UOW graduate Fadi Thabet. Photo: Paul Jones

From Iraq to Wollongong: how Fadi overcame the toughest time of his life

From Iraq to Wollongong: how Fadi overcame the toughest time of his life

Engineering graduate thrilled to have made a new home in Australia

Fadi Thabet was just two exams shy of finishing his degree. He had been studying telecommunication engineering at the University of Mosul, in northern Iraq, for four years. He had passed all his subjects, had submitted his thesis, and was looking forward to finding a job.

But on the day Fadi sat his final exam, everything changed. It was 5 June 2014.

“I entered university like normal, but when I left, there was something wrong. I finished my exam and received a phone call from my dad saying that I should return back home immediately,” Fadi said. “My brother was also a student at University. We left the uni, and saw a huge number of people walking as there were no cars allowed on the streets. We walked for more than two hours until we reached our home.”

On that “black day”, as Fadi describes it, ISIS, or Islamic State, had stormed the city of Mosul. For the next five days, the battle raged between ISIS fighters and the Iraqi army, but on 10 June, Mosul fell to the terrorist organisation.

Fadi and his family – his mother and father, and young brother and sister – were among the 500,000 civilians who fled Mosul, their home and birthplace, with little more than the clothes on their backs.

“ISIS forced us to leave because we are Catholic,” Fadi said. “We left to the north of Iraq, to Kurdistan. We were there for four months, then we went to Jordan.” 

The family were there for a year and seven months. They faced a long wait, with no end in sight, and nothing to occupy their days. 

“It was the hardest time that we faced,” Fadi said. “We couldn’t study and couldn’t work because there is a law that banned the Iraqi people from working in Jordan.”

In late 2015, the Australian Government announced that it was granting 12,000 humanitarian visas to people displaced by conflicts in Syria and Iraq. Fadi and his family applied to the Australian Embassy immediately, undergoing rigorous interviews, health checks, and workshops about what to expect in Australia.

“On the day we were chosen, it was just before Christmas four years ago. Everyone cried. It was the best gift we’ve ever received. After what we had seen, Australia is like heaven,” Fadi said. “They told us we were going to Wollongong, but I didn’t even know what this Wollongong was. I googled it and saw that there was a university there.” 

The family arrived in Wollongong in June 2016, and Fadi, who had spent two years away from study and work, was keen to start his new life immediately. Although his English was proficient, from studying his entire degree in the language in Iraq, Fadi undertook a six-month TAFE course in English for Academic Purposes to brush up on his skills.

“In our second week in Australia, my brother and I came to UOW to ask what we can do to get started. My brother studies mechatronics engineering. We didn’t have any papers with us from our time in Mosul because we left with nothing.

“Based on our results, they put us both in the second year of our degrees. I started in February 2017. I studied a lot and took on extra subjects, because I just wanted to finish as soon as possible. I had already studied my full degree. I lost a lot of years, almost seven years. It has been out of my control.”

Today (Tuesday 17 December), Fadi celebrated his graduation from UOW, alongside his family. Receiving a Bachelor of Engineering (Telecommunications Engineering) (Honours) was a proud moment for Fadi, who has worked so hard to forge a new life in a new country.

Now a junior network engineer for Hearing Australia, a role he landed while he was still finishing his studies, Fadi can’t believe how far he has come since arriving in Australia.

“In three years, I have finished my degree and got a job. I have achieved a lot, I didn’t waste any time.”

Throughout his degree, Fadi volunteered with the Red Cross, providing support and companionship to elderly people who live on their own and who might not otherwise have many visitors.

For Fadi, it was an opportunity to learn from the older generation and give something back to the community.

He also taught as a special religious education Catholic catechist for a Wollongong public school for the whole of 2019. He supports and helps the teacher, listens to and helps the children, and also prepare materials to give to them.

Fadi is full of praise for his new home, and said the last 10 years have given him a sense of perspective about what really matters. Fadi’s drive has also pushed him to achieve his dreams, even when they seemed unattainable. 

“Whenever I felt like things were out of control, or there was a lot of stress, I tried to focus on my goal to finish my degree. There has been a lot of stress, and I don’t know how I passed, but I did. You have to look at your goal and work towards that,” he said.

“After all the difficulties we have faced, I have a very clear picture of what is important.”

Fadi’s parents are thrilled to be watching their oldest son graduate. He has set a precedent for his siblings; Fadi’s brother is still studying mechatronics engineering at UOW and is due to graduate next year, while his sister, who is also at UOW, is enrolled in a double degree of in Telecommunication Engineering and Computer Science and has just finished her first year.

Fadi is incredibly proud of what he has achieved. Five years ago, when he was in Jordan unable to study or work, he never dared to dream that he would end up here.

“We don’t know what is going to happen to us. We cannot see the future, we don’t know what is ahead. I want to thank Australia, which has given me everything. 

“I also want to thank UOW because without it, this dream would not have come true.”