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Students in Focus

“My country collapsed under the Taliban regime. I came to Australia alone.”

Content warning: This story contains mention of war and conflict.

In 2021, Masuda Zafari was halfway through her six-year degree in medical science. She lived in Kabul with her family and was passionate about pursuing a career in healthcare, where she would have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of vulnerable people.

“When I was young, like 10 or 11 grades in my school, it was a lot of war and explosions in my country. At that time there was not enough medical professional in Afghanistan hospitals,” Masuda says.

During a period of political unrest and uncertainty – they heard the news that would change everything.

“Most of my family are female, so when we heard the Taliban were coming, we tried to leave the country.”

Masuda’s family – four sisters, her brother and mothe r– fled across the border to Pakistan, but Masuda decided to stay; if she moved to Pakistan as a refugee, her higher education dreams would be over.

Either way, Masuda knew things were going to change. She just hoped that she made the right choice.

“If I moved with my mum and siblings to Pakistan, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to study, so I stayed in Kabul,” Masuda says.

“I took that risk – to continue my studies and have a good future. Because of that, I was alone in Afghanistan.”

On 15 August 2021, the Taliban took power after the fall of the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

“I was at the university the day the Taliban took over the country. My friends, my teachers and all of the hopes that I had — I had to leave behind. I went home and stayed there for 10 days. I couldn’t go outside, it was too dangerous,” Masuda says.

“We were all in shock – how could we leave everything? Everything we made in 20 years; we lost in one day.”

By this point, the land borders had closed, so following her family to Pakistan was no longer an option. Masuda was trapped. What once had been her home had become unrecognisable.

“I was so disappointed about my life and scared for my safety. I decided at that moment, that death was better than living in regret,” Masuda says.

Masuda was one of hundreds of thousands of people who were evacuated from the international airport in Kabul in chaotic scenes that made international news.

“I heard that the Australian Army would be there,” Masuda says. “I tried for three days and three nights to enter the airport. People were being shot; people were getting crushed in the crowd. I was yelling for help – everyone was.”

“When I reached the Australian military, I told them my dad was in Australia, I showed them my passport and my university card, and then they took my hand.”

Once she was pulled onto the plane, Masuda was flown to Dubai, where she spent seven days. Then, there was a 12-hour flight to Australia, with two weeks quarantining in Darwin. When she finally arrived in Canberra, she was reunited with her father, after nearly 11 years apart.

“My dad came to Australia in 2012. He had been working with the United Nations in Afghanistan at that time; he was in danger and was seeking a better life for his children. He tried to secure permanent residency and the right to sponsor us, but he never got it,” Masuda says.

Two years on, and Masuda has been able to pick up the pieces and begin working towards a life once more.

Within a year, she achieved both a Certificate III and Certificate IV in Spoken and Written English from the Canberra Institute of Technology (CIT). Her previous study in Afghanistan could not be recognised, so she’s started a Bachelor of Medical Science at UC from scratch.

A new country, a new language, a new school system. Even the technology has been a huge adjustment.

“In Afghanistan, we use pen, paper and textbooks, so when I came here, I didn’t know how to type.”

“But I felt good and happy here, I’m glad that I can now study and achieve my dreams. Whether it takes three years, four years or more, I will catch up to my dreams,” Masuda says.

“I try to cope with the challenges by thinking about the brighter future that I am creating for myself and my siblings when they arrive in Australia. I hope that we can all be reunited and have a good life.”

Masuda is immensely grateful to the Australian community for the support she has received since arriving. From the workers that received her on her first day in the country, to the staff at CIT where she studied, to those that she’s connected with here at UC.

“I had a lot of support from the Australian community. The staff at UC have helped with everything, and thanks to this, I have finished the first semester.”

For her peers, friends and family left behind in Afghanistan, Masuda hopes to be a voice. Just because she is safe now, she hasn’t forgotten about those left behind.

“Schools, universities and government jobs are banned for girls and women in Afghanistan. Women aren’t allowed outside without a male guardian,” Masuda says.

“Others living in different countries, in Iran, Pakistan and Turkey, they don’t have the right to study. So even though they're not in Afghanistan anymore, they're not necessarily living a good life. I want to be a voice for their future.”

Story by Kelly White, photo by John Masiello

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