Sarah Yahya, 19, was born hearing impaired in Iraq in 1995, to a Mandaean family that lived in fear for their safety. The Mandaean ethnic-religious group has been increasingly persecuted since not long after Sarah arrived in the world.
In the cover of night, aged six, Sarah, her sister and mother, were whisked from their home and driven 12 hours in to Jordan. Once there, they went immediately to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to seek protection. Their father had been arrested and was in prison, serving four years for his beliefs.
With their mother now the sole provider, Sarah took on the responsibilities of an adult, despite being just a child, to help her family get through the difficult time. “I had a lot of responsibility when I was quite young,” she said. “I had to look after my sister from about the age of seven, and make sure she got home from school and that the home was ready. So it was difficult.”
After seven years in Jordan, Sarah’s family was granted a humanitarian visa to move to Australia in 2007. Although excited and relieved by the fresh start, Sarah found new challenges in Australia.
“My sister and I didn’t know at first why we were fleeing Iraq,” she said, “for a long time we thought it was because of the war. We didn’t know that our religion was persecuted. Our parents protected us from that because they did not want other people to find out that we were Mandaean. This was good in a way but it made problems in the future. When we came to Australia they explained our religion, it made us think we didn’t know who we were or what our identity was.”
While dealing with this revelation, Sarah also had to adjust to school in Australia. “I was born hearing impaired but my parents didn’t find out until I was 11,” she said. “It was complicated growing up. It was a surprise to come to Australia and at a general health check-up, I was told that I was a fair way behind an average Australian of the same age. So I had to catch up on English and on everything else at school.
“Growing up was very complicated. I think people settling in Australia from another country may not realise the challenges – the mental health challenges. Looking back, I know that I had depression during that time but I did not know what it was until I was older.”
Sarah’s early circumstances could be considered a disadvantage by many, but she considers this experience to have strengthened her. Her achievements in just the past few years prove the case to be the latter.
Sarah’s experience with depression led her to volunteer work with youth mental health service HeadSpace. Her want to learn more about the Mandaean religion and ethnic heritage that had so affected her life, led Sarah to volunteer work in that community. Sarah has also volunteered with Rotary, and other organisations.
In 2013 Sarah was awarded a High Order of Australia for Community Service, a Defence Force of Australia Leadership Award and Rotary Youth Leadership Award. She has been chosen as an Australian representative at the 2015 Harvard National Model United Nations, and was sponsored by the University of Technology Sydney -- where she is completing a combined journalism and international studies degree -- to attend.
“Coming from a refugee background, I think I learnt a lot about responsibility and resilience and independence,” Sarah said.
Sarah will talk about her experience of being a refugee and settling in Australia at Settlement Service’s International’s next Speakers Series event on November 11.
“I’m using the event as a reflection,” Sarah said, “to talk about how people from refugee backgrounds can bring life skills that benefit society but they don’t always know how to apply those skills. I want people to know that the survival skills they have learnt over all those years as refugees can help them settle in Australia, if only they know what they are capable of.”
Event Details: SSI Speaker Series: The strength of youth: young people and their refugee experiences
Date: Tuesday, November 11, 2014
Location: SSI Auditorium, Level 2, 158 Liverpool Road, Ashfield
Admission by donation. RSVP: refugeeyouth.eventbrite.com.au
Thursday, October 30, 2014