Shamiran Merkhaal arrived in Australia as an Iraqi refugee with only a few words of English. A decade later, she teaches disadvantaged youth in Melbourne’s western suburbs. Source: ACU.
“I felt like an outsider,” said Ms Merkhaal, when asked about her arrival in Australia on a humanitarian visa in 2009 – a week shy of her 14th birthday.
Along with her parents and two older brothers, Ms Merkhaal fled war-torn Baghdad in 2004 and spent half a decade in Jordan – “a painful, five-year journey” – while awaiting the approval of their Australian visas.
Finally, after several failed application attempts, the Merkhaals got news they would be reunited with relatives who had fled Iraq and settled in Melbourne years earlier.
“I was so excited, but when we finally got here it was actually very isolating,” said Ms Merkhaal, now 23.
As a Chaldean Catholic, Ms Merkhaal’s native language is a form of Aramaic, but she had learnt a little English at school in Jordan.
“I knew the alphabet and numbers but that was basically it,” she said. “I would try to imagine what it would be like to have a conversation in English, but back then, I would never in a million years have imagined I would one day be fluent.”
The Merkhaals were lucky. They escaped Iraq before the persecution of Christians intensified in the majority-Muslim nation.
“It was just after the start of the war when we left, so the violence against our people was happening, but it was nowhere near as severe as it was, say, five or six years ago,” Ms Merkhaal said.
In recent years, the persecution of Iraq’s Christian minorities by Islamic State and other jihadist groups has been labelled as genocide. Chaldean Catholics were given an ultimatum to “convert, flee or die”, with many leaving Iraq to resettle in countries like Australia – now home to at least 20,000 Chaldeans.
After finishing high school, Ms Merkhaal enrolled at ACU’s Melbourne campus and put her “heart and soul” into learning to become a teacher. She graduated with a Bachelor of Education in September 2018 and was employed by a school in a low socioeconomic area through ACU’s Catholic Teacher Education Consortium.
“I see a lot of similarities between these kids and myself when I arrived 10 years ago, especially those from a refugee or immigrant background, so there's a lot of empathy there and an awareness that you never know what these kids have gone through.”