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Being a refugee is about courage

“Being a refugee is not something shameful. In fact, it’s an honour to have survived and made it through,” says former refugee and Australian Red Cross support worker Mohammad Almadi.

"I am the first face they meet, this is a great honour and a big responsibility," says Mohammad Almadi. He helps us welcome refugees and humanitarian entrants starting a new life in Australia.

”Getting to where we are now wasn’t an easy journey. It was a journey full of challenges, fear and difficulties, as well as big achievements and a lot of support.”

By definition, refugees are survivors, he says. “They have survived because of their courage, ingenuity and creativity. If we support them to recover from their persecution and rebuild their lives here, Australia will reap the benefits.”

Mohammad, a father of four, was born in Iraq to Palestinian stateless refugees, and has spent his life as a stateless refugee. But that all changed last year when, at 51 years old, he officially became a citizen of a country for the first time. “I’m proud to be an Australian citizen.”

He will never forget first arriving in Australia and the airport immigration officer telling him she had never met someone who didn’t belong to any country.

She asked ‘Are you planning to stay in Australia?’ We replied ‘Yes.’ Then she said ‘Welcome home, I hope one day you will be able to proudly say I am Australian.’ And I am. That was our first impression of Australia and Australians, and it is still today.

Mohammad Almadi

That journey to find a safe and welcoming place to call home has taken him 17 long years.

Back in 2003, Mohammad’s family – his five sisters, brother, mother, as well as his wife and their children – were living happily in Iraq. He had a degree in electronics and communication engineering and worked as a technical manager for a medical equipment company.

But all that changed in March that year, when an intervention in Iraq by US-led coalition forces began what would turn into an eight-year-long war. “[In 2005] we fled to the Syrian border where we were registered by the UNHCR [the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] and told to stay in the refugee camp.

We spent from 2006 to 2012 waiting for our refugee applications to be finalised – it was the longest six years of our lives. We spent them fleeing from one country to another, not for tourism but because we weren’t welcomed.

Mohammad is the only one in his extended family granted an Australian humanitarian visa and he arrived here with his wife and children in 2012. “We have been scattered around the globe. My mother and two of my siblings are in Sweden, a sister in USA, another sister in Spain, one sister in Jordan and one in UAE. I haven’t seen my siblings since we fled from Iraq.”

Once in Australia the family received government support – provided to refugees who arrive through a formal resettlement program – to help them settle in. “Moreover, we were able to access a lot of other services that non-government organisations provide to refugees.”

What he loves most about life in Australia is the healthcare and education systems. “Before coming to Australia, thinking about my children’s future and whether they were going to be able to live a healthy life or have proper education, was like a nightmare.

“The biggest challenge for my wife and I was securing a job. There is no job provider that is specialised in helping refugees fit into the right occupation that matches both their overseas experience and qualifications. If there was such a thing it would be great.”

Since arriving Mohammad, who settled in Perth, has earned two masters degrees – one in engineering management and one in business administration – from Curtin University.

Eman, his wife, has trained in early childhood education and now works in a childcare centre. While their three eldest children have graduated high school and are at university – one is studying marketing, one dentistry and another pharmacy.

Mohammad is a long-time Australian Red Cross volunteer helping other refugees, and people seeking asylum, through programs like home tutoring and a job cafe. “I started volunteering with Red Cross shortly after arriving … I still volunteer to this day … Red Cross has been helping refugees for a long time, and acknowledge and understand refugees’ problems, strengths and needs.”

Almost three years ago he joined our staff, as a Bilingual Support Worker for our Humanitarian Settlement Program, and has received a special Red Cross Service Award for his work. The team Mohammad works in supports refugees and humanitarian entrants in Australia during their first year here as they become self-reliant and active members of the community.

“I take on different roles but the role I love most is welcoming new arrivals at the airport, taking them to their prepared short term accommodation and conducting the first induction.

I am the first face they meet, this is a great honour and a big responsibility. I feel as though I do not just represent myself or Red Cross, I represent Australia.

With every person he meets, he learns new things. “I can only respect those strong people, and try to give them everything I can. I hope to continue making them feel welcome and make them feel a sense of belonging.

“They want to make sure their kids can go to school. They want to work, and they want to contribute to our communities. Just like anyone they seek a life of dignity, freedom and security.”

Since 2017 Red Cross has provided a warm and dignified welcome to over 4,400 newly arrived refugees and humanitarian entrants from more than 30 countries. That support, delivered with funding from the Australian Government, is made possible thanks to dozens of dedicated staff and volunteers, like Mohammad, along with community members and our many, many partner organisations.

We believe everyone – no matter where they come from or their life story – deserves to live in an inclusive community, where they have the opportunity to participate and feel like they belong.

Find out more about how Red Cross teams support people seeking safety in Australia