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The family of Afghan refugees giving Australia a fair go

“I’m never interested in being seen as solely a victim of circumstance and identity. That’s quite boring and fairly disempowering.” – Yassmin Abdel-Magied

Since their arrival in Australia, Marzay and his sister Nabila Sarwary have overcome discrimination and language barriers in Australia to build their dream careers from the ground up.

Marzay Sarwary’s journey has spanned countries and led him to establish a successful entrepreneurial jewellery-making enterprise, despite humble beginnings as a young Afghan refugee.

“It was a difficult time because we just wanted to make money to survive and pay the rent. We didn’t have any help from the government, they only gave us coupons. But because we were Afghan, they gave us less than the Irani citizens,” he said.

After fleeing Afghanistan from Russian occupation at the age of 10, Marzay and his family ended up in Tehran, Iran.

“The room we stayed in was completely outrageous, it was so small, and everyone slept in the one room that was 2×2 metres.”

Marzay described how after school he would go and help his father, who found work as stonemason after unsuccessfully trying to continue his previous career.

“I used to go and help him after school as well for a little bit of money. You had to use your hands to actually sandpaper and polish the corners [of furniture] to get rid of the scratches, it’s a long process. My hands were bleeding every day because we used acid to make it easier to sandpaper, even through the rubber gloves,” he said.

Marzay’s family was advised by an uncle to relocate to Pakistan to obtain visas, so they packed up their belongings and started all over again. He was unable to continue his education in Pakistan after the age of 14, one of the factors identified by the Refugee Council of Australia required to successfully find employment.

“When I finished studying in Iran, I tried to start studying in Pakistan, but they didn’t have any schools. I was the first to get a job and I was so young, but I didn’t want to ask anyone else for money.”

His determination allowed him to make money for his family by buying wholesale jewellery from the market and selling them to tourists.

“I used to buy things dirt cheap from the market and then make 100 times profit on them. I was younger and so people trusted me to sell them things,” he said.

Settlement Services International calls refugees ‘unlikely entrepreneurs’ because of their lack of financial capital and formally recognised educational qualifications. Despite facing these difficulties, an Oxford University study released in 2018 stated that refugees were 2-3 times more likely to start businesses.

After discovering his aptitude for business, Marzay began making his own jewellery, using quality silver and lapis lazuli, a rare stone mined in Afghanistan. His designs were so unique that he became sought after at local markets and he eventually opened a store.

“I used to make the jewellery, my dad would buy the stones and my brother started to learn to cut the stone and glue it with decorations to make traditional jewellery. The tourists used to love it because it was Afghan jewellery-making,” he said.

Marzay’s entrepreneurial approach shows us that despite many of the barriers he faced, he was able to find meaningful work, and he used the skills he learned to later undertake an apprenticeship in Australia for jewellery-making.

Marzay’s family flew to Australia after being offered sponsorship by an uncle and Marzay was able to study again in Australia. He completed Year 11, but stopped during HSC because his English skills were lacking.

“English was hard and mathematics was easy because I could understand it but when it came to the comprehension, I could not try and solve the questions in English,” he said.

The Building a New Life in Australia study, commissioned by the Australian government found that many refugees managed to attain employment despite still having only basic English skills.

One of Marzay’s brothers managed to find a job working for Holden, selling parts in a warehouse whilst another brother worked making kitchen benchtops. The Building a New Life study showed that many refugees work in unskilled labour during their first years in Australia.

Marzay tells me that after falling and breaking his leg, he was unable to continue jewellery-making and began to study building at TAFE instead. He finished his qualifications whilst undertaking multiple apprenticeships under a builder and a carpenter.

Since then, Marzay has only gone from strength to strength, finally working as a site supervisor for building and construction.

“I finished my qualification and last year, I worked with a builder for 12 months. But he didn’t know that much, so I actually used to teach him!” he said.

Marzay’s work ethic and positive outlook is something shared by his younger sister Nabila. Nabila tells me that she takes great pride in her position as a town leader in regulatory planning in NSW.

“Every day is a learning opportunity or a challenge and I get to have that in the job I like,” she said.

Although Nabila completed her HSC in Australia, she was dissuaded from attending university by a high school careers advisor due to her refugee status.

“I remember her telling me, ‘You’re from an ethnic background, English is not your first language, you would never be able to get into uni.’ She really discouraged me you know? Even up to this day, I really remember those words,” she said.

She had to work three jobs to support her university expenses, which was not easy given the juggling of work and deadlines.

“Finishing school and getting into uni, I said ‘Wow I really did it.’ So that was a struggle in terms of knowing my own ability,” she said.

The Refugee Council of Australia has published that people from a refugee background are strongly motivated to work and become economically independent.

“My job and faith in God plays a big role in my life and if I didn’t have it, I would not be who I am today. The security, independence and being able to contribute to society in a positive way. I think it’s a bit more special for someone who has come from a struggling country.”

Marzay has also chosen to work in a job that fulfils his ambitions, despite his ill health for the past few months. He started the interview with the news that he has decided to begin working for himself again, this time as a qualified builder and renovator. I did not know the significance of that decision at the time, but clearly the Sarwary family have worked hard to flourish in Australia. Marzay’s oldest daughter Sophia is now completing her HSC at high school.

“When I came to live in Australia, I knew we were living in one of the most beautiful countries, the lucky country, jobs are there, people are there, opportunities are there, you can’t beat it,” he said.


The writers would like to acknowledge that this story was completed as a joint project between ourselves and Marzay and Nabila Sarwary. Every effort has been made to ensure their re-telling of events was captured with the essence in which it was told to us. We would like to thank them for their generosity and openness.