Refugee spirit fires a future of hope

Afghan asylum seeker Mariam Mohammad Rahim raises thousands of dollars for other students experiencing disadvantage while also pursuing a future in medicine.

A Monash humanitarian scholarship recipient, she knows first-hand the transformative power of education – and kindness.

Mariam Mohammad Rahim’s mother, Lailoma, knew she had to get her two young daughters out of Afghanistan. It was 2013 and her husband had passed away, and without a man in the family, the girls were at risk of being forced out of education and into marriage.

“Girls were getting kidnapped on the way to school,” says Mariam, her voice wavering at the memory. “One time I heard someone say, ‘you take that girl, you take the other girl, and I’ll take their mother.’ That’s when my mum said, ‘if we stay here, this is going to be our future’. It was better for us to risk everything and leave.” Mariam was 10 years old, and her sister Asma was 11.

A treacherous voyage to Australia followed. Somewhere near Indonesia, their “tiny and scrappy” boat broke down. Around midnight, in pitch-black, it sank. Six people drowned. Separated from her family and without a life jacket, Mariam clung to a stranger to keep afloat.

In the water, I couldn’t see anything. I was screaming my mum’s name,” she remembers. “I didn’t know where she was or if she or my sister were alive."

Eventually she was plucked “like a fish” from the water by an Australian officer. On the rescue boat, she was reunited – with immeasurable relief – with her family.

They were then sent to Christmas Island and granted bridging visas.

Melbourne, where there is a strong Afghan community, became their home. With the support from that community and the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC), the family found its feet.

Mariam Mohammad Rahim
"I shouldn't be the only lucky one," says Mariam.

Monash scholarships

Mariam’s mother learned English – so proficiently that she was soon teaching it to other asylum seekers and new arrivals to Australia. And Mariam and Asma pursued their dreams to study medicine – a goal they had set after their father’s battle with blood cancer.

The sisters excelled at their local high school, Fountain Gate Secondary College. Tertiary study – out of financial reach of many asylum seekers – became their reality thanks to the ASRC guiding them to the alumni-funded Monash University humanitarian scholarships.

Without this, they faced full international student fees for their undergraduate degrees, which they began in 2019. Now, both aspire to postgraduate medical studies, waiting with fingers crossed as their applications are processed.

But Mariam was not content with simply being a beneficiary of people’s goodwill. She wanted to help others achieve the same. Today, through the Monash Alumni Outreach Program, she can be found hitting the phones to raise funds for new scholarships and awareness about the program, and thanking donors. At last count she had raised more than $32,000.

“I shouldn’t be the only lucky one,” she says of her efforts to help more students attend university. “At my high school, other students also had ability but [were unable to afford the fees]. They had to go to TAFE or find alternative pathways.”

Work ethic

Residing in Australia on a temporary Safe Haven Enterprise visa, Mariam isn’t eligible for government student loans or subsidies, so she also works in more than one job.

In her first year of university she landed an internship at Cross Yarra Partnership (CYP), a consortium of engineering and construction firms working on Melbourne’s Metro Tunnel rail project. She was soon working in the surveying department, despite having no experience in the field. “It was full on,” she says. “But I was open to opportunities.”

Over two years working at CYP during university holidays, Mariam also gained experience in law, finance and sustainability, and developed soft skills she sensed would hold her good stead. “I learnt so much about communications and networking – skills that I will use later in my life and through uni as well.”

Making the most of every moment

These days it’s a challenge to find a spare moment in Mariam’s week. Between full-time study and fundraising, she works at Monash Health administering COVID-19 vaccines, and as a ward clerk. Through Melbourne’s lockdowns, she also delivered food packages to asylum seeker students who had lost casual employment.

There’s not one day I have to myself,” she says cheerily. “My friends say, ‘when can we see you, it’s been ages’, and I say ‘not now."

Community spirit

Mariam says she genuinely enjoys being busy, and she is motivated by a desire to make people feel better. “Seeing my mum happy and proud and seeing the smiles on people’s faces during our lockdown deliveries means so much,” she says. “Everyone has their own situations and problems, and to get one smile back, I think that’s the biggest reward you can get.”

Mariam’s work in the community also gets her out of her house. With two new infant sisters at home (her mother remarried in 2015), life can be hectic. “A lot has changed since we moved here,” she says.

And as the Taliban has once more taken hold in her home country, she says she is even more grateful for her mother’s actions, and the opportunities that followed.

We didn’t come here to sit at home – we came here to follow our dreams. And those kids in Afghanistan who have the same dreams as us – we owe it to them to work hard and push ourselves."

There is a level of maturity in her approach to life that belies her young years, but Mariam says she has this mindset because of the obstacles and hardships she has faced. “Not a lot of people have lost their dad at the age of eight, come by boat to Australia and seen death in front of their face,” she says. “These kinds of things just toughen you up.”