It was a night like any other for Sameer Yako and his family. Until his phone rang.
That call changed his life forever and still haunts him, more than five years later.
The call was from ISIS. The threat was explicit.
“They said they were going to kill me,” Sameer says. “When I remember that call, the hair still stands up on my arms.”
Until that night, life was good for Sameer and his family – wife, Asmahan, and sons Fadi (now aged 14), Philip (12), and Fabio (10).
He had a big house with marble and granite finishings in a good neighbourhood in the city of Mosul, Iraq, and was a successful engineer at the Hamdani Municipality (local government), overseeing projects like road pavements and urban building construction.
Sameer’s job at the Municipality was prestigious, and gave him authority to approve a range of building applications. It also made him a target for ISIS when they stormed into town.
“In 2014, ISIS entered my town. I got a call from an unknown number one night, and they said, ‘Are you Sameer, the engineer?’ I said yes. They said, ‘Tomorrow we will enter your town and we will kill you’. “You might have a good life, but in one second it can be taken away.”
Sameer did the only thing he could do. He fled. Packed his family and a few belongings into the car and drove to his brother’s house in Kurdistan. He has never gone back to his home.
Sameer and his family sought asylum in Jordan for 14 months, but found opportunities were limited. So they applied for refugee status to Australia and arrived in Sydney on 20 December, 2016, to start a new life.
Australia was safe. But Sameer needed to work. In Iraq, he was a qualified, successful engineer, but in Australia he was told he did not have the necessary experience to do unpaid volunteer work stacking supermarket shelves.
“I knew some English, but I struggled with language,” he says. “The other barrier was, the first question I was asked at job interviews was, ‘Do you have local experience?’ I couldn’t get experience if no one gave me an opportunity. I knocked on many doors, but I was always told I needed local experience.
“I went to TAFE and studied English to help with the language difference. I also studied a certificate of building construction so I was familiar with Australian engineering standards.”
Then he got a break. Through Career Seekers, who specialise in helping refugees find work, Sameer gained a 12-week internship with Downer, which has subsequently turned into a full-time contract.
“I will never forget the day I got the internship with Downer,” Sameer smiles. “I felt I was born for the second time. It was a new chance. Now, I would have local experience. And, when I started working at Downer, I realised why you need that local experience.
“I look at the world from another view now. Safety is the most important part of your job here. I see how important Zero Harm is – this system is very good to save lives, and protect people and the environment.
“After I lost my job, my house, my memories and my friends in Iraq, sometimes when I didn’t have a job, I would get upset because I could not succeed here. I just needed someone to take my hand and pull me. Downer did that – and huge thanks to Downer Group, the NIF team and the Career Seekers program for helping new refugees like me to get opportunities like this to restart their careers.
“To build something, you need the foundation –everyone here at Downer has given me a foundation to build New Sameer here in Australia.”