Story by Susan Oong. Banner image by Richard Jupe.

Kicking a soccer ball around helped forge the friendship between Hazara asylum seeker Haji Alizada and University of Tasmania social housing researcher Julia Verdouw.

Now 23, Alizada is an entrepreneur, employer and first-year university student studying a combined arts/law degree. He is the recipient of one of three University of Tasmania scholarships designated for refugees.

“Haji is someone who has a lot of potential. I think he will be a real leader,” says Verdouw. “He’s a strong advocate and it’s been a real joy watching him stand up and say, ‘this is my journey and this is what I have to offer and I really want to give as much as I can to this place’."

He’s really grabbed his time in Australia with two hands. He’s embraced as much as he can in terms of community and life, and he’s a real inspiration to us as well in that way.

Confident, eloquent and charming, Alizada is a rising star. Aged 16 he left his immediate and large extended family in Afghanistan and travelled on his own by fishing boat to Christmas Island. He spent seven months in detention, including time in Pontville and eight months in community housing as an unaccompanied minor. After his release, Alizada made the decision to remain in Tasmania.

“For me, Tasmania is going to be the place where I’ll spend the rest of my life,” explains Alizada. 

I do wish that my fellow friends who are in my position could study. I know so many people in my situation who want to study – who are hungry for it – but the current law doesn’t allow them, especially at university. Education is a basic human right and the law needs to change to reflect this.

“I’ve been living here for almost six years now. I’ve been loving my life here. I think it’s a great place, firstly the generosity of the people, and also the place, the environment. It’s a beautiful place. especially for someone who wants to study here or someone who wants to start from scratch,” says Alizada. 

I want to give back to Australia. I think of Australia as home.

The pair meet often for dinner, and Alizada is a regular at Verdouw’s Wednesday night “big dinners” where neighbours and friends come together to share a meal and tackle some of life’s meatier problems.

“I think we’ve been a real surrogate family in a way and we’ve embraced him as such,” Verdouw says. “And so just being able to walk alongside him and be there for the challenges and for the milestones that he’s had over the past five years has been rewarding.

“Our kids love him. He’s a bit like an older brother or uncle figure. He’s really physically strong, so it’s really fun watching him throw our kids into the air and just doing family stuff together.

He’s got amazing stories of growing up, amazing stories of survival and just getting to Australia.

She says since arriving in Tasmania, Alizada’s persistence in the face of challenges, and his ability to be independent from an early age, has been remarkable. 

“But in all the stories that he tells, you can see this positivity, this unquenchable sense of ‘it will be OK’,” she says. “And I do have a sense that one of the reasons his parents wanted him out of Afghanistan was for similar reasons. Whatever he did he drew attention in a way. He was already very active since the age of 13 or 14 in his own community.

“He’s really special to our family.”

Alizada returns serve: “I love the time I spend with Julia’s family. Julia is humble. She is open and she is a very positive person. I wouldn’t be here without the help of some of my friends, especially Julia.”

This piece originally appeared in The Mercury.

Want to follow in Haji's footsteps? Undertake a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws.

The Clemente Program assists people who experience disadvantage, social isolation or other factors that have hindered their ability to undertake tertiary education. It has been in operation at the University since 2015.