News

Iraqi refugee in Cobram dreams of becoming local doctor

By Spencer Fowler Steen

Since fleeing war-torn Iraq to Cobram, Mohammad Al Mousawy and his family have been through hell.

There was a fire in which his parents suffered third degree burns, with doctors giving them a slim chance of survival.

And racism, which has left one of his sisters with an aversion for school and facing more abuse.

Despite unimaginable suffering, Mr Al Mousawy has become an exemplary school and community leader, excelling in everything to which he has turned his hand.

And his mind is set on becoming a doctor.

Not just your run-of-the-mill doctor – he is aiming much higher (and bigger) than that.

Mr Al Mousawy wants to manage a hospital in Cobram and, if that doesn’t come off, start his own medical clinic.

In a spacious, light-filled room built by Mr Al Mousawy and his brothers, with a large Persian rug on the floor, and steaming cups of tea resting on a gold tray, with the customary dates and snacks included, life is a long way from the violence left behind in Iraq.

Now 20, he was just six months old when his parents Sheyma and Sam fled their homeland in 2000 due to persecution from dictator Suddam Hussein.

Many of his family members, including both his grandfathers, were killed for being Shia, a minority sect.

Although he was too young to remember, the refugee boat carrying him and his family was intercepted by Australian Border Patrol and he spent the next three months in the sweltering heat of a detention camp on Christmas Island.

After a transfer to an Adelaide detention camp, Mr Al Mousawy and his family moved to Shepparton where they lived for a few months until his dad found a job on an orchard in Cobram, joining a large Arabic diaspora.

“From 2001 to 2009, there was a very large Arab community in Cobram, about 50 families,” he said.

“It's a lot cheaper to live in regional Australia — they get jobs on farms, then move to the cities for to build better lives for their kids.

“There's probably only four Iraqi households here now.”

Mr Al Mousawy's father worked hard to build the best possible future for his family.

He bought a 22.7-hectare farm in Cobram where he started his own contracting business, but in 2006 tragedy struck.

“Dad was washing his hands with petrol to get the grease off them after work, but the petrol caught on fire, which set the house alight,” he said.

“Both my parents suffered third degree burns and were given a 10 per cent chance of survival.

“They were rushed to The Alfred hospital and dad had to have skin grafts from his thigh put onto his back.”

Mr Al Mousawy was at school when he heard the news.

“We had to go home and I saw a mob of Arabs at my house saying my parents had died or had been in a car crash — no one knew,” he said.

“At the hospital my mum was wrapped in linen and I was scared to see her face.

“They were lucky to survive and it was hard for my parents to recover – it was traumatic for them.

“When I got older, I look back on it and see how significant it was for my life, I was so scared because I didn't know what was happening.

“We’ve had to deal with a lot, but we’ve persisted.”

Now, Mr Al Mousawy, the second-eldest of seven, lives in Cobram with his parents and siblings David, 23, Maryiam, 17 Ali, 16, Fatima, 10, Ahmed, 5 and Naser, 1.

While attending Cobram Anglican Grammar School, Mr Al Mousawy was driven to make the most out of any situation.

He became school captain and organised a number of events, including a school formal which raised more than $1000 for farmers in need.

“As a school captain, my aim was to create a sense of community wherever I went,” he said.

“I created a program that allowed big kids to mix with little kids to create a sense of belonging amongst a Prep to Year 12 school.”

Mr Al Mousawy also spent a short time volunteering for the Cobram Fire Brigade and has been a part of Cobram Roar soccer club for years where he won multiple titles.

Even in the face of racism against him and his siblings at school, Mr Al Mousawy always aimed to unite people and foster understanding rather than facilitating division.

“In Cobram, the Italians before us faced racism and, coming from an Arabic background, we faced the same,” he said.

“My siblings and I had to face that and, at times, I had to retaliate for them.

“My younger sister was home-schooled because of the racism and now she doesn't like education.

“It's affected me mainly through the affect on my sister.”

Mr Al Mousawy said after the 2019 Christchurch shooting, which involved a white man open firing on two mosques filled with Muslim worshippers, he felt compelled to make an impromptu speech at school aiming to foster solidarity.

“I didn't want to put it on everyone else — I tried to create a sense of belonging,” he said.

“There is only small minority of people who are bad and that's what stands out.

“I tried to bring out the positives in a negative situation.”

Although Mr Al Mousawy's parents have always had big hopes for him and encouraged him to become a doctor, but he was hesitant in making big commitments until he had got older and seen how his education progressed.

“My parents wanted me to have a big career, but I didn't want to commit to it because I might not have liked it,” he said.

“I was always good with computers from a young age, and then I fell in love with biology at school.”

Mr Al Mousawy has his own Instagram page dedicated to his obsession with biology, showcasing everything from how electrical signals work in the brain, to animal anatomy.

So naturally, after graduating dux of his school, Mr Al Mousawy is studying a Bachelor of Biomedical science at Victoria University in Melbourne, after which he plans to study medicine.

“I'd like to graduate from the city and come back to Cobram to work as a GP, managing a hospital, or start up my own clinic as plan B,” he said.

Once restriction ease, Mr Al Mousawy will make the transition from university Zoom classes in Cobram, to living at student accommodation in Footscray.

But he's adamant he will still come back every few weeks to visit his family in Cobram which has provided him with nothing but love and support along the way.