When the email arrived, everything changed.
“Congratulations, you have been … ” The rest of the words swam away through tears.
After the confusion of being forced to flee a violent homeland as a child, after the trauma of five years held on Nauru, Sahar Ghalsemi had been accepted into university in Australia. She would study law on a full scholarship.
“I was sitting here crying my eyes out, because I had achieved something for myself, Sahar says. “I had been allowed to. It was the greatest feeling.
“As a refugee, I’d always been made to feel that I couldn’t do things; the things that other people were allowed to achieve, they weren’t for me. So for me to be accepted to university … it was everything. I had fought for my future. I couldn’t stop crying.”
But after seven weeks at university in the first semester of 2022 – “the best days of my life,” Sahar says – the Australian government, without warning, rescinded her right to study.
She was forced to quit, her university required to disenrol her, and she has never been allowed back.
‘They tried to make me feel like I was not human’
Sahar was nine when her family – her mother, father and younger sister – were forced to escape their homeland, Iran, fleeing religious persecution. They left with almost nothing; a home, savings, a community all hurriedly abandoned.
Through a smuggling network they found their way on to a boat from Indonesia to Australia. After three days at sea it arrived at Christmas Island late on 12 July 2013.
The day they came ashore – the next morning, the 13th – was the day the Australian government changed its laws, proclaiming that all boat arrivals would be sent offshore and “would never settle in Australia”.
Sahar’s family was the first sent to the newly reconstituted offshore detention centre on Nauru. “They took away my name in that place,” she says. “I was just a boat number – TIB012. They tried to make me feel like I was not human. To this day, I still have this fear that they are going to send me back.”
The family endured for five years, bound by the strict confines of detention and the low horizons of the tiny island.
Sahar and her sister witnessed fellow refugees kill themselves and other children self-harm. They were abused, threatened and belittled by guards supposed to care for them.
“My children had nothing in that place,” says Sahar’s mother, Zahra. “No clothes, no toys, no education. Guards would follow them and search them. If my children had a piece of fruit that they wanted to take to the tent to eat, it would be taken from them. I tried my best to give them hope.”
The refugee school on Nauru – the girls’ one bright spot amid the barren camp – was shut down. They were too frightened to attend the local school.
“When I was in the camp, I always thought someone would come to save us,” Sahar says. “But they never did.”
‘I tried my absolute best’
By 2018 the mental and physical health of the whole family was failing. They were moved – under the short-lived medevac laws – to detention in Brisbane, before being allowed to live in the community in Sydney.
And there Sahar found school.
The transition was difficult. She struggled at her first school, studying in her second language – “I had missed so much school, all those years”.
A second school was a better fit. “I studied and studied and studied. It was really hard. I tried my absolute best.”
At the end of 2021 Sahar graduated from high school, an achievement she had long believed impossible. She knew she wanted to study law. And she knew why.
“It was because of what I have been through as a refugee. I knew I wanted to study law so that I can stop it happening to someone else, so that no one else has to go through what I did.”
And then the email arrived: “Congratulations … ”
Ultimately, Sahar was accepted into two universities. She chose the University of Newcastle, where she would study a bachelor of arts and a bachelor of laws on a full scholarship.
There would still be expenses but her community in western Sydney rallied to raise $50,000 to support her while she was away.
She moved to Newcastle, found digs, bought textbooks. And then she turned up for class. “When I went to uni, I forgot about all my other problems. It was like the light at the end of the tunnel. I felt I was so lucky. I felt like the luckiest person on the planet.”
Sahar didn’t tell her classmates about her background as a refugee or her time on Nauru. “I wanted to be like every other student … and I didn’t miss a single class.”
‘I thought it was the one thing they couldn’t take away’
Under Australian migration law Sahar is deemed a “transitory person”, despite living in Australia for nearly five years, having built a life in Sydney, with friends and community.
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There are “pathways” out of Australia proposed for her family – to the US or New Zealand under deals with those governments – but there has been no movement on these after years, and no guarantee they might ever materialise. Sahar and Zahra both say they cannot contemplate “starting all over again”.
Government policy states that once a transitory person reaches 18, and is no longer enrolled in secondary school, their right to study in Australia is withdrawn.
Sahar’s right to study was rescinded when her family’s bridging visa was renewed in April 2022, in the final months of the Morrison government.
When the new visa arrived, with Sahar’s study rights removed, her mother kept it from her for weeks. Eventually, knowing the new visa was due, Sahar went looking. And she found it.
“For all those years I had tried to pick up the shattered pieces of myself and put them back together,” she says. “And, instantly, it felt like they had been shattered all over again.
“I thought it was the one thing they couldn’t take away from me, the one thing that was safe, the one thing I had worked so hard for and that was mine.”
Moved to tears by the memory, Sahar is bewildered by the capriciousness of the system, the inconsistency with which supposedly rigid policies are applied. There are refugees who arrived with Sahar – on the same boat – who never spent a day in offshore detention, and are living and studying in Australia, with full work and study rights.
“With the stroke of a pen, someone who doesn’t even know me took everything away from me, without thinking, without caring. My life became meaningless. I cried and cried until I couldn’t cry any more.”
‘A basic human right’
Sahar’s case has been the subject of repeated political interventions.
The independent senator David Pocock raised her plight in the Senate.
“There is a particular cruelty and injustice to this young woman starting on a path to realise her dreams then having that taken away, after everything she has already endured,” Pocock tells Guardian Australia.
“Their experience highlights the urgent need for Australia to adopt a more humane approach to how we manage refugees and asylum seekers.”
Guardian Australia understands at least six Labor MPs have written to the immigration minister, Andrew Giles, advocating for Sahar, as has the independent Kylea Tink.
Amnesty International Australia’s refugee adviser, Dr Graham Thom, says, “At a minimum … Sahar’s study rights should be restored.”
“The right to an education is a basic human right and this right should be granted to all those in the so-called ‘transitory’ group,” he says.
“Further, given the limited third-country options available, the government needs to look at permanent solutions for all recognised refugees, particularly those who have already been living in the community for years, who have settled, who are working, paying taxes and generally contributing to the broader community.”
Thom says the Australian community has “seen the dire physical and mental health damage caused by keeping people indefinitely in a state of limbo”.
“The longer people are kept in this situation the greater the damage.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs could not comment on individual cases but said “transitory persons are encouraged to engage in third country migration options and take steps to start the next phase of their life, including to resettle in a third country or voluntarily return home or to another country in which they have a right of entry.”
“Resettlement arrangements exist with the United States and New Zealand, and many transitory persons are also independently exploring resettlement in Canada,” the spokesperson said.
The withdrawal of study rights for people on bridging visas aged over 18 was a longstanding policy applied consistently.
“This is because the commencement of study for those over 18 is generally inconsistent with a departure outcome, which is the primary purpose of the grant of the visa.”
But Sahar keeps her textbooks handy. She says she is determined to find a way back to the law. But she recognises too that she has been scarred by the experience of having the education she’d fought so hard for suddenly taken from her.
“Sometimes, I feel like I’m scared to be happy,” she says. “I don’t think I’m allowed to be happy, because it always gets taken away from me.
“But I have to keep going.”