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Asylum seekers grasp at study access

Mustafa Nazari arrived in Australia from Afghanistan to start a new life, and pursue his dream of perhaps one day working for the United Nations.

By the time he’d navigated Australia’s immigration system, he was an 18-year-old on a bridging visa with limited English language skills. Despite the challenges, two years later he finished the equivalent of year 12 with a tertiary admission score of almost 90.

But Mr Nazari’s battle wasn’t over.

He had offers from five universities, but his bridging visa meant he must pay full, up-front fees as an international student.

“I had overcome one obstacle but it was difficult to pay for a course that would cost, at least, $40,000 a year,” he told AAP from his Sydney home.

For Mr Nazari, a scholarship covered the cost of his bachelor’s degree in liberal arts and science, which he is yet to finish.

Fellow asylum seeker and aspiring lawyer Parwana Rohani has not been so fortunate. The Perth-based woman arrived in Australia by boat along with her family in 2013 and must pay full fees to attend university.

She works full time and studies part time, enabling her to cover the $3500 per unit cost of her degree.

“There are other students in my class, who also came as refugees. I see how studying is easy for them because they only focus on their studies, not worrying about paying for their course,” she said.

“I am constantly thinking about how to get the money to pay for a unit of my course for the upcoming semester.”

Universities across Australia are increasing the number of scholarships on offer for asylum seeker students.

In 2018, more than 200 scholarships were offered to refugees on temporary visas by 23 universities across Australia.

That number has since increased, with several universities recently announcing new scholarships for asylum seekers. A scholarship usually covers tuition fees and in some cases, a stipend.

Caroline Fleay from Curtin University in Perth said scholarships provide “transformative opportunities for at least some people seeking asylum”. But the numbers of places are limited to meet the study hopes of some 30,000 asylum seekers on a temporary visa.

University of South Australia researcher Melanie Baak warned that a lack of educational opportunities can be damaging.

Limited post-school pathways can put an end to the dreams of many asylum seekers, she said.

“(This) can result in hopelessness, depression and frustration for dreams that are out of reach due to nonsensical policy decisions.”

The Department of Home Affairs said individuals on a temporary protection or safe haven visa “may have access to a range of services … such as education for school-aged children, Medicare and the public health system, assistance with finding employment if they have work rights, and translating and interpreting services”.

An end to temporary protection visas, and move to permanent visas, would provide the surest pathway to education, the Refugee Council of Australia said.

Mr Nazari recently spoke at a rally in front of federal Parliament House organised by Afghan refugees and asylum seekers. He called on the government to grant permanent visas to about 5000 Afghan asylum seekers in Australia and allow them to reunite with their families.

Mr Nazari’s family, including his mother, have been accepted as refugees by New Zealand, but his travel is restricted in accordance with his temporary visa arrangements.

“I miss my mother very much, I speak to her every day,” he said.

“I was desperate to visit them, I booked a flight to New Zealand but was turned away from Sydney airport.”

Mr Nazari’s motivation to study comes partly from his mother.

“She is my hero. She always encouraged me to pursue my university dream because as a woman she (was) not able to go school in Afghanistan.”

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