The “illiterate” refugee who just took out a major Australian literary prize.

Take a good look, dear bigots. This is what 2016 Australia looks like. A Middle Eastern, left-leaning former refugee, hand in hand with the Liberal Premier of New South Wales.

This is what it will continue to look like, despite your hateful efforts in dividing my country.

You see, there is no ‘us Vs them’. In the picture above, I see two Aussie blokes shaking hands. One people. Welcoming people. If you see it differently, you should have, perhaps, gone to spec savers.

Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton. Photo source: Getty Images

Recently, the Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, made a fool of himself by making calculatedly vile remarks. He stated that refugees coming to Australia are illiterate. Ironically, the previous night, I was privileged to win the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for my memoir Good Muslim Boy. A book I wrote in my third language, after arriving here in 1995 with enough English to confuse an EXIT sign with a TAXI one because I had (excitedly) read it from right to left, thinking the new language worked the same as Arabic. Needless to add, I hadn’t yet nailed my alphabet either.

I’m proud and honoured to be the first Australian with an Iraqi heritage to win a major literary prize. I’m equally proud of the film I co-wrote with Aussie screenwriting heavyweight, Andrew Knight, titled: Ali’s Wedding, which will not only be Australia’s first Muslim romantic comedy, (now in post-production), has employed over a hundred industry professionals. I ain’t taking jobs. It seems, in this instance at least, I contributed to creating a few.


In my acceptance speech, I pounced on Premier Baird’s earlier joke that his closest association with literature was topping year 10 English, by quipping: “Well, you know what Premier? I topped my year 11 English… So a refugee, did better in English than the Premier of New South Wales.”

Like many Aussies I’ve come across, he had a generous sense of humour.

I must also confess that I am truly indebted to this country I call Kangaroo Continent. And home. Its education system (especially language school) and its welcoming, nurturing nature, ensured I have every chance at succeeding.

My achievement is minute in comparison to the grand accomplishments of many, many (I’m innumerate) other former refugees and asylum seekers who not only overcome obstacles, but turns their hurdles into passage for others to pass on. Their stories are as bountiful as the beautiful continent we are on.

I’ve received a mountain of support and encouragement in the past few days and I thank every member of the public who has reached out. You are the fair-dinkum, welcoming Australia I am talking about. The one that sees beyond my skin colour, race and religion. Apart from the latter, which is proudly my choice, the first two were a lottery ticket I was handed upon birth. My numbers landed on Australia. I got lucky.

For the scores of humans stranded in war zones, however, life is unfair. Life is hell. To attack these persecuted people with vitriol and derision shows an emptiness in the soul and mind. There is no grace in hatred.

I’ve also received the occasional: ‘You’re the anomaly. No other refugees are this successful.’

Good Muslim Boy by Osamah Sami

Tell that to the thousands of teachers, athletes, doctors, entertainers, lawyers, politicians, servicemen and women of this country who escaped war, left their homes and families behind and arrived with nothing but a suitcase and a dream.

These accomplishments are not a one off. You will continue to see galaxies of people from diaspora communities rise and in turn give birth to a warmer, kinder, more accepting Australia.

I have nothing to say to the Immigration Minister. My father, who held three PhDs and led the Shiite Muslim community in Melbourne for two decades before sadly passing away at the ripe age of 50 while on pilgrimage with me in Iran, taught me not to argue with fools – the kind that know they are fools yet continue their foolishness, because, he’d warned, they are more dangerous than the fools unaware of their foolishness. I wish I had dad’s wit to convey this as subtle as he once did.


Everything about “successful refugee stories” aside however, I must ask, does being illiterate make you less of a human being? Implying illiterate asylum seekers don’t deserve equal treatment and should therefore be starved of protection is gut wrenching and wrong. Since when did we measure a person’s humanity by their ability to comprehend a multiplication table?

Karl Stefanovic calls out Peter Dutton. Post continues below...

Video via Channel 9

My grandmother, rest her soul, moved planets through the forced exile of her family by the Saddam regime in the 80’s. Her husband had long passed away and with the bravery of an Aztec warrior, she grabbed the hands of her four children and escaped to neighbouring Iran. Soon, she became a grandmother and had to look after all her children’s children whilst her sons and son-in-laws were fighting on the front line. I remember grandma taking a jar of her home-made vine leaf dolmaties each time the war siren sounded and we had to scamper to seek shelter in the dark bunkers. She’d tell us: “We don’t know how long we’ll be down here and I don’t want you to get hungry.” This care and love alone is worth a thousand times more than any portfolio Mr Dutton’s overseen.

She was illiterate. And here is her grandson telling you the tale in this language.

The decent Australian public will not tolerate racist rubbish from our leaders and as election looms, so does the Minister’s doom.

I have rearranged the Minister’s exact words to better suit the reality of our sentiment:

“There’s no question, that, these people would be literate in their own language, let alone English. They won’t be taking Australian jobs.”

This post originally appeared in Osamah's blog. It has been republished here with full permission. 

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