Ahmad Hakim always dreamed of university education, he just never thought it would happen.
He has lived through the Iraq-Iran war, dodged death a few times, fled his country and flown across the world to rebuild a life in Australia with nothing more than $20US, a blanket and the clothes on his back.
Eight years on and Ahmad is the first Ahwazian Arab man in South Australia to graduate from University – an extraordinary feat for someone who spoke no English when he first arrived here in 2008.
Although there is a small community of Ahwazian Arabs in Adelaide, Ahmad deliberately made no contact with his fellow Arab speakers for six months while he immersed himself in the culture and language of Australia.
Ahmad regularly visited local shops hoping to learn a bit of English, finding a friend and teacher in an Italian migrant who worked at a second-hand shop.
“Everyday I would visit him and say hello and he would talk to me like I understood him,” says Ahmad.
“Slowly I recognised words and I was able to engage in more conversation and my English improved.”
Ahmad’s hard work paid off and within six months of arriving in Adelaide, he was working at the Adelaide Convention Centre working his way up from a dishwasher to cook while studying Commercial Cookery at Regency TAFE and working evenings in the Royal Adelaide Hospital.
Ahmad was working 15 hours a day, six days a week, managing to squeeze in some time to socialise with friends, Aussie and Ahwazian.
Then his life took another unexpected turn when he fell in love with an Australian primary school teacher.
They soon married and started a family and at the mature age of 35, Ahmad decided he would pursue the education he always wanted, feeling more determined than ever to secure a stable future for his family.
Although his English was fluent, Ahmad remembers how nervous he felt the day he sat the Special Tertiary Admissions Test at Wayville Showgrounds.
“There were hundreds of people in that hall,” Ahmad says.
“And a lady was sitting in front of me crying.
“When I saw her walk out before the test even began, I thought the exam was going to be too hard for me, especially because English isn’t my first language.
“I nearly walked out, but I felt something keeping me there.
“And I’m glad I did stay because after all my studying and stressing I knew the answers and I knew how to write them in English.
“When I walked out of that hall I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.
“Whether I had passed the exam or not, I was so proud of myself.”
Ahmad was even prouder when he received confirmation from the University of South Australia that he had been accepted to study International Relations in 2014.
“My wife brought the letter to me and just started crying,” Ahmad says.
“I was a bit worried initially until I realised they were tears of joy.”
So why did he want to study politics when he had to flee his country because of it?
Ahmad says that is was the opportunity to discuss, analyse and debate politics without the fear of retribution that he was interested in.
“Compared to Iran, which is thousands of years old, politics in Australia is really interesting because it’s come a long way in a relatively short time since European colonisation in terms of its democracy and the services it provides to society,” Ahmad says.
“Australia is in a strong position in the world, scientifically and economically and that’s what I find interesting to learn about.”
Bordering Iraq and the Arabian Gulf, the Persian occupied province of Khuzestan, formally known as Arabistan, is the city of Ahwaz, rich in oil and gas.
Despite supplying Iran with over 80 per cent of its oil and gas and 30 per cent water, the Ahwazian Arab inhabitants have been forced into a social underclass.
Ahwazian Arabs are subject to severe discrimination by Iranian security, intelligence forces and the judiciary routinely target them for the most minor offences.
Offences can include wearing traditional dress to a football match or speaking out against the treatment of people resulting in imprisonment, torture and/or execution.
Ahmad doesn’t like to reflect on the past too much instead he likes to look forward to the “shiny” future.
More determined than ever before Ahmad strives to be the best person that he can be.
So determined in fact, that what began as a professional work experience placement in his final year of study, landed Ahmad contract employment as a multilingual liaison officer with an Adelaide Senator.
“It’s been really good for me to feel supported and to have my opinions listened to and valued,” Ahmad says.
“Here in Australia, politics and politicians are so different.
“In Iran, you’d be lucky to ever see a politician – they’re like celebrities with their chauffeur-driven cars surrounded by security.
“If you ever have the privilege to speak to one, you have to show the utmost respect.
“So I have much respect working for Senator Alex Gallacher.
“Every time he speaks to me I can’t help but call him Sir, and if I’m sitting at a desk I have to fight the urge to stand up in respect.”
But it is not just the formalities that Ahmad has had to adjust to; it is the respect that is reciprocated.
Ahmad is feeling valued and supported for his work and he could not be any happier.
“I don’t know how I’ve done it, but I have,” Ahmad says.
“And this year I am doing my Honours degree to give myself and our family the best possible edge in life that I can.
“People think going to university is scary. They think you have to be well organised.
“Well, life isn’t organised.
“We have two young children and my wife and I are both studying.
“We are flexible, patient and caring of one another. It’s the only way to get through it.
“University is fun. It’s an adventure.
“You have to work through the unknown, through the stress, and you achieve something for all your efforts.”
There is no doubt that Ahmad’s life so far has been an adventure, working through the kind of stressful situations that no one ever wants to experience – war, near death, homelessness, isolation, not to mention racial and religious discrimination that he now faces in Australia.
But what is captivating is his strength of spirit.
A spirit that never feels disadvantaged, sorry or hateful, only grateful for the opportunities life presents.
Ahmad is the first Ahwazian Arab man in South Australia to graduate from university.
He aims to complete his Honours in International Relations by the end of 2017.
Three more young Ahwazian people are set to graduate within the next couple of years.