. Someone else helped me work out my timetable. And there were always people trying to make it easier for me. I needed all the help I could get.

My first class was a lecture which was really good, but Lab Prac was hard. I nearly cried. It was a class full of boys who seemed to all know each other. I was the only girl and we were asked to form groups. I was left alone in the middle of the room. No one noticed. There was a table with just two boys on it, so I approached and asked if I could join them. I couldn’t understand anything much of what happened. I think I was just nervous.

Uni is hard. My first day was really tiring and I was so busy I didn’t get home until 7:30 at night!

I tried to get a transport concession card but I couldn’t because I was enrolled as an international student. My local Member of Parliament is going to see if that can be changed for me. Eventually I found out it wasn’t even necessary because I had a Health Care Card. It took weeks to find this out. Everything gets so confusing. There are so many details to care about.

Then some really good news came the uni decided to take $5000 off my fees; and they gave me $500 for textbooks the books at uni are extremely expensive. Now I only have another $2650 to find for this semester

By the start of Week 2, I was having fun and things were looking up. My timetable was fixed, I had all my books, the Immigration Department made its decision and I was granted permanent residency. I won’t have to be an international student anymore which means I am eligible for a HECS place.

Everything is OK now. I am accepted as a refugee. I am happy. My parents are happy. My little sister is happy. I am at uni and I’m determined to do my best.

As a result of Hawraa’s case, Swinburne University of Technology is reviewing its entry procedures for refugees and asylum seekers and considering the introduction of a scholarship system.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.