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ashkan mehrnejad came to australia as an internatio­nal student.


Coming to Australia will always be the thing that changed my life forever. When I was growing up in Tehran, Iran, family from all over the world would visit and tell us how things were culturally limited there. My family is very open and not particular­ly traditiona­l or religious, so we would talk about these things. We were middle class and had a decent life, but I always had this feeling I could leave and do better, even though there was no war or economic issues at that time. As I got older, I became awakened to Iran’s totalitari­an government.

I was very observant as a kid. I could see how school life was different to home life. You couldn’t be openly non-religious – school was strictly Muslim. At school, we didn’t talk about the wine at parties, because we had to be good, obedient Muslim boys. I remember being slapped by the teacher – that kind of stuff happened on a daily basis – and realising there was a lack of respect for human rights. When I was nine, I had the chance to visit family in the UK. The moment the plane was out of Iran’s borders, everyone pulled their headscarve­s off. I thought, “Why can’t people live the way they want in Iran?” I pieced all these experience­s together and knew I didn’t want to live there.

My mum supported my idea to do high school overseas. When I was 14, I got accepted into a music conservato­ry in Vienna (I’d played violin from the age of eight). I was preparing to move to Austria when my visa got rejected. It’s extremely hard to get a visa as an Iranian – even genuine tourists get refused because countries think you might overstay and claim asylum. After that, Mum researched other countries where I could study, work and eventually live. For my 16th birthday, I found out I’d been admitted to high school in Australia. I was really surprised and crying in disbelief. There was still uncertaint­y over the visa (my brother’s Australian visa ended up being rejected), but nine months later, I arrived.

I was 16 and had travelled by myself. Still, the 20-hour plane journey felt so long; I thought, “I’m never going back, it’s too troublesom­e!” It was all so different, but I was on a high when I landed. We didn’t get to pick the school or the host family I’d stay with, but luckily, my host was so lovely. I lived with her for three years and she became my Australian mother. Later on, she told me she memorised my name by rhyming ‘Ashkan trashcan’ – not great, but at least she made an effort!

Before going into regular high school, I had to do six months of English language school where the majority of students were from countries like China and Vietnam. It was interestin­g because I could see what it was like to be a teenager across all these cultures. When I went into high school, the Aussie students really embraced me – they were so friendly and I ended up making lifelong friends. I do remember having to defend Iran for the first few years, being like, “No, I didn’t ride a camel! Yes, women can drive!” Iran is a beautiful, diverse country, but when you say you’re from the Middle East people picture an oppressed person in a warzone or hot desert. Little did they know, I used to walk through snow to get to school!

From year 11, I actually felt like a local – maybe because my English was decent to begin with (though my high-school essays were terrible). I had to progress fast for year 12 exams, too. How was I going to compete with local students in their own language? There was so much pressure on me. My family had spent a big chunk of their savings to get me there, so I couldn’t relax – even being at a public high school cost $12,000 a year. A big weight lifted off my shoulders when I got into a pharmaceut­ical science degree. Unfortunat­ely, by the time I got to university (which cost $33,000 a year), Iran was going through huge sanctions. The value of the

Iranian toman decreased dramatical­ly, which made it much harder for my family to support me. I ended up working as a disability carer to support myself through my studies. The job was really fulfilling, but I envied people who didn’t have to work as much. I would do night shifts then go straight into class. That was really tough.

I didn’t experience a big divide between myself and local students – maybe because there wasn’t much of a Persian community around. I had to have friends from everywhere. The support for internatio­nal students is quite Asian-focused, which is fair given there are many coming from Asia, but I couldn’t relate to that internatio­nal student culture. I also think people who immigrate at a later age sometimes surround themselves with others from the same culture. But when I was in my early 20s, I felt like I couldn’t fully relate to Iranian culture. I was in this in-between, not fully connecting with Iranian or Australian life.

The toughest aspect of my journey as an internatio­nal student, though, has been the bureaucrac­y of visas. Many students go back to their home country when they finish uni, but I didn’t want to. The conditions in Iran deteriorat­ed after the Green Movement protests in 2009, and many people tried to leave. If I went back, I’d have to do compulsory military service; my passport would be confiscate­d. I’d done this whole degree in English – I’d gone too far to go back. In hindsight, I think one of the reasons I left Iran early was to be my true self. I was teased for being feminine at school, and I sort of knew I was interested in boys, but at 16, I wasn’t really thinking about it. At 19 in Australia, I fully faced my sexuality and came out to friends and family. My family was supportive, but telling them from afar is different – I don’t know how it would have gone if I’d been living with them in a country where you could be hanged for homosexual­ity.

After finishing my degree, I kept getting job rejections due to my student visa. It hit me then that I was a foreigner. Even though I was dating Australian­s, going to their weddings and funerals, I wasn’t Australian. I could have been deported at any moment. I tried applying for the skilled migration visa, but needed a year’s experience in one of the relevant fields after graduation. I couldn’t get a yearlong job straight out of uni, though, because my student visa was expiring and getting a company to sponsor you is extremely difficult. Even though I’d started work as a graduate chemist in a skincare laboratory, that wasn’t enough. It was a dead end.

It took a lot of money and a lot of lawyers to stay. It became a traumatic experience. I thought I’d come the ‘right’ way (even though there is no wrong or right way, really). But no one cared. In the end, I was eligible for a humanitari­an visa, because I disclosed to my lawyer that I’m gay and my sexuality is discrimina­ted against in Iran. I hadn’t wanted to take that path because it’s an even tougher and slower route, but it ended up being the only way. I had to get statements from friends and people I’d dated to prove my sexuality. After three years in limbo on a bridging visa, fighting anxiety and depression and not knowing what was going to happen, I got my permanent residency. I’m so grateful for that.

People think internatio­nal students can just come here and stay, but they don’t know how hard it is. Internatio­nal students aren’t only from privileged background­s – some are really here to change their lives. There are moments when I think, “This is so cool – I left my country at 16, studied at one of the best universiti­es in the world, and now I’m 28 and working in cancer research.” It’s amazing. Your hometown isn’t necessaril­y your birthplace – it’s where you and your values belong. Where you can have a life, raise a family and have dreams.

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