Simon Shahin is young, intelligent and has ambitious plans to contribute to the future prosperity of Australia. The 22-year-old is also a former refugee from Syria, who arrived in this country in September last year.
Before the civil war in Syria reached his home, Simon studied engineering. Despite being in Australia for less than six months, he has passed pre-screening tests and was accepted to continue his studies at Western Sydney University.
In the lead-up to Australia Day, Simon told SSI staff he wanted to use his studies to build a career as a renewable energy engineer. Just what we need.
Simon told us: “I have lots of plans and ideas I’d like to innovate and invest in, and when I graduate, I hope to start building these projects which will contribute, in my opinion, immensely to this country.”
Simon’s story made many of us proud that SSI is able to support him, in any small way, as he establishes a safe, positive and successful life in Australia. But his story wasn’t the only one that inspired recently.
Again as Australia Day approached, Australians heard more about the incredible story of former child soldier and refugee Deng Thiak Adut. Deng’s story is now well known. He was born in a small village in Sudan. Before he was a teenager, he was abducted and forced to join an army.
Deng’s own accounts of this time leave no doubt that he experienced and witnessed horrors most of us could never fully appreciate. The inspiration is what he has done with his life since. Deng is now a lawyer, who dedicates significant time and expertise to disadvantaged communities in western Sydney.
These were the stories I imagine NSW Premier Mike Baird wanted Australia to hear more of, when, in the lead up to Australia Day 2015, he said Australia could do more to help refugees. Mr Baird said at the time: Australia should “open our arms to those around the world who are much less fortunate than us".
Mr Baird’s words shone through an atmosphere of fear and suspicion of refugees and migrants around the world, Australia included. He acknowledged that refugees are not to be feared. These are people who are often scared. They are fleeing violence and persecution. Not looking to perpetrate it.
In his speech this Australia Day, the Premier again echoed those thoughts. He warned that Australia should not, out of fear, turn its back on the immigration and multiculturalism policies that had made the country so great. He said:
"We are one of the most successful and multicultural nations in the world.
"But I believe we are potentially at risk of losing what makes Australia the best place in the world to live, because some want to shut our doors and avert their eyes.
"To shut our doors to refugees, as many here and around the world are calling for, is to deny our history, to deny our character.”
Mr Baird said Australia owed a large part of its character to the success of people like Deng Thiak Adut. He could have included in that statement Simon Shahin and thousands of other names of former refugees now in Australia.
Note that the Premier chose Australia Day to make such speeches. It was equally telling that the stories of people like Mr Shahin and Mr Adut resonated so strongly with the Australian public at this time of year.
In January 2015, Australia’s collective fear seemed focused on terrorism perpetrated by outsiders. Yet the Australian of the Year Award was presented to Rosie Batty, who fought to protect Australian women from domestic violence.
Over the 12 months between January 26, 2015 and 2016, debate about refugees, multiculturalism and threats from outside Australia stayed in the headlines. This was a year when statistics showed 28,780 women in NSW (alone) were victims of domestic violence. More than 78 a day. Almost half those acts were committed by partners and ex-partners (source).
Nationalist, anti-Islam and anti-immigration campaigners stole much of the attention, while advocates like Ms Batty tried to highlight the violence many Australians face in their own homes.
So it was telling again that as discrimination against people not born in Australia or who follow a particular religion continued, an Australian of the Year who stands against discrimination was named.
Accepting the award, former Army chief David Morrison said:
". . . too many of our fellow Australians are denied the opportunity to reach their potential. It happens because of their gender, because of the god they believe in, because of their racial heritage, because they're not able-bodied, because of their sexual orientation, and we as a nation ... should be able to give them the chance to reach their potential.”
Perhaps this year, if more Australians follow the lead of our Australian of the Year, we will hear more inspiring stories from people like Mr Shahin and Mr Adut.