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My story: fleeing conflict in Iraq and overcoming disability made me stronger

Sarah Yahya.

Fleeing persecution in Iraq and being granted asylum in Australia didn’t put an end to troubles for Sarah Yahya, now 19, who eventually managed to make the most fantastic lemonade out of a seriously sour batch of lemons.

My story: fleeing conflict in Iraq and overcoming disability made me stronger

I had a good life in Iraq until the age of about five. My grandmother was a famous actress, so I spent a lot of time in theatres watching her perform. But then everything changed.

My family belongs to an ancient minority religion called Mandaeism, which wasn’t a problem until war broke out. With the war came persecution for people from minorities. Suddenly we faced torture, rape, all the worst possible things beyond imagination.

My parents were very nationalistic, adamant about staying in Iraq. So they began concealing our religion, even from me.

Eventually my dad was arrested for opposing Saddam’s regime. I remember when the Iraqi forces came back for my mother, my sister and me in the year 2000. They banged hard on the door. My mother stopped doing the laundry and hid me and my little sister Sally, who was only a few months’ old, in the bedroom. I don’t know how long they banged for but it must’ve been a while because the house was drenched in water that was overflowing from the washing machine.

Next we received an anonymous note: “Get the hell out of here.

It turned out to be from my dad. His friend helped us cross the border to Jordan after collecting us from our home in the middle of the night. I remember that drive vividly. My mother was anxious. A nail on the back of my seat was hurting me, but I was too scared to say anything. I just looked out the window and wondered why the moon was following me. It made me feel calm. If the moon wasn’t leaving me, I wasn’t going anywhere.

Things changed drastically in Jordan. Now, as a 19-year-old, I watch my little cousin, aged eight, struggling to tie her shoelaces, and I think of how in Jordan, at about the same age, I was taking care of my little sister for long hours while my mother was at work. Would my little cousin be able to do that? Pick her sister up from kindergarten, get her home, prepare food for the family?

It was almost seven years before we were granted humanitarian visas by Australia, and another year before my dad joined us here.

We’d hoped for so long to move to Australia, so I didn’t expect the next three years of my life to be so terrible. Through a health check a doctor discovered I had profound hearing loss and needed hearing aids. Other tests concluded that my comprehension was very poor – despite being 12, I had the mind of a seven-year-old Australian. I was devastated.

During that time, my mum confessed to me that we were Mandaean. To think you’re one thing, then to learn you’re something else ­– I didn’t cope with the news well.

When I started at school, I was bullied for my disability and everything else. Once the bullies nearly broke my leg and I had to drag myself home. I didn’t tell Mum I was being tormented; she was struggling with establishing a new life.

I had no friends and I spent my lunch breaks in the school toilets. Many times I wished I was dead. I was battling depression, though I didn’t realise it at the time.

Due to my disability, I had special support teachers, and one day, one of them mentioned a national story competition to me. She was disappointed none of her students had ever entered, so I stayed up late writing one and entered it. I ended up winning, and finally I felt like I mattered and that I had a talent. I realised taking chances is a wonderful thing – my grandmother would have never ended up an actress if she hadn’t auditioned for a part in a Romeo and Juliet performance she saw advertised on the wall at her university.

From then on, I took every chance I could. I joined my student leadership council; I became part of Liverpool Youth Council, a Mandaean community youth committee, Rotary International and Lions Club. All of these positions gave me chances to help others, and that, I have realised, is my duty as a human being – to help and be helped.

In 2013, while doing my Higher School Certificate exams, the pressure led me to break down. My family and friends found out about my early struggles in Australia, and I was diagnosed with depression and an anxiety disorder. My family was very sad to hear it. I’m glad that all the feelings I’d been holding in came out. That’s when I came to be part of Headspace, Australia’s National Youth Mental Health Foundation, to help other young people with mental health issues.

Now I’m doing a Journalism and International Studies degree at UTS. I want to tell the stories of others and be involved in international diplomacy. I’m also involved with YMCA NSW Youth Parliament and Multicultural Youth NSW, a steering committee established by Settlement Services International (SSI) and multicultural organisations.

I’m proud of my achievements – I’ve been chosen as an Australian representative at the 2015 Harvard National Model United Nations, and my volunteer work led me to be awarded a High Order of Australia for Community Service, a Defence Force of Australia Leadership Award and a Rotary Youth Leadership Award.

I am thankful for the struggles I’ve endured – my disability, being bullied, and my refugee background. I have friends who were born in refugee camps, who came here by boat and lived in detention for long periods. I’ve told them, “You have skills that can make you more capable than an adult who has lived their whole life in one place.” Refugees have the persistence to keep going, they know how to take care of themselves and others, and they have a strong determination to live. These are skills that help people go far.

To find out more about Sarah, visit the Settlement Services International website:

Sarah is the winner of this year’s NSW Premier’s Multicultural Award, in the Youth category. 

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