As a teenager, Haneen fled war-torn Iraq. Here's how studying beauty changed her life.

As a young girl growing up in war-torn northern Iraq, being able to get a good education meant everything to Haneen Zakariya.

"[In Iraq] we didn’t have a car, and the bus was too expensive, so I would walk to school each day," the 23-year-old tells Mamamia.

"I enjoyed school, mainly because I could see friends, but also to learn maths and Arabic. Education is important to me," says the student, who speaks three languages - Syrian (her mother tongue), Arabic (her second language) and English.

Watch: A gentlemen's club helped fight for women's rights in Iraq. Post continues below.

Video via Mamamia

There are currently close to 3.2 million school-aged Iraqi children out of school, according to UNICEF. The situation is especially concerning for girls, who are under-represented in both primary and secondary schools. 

As with many young people raised in Iraq, Haneen's life has been shaped by years of conflict: from the US invasion to multiple insurgencies, civil war and the rise of ISIS. 

It was only two years ago that Haneen, her parents, and two (out of four) of her siblings fled from their hometown of northern Iraq, after ISIS militants overran her state.

"Life was challenging, and we were all fearful living in my home country due to the conflict," she said.

"We fled when I was 17. My family and I, along with other people from the community, left everything behind and walked for six to seven hours overnight (because it was safe at this time), crossing into another state."

From there, Haneen and her family received a visa to go to Lebanon. 

"Life was incredibly difficult in Lebanon. When we arrived, we had no place to live and no belongings with us, so we lived in a church for one month. Afterwards, my brother, sister and I started new jobs."

"We would work from 8am to 5pm for $25 per day. Once we had saved enough money, my parents and two siblings moved into a small flat."


"Many of my friends from Iraq have also fled, with most of them [now] living in Canada. I still speak to some of them, and hope that I will get to see them again one day." 

Building a new life in Australia.

After finding refuge in Lebanon, eventually Haneen and her family made it to Australia - something she describes as one of the best moments in her life. 

"I still recall the phone call my mother received in February 2019 from the Australian Government. It was to tell us we had been accepted to come and live in Melbourne," Haneen said.

“I cannot explain the feeling. It was an amazing moment in my life, and one of relief and acceptance. It was a chance for a better life, with opportunities and safety.”

"Unfortunately, Iraq is not safe for us and it would be difficult to go back there. I do have two siblings living there, one brother who is 35 and a sister who is 33. We hope to visit, but Australia is our home now."

While the cultural transition has not been without challenges, Haneen is adamant to continue her education and embark on a career in the beauty industry - something she said she's always been passionate about.

"Although we are so happy to be living in Melbourne, I still endure the challenges of moving to a new country and adapting to a new culture and language barriers, but I have never given up on my dream of practicing beauty."

"I am grateful for the community I live in - they have been incredibly supportive and very helpful to my family and I."

Haneen said her interest in beauty - particularly in skincare - began when she was 15 years old. 

In her spare time, she would often watch beauty videos online, fascinated with the various techniques and how using certain products could completely transform your look.

"Growing up, I would often do makeup and facials for my family and friends before celebrations."

After moving to Lebanon, she worked in a salon for four months doing hair, makeup, and manicures - the foundation that would soon give her the drive to make a career out of it.

"This helped me to gain extra experience and cemented my passion. I have a very supportive family... they were the ones who encouraged me to pursue a career in the beauty industry." 

"It is my dream, and I am on the right path to achieving my goals."

A dream come true.

Fast-forward two years, and Haneen has received a scholarship to pursue her career in beauty, thanks to L’Oréal Australia's 2021 Beauty for All initiative.


The annual scholarship program, where L’Oréal Australia partners with Kangan Institute, strives to provide aspiring beauty professionals with valuable education opportunities and a career pathway into the beauty industry.

Haneen was one of four students recognised.

"This was such an amazing feeling. When I heard I would be receiving the scholarship, I said to my mother; “my dream has come true.” This is so much more than a scholarship, it's an opportunity for a new life here in Australia, and takes a lot of financial pressure off me to pursue my career in cosmetology," she said.

"For me, beauty means I can use my imagination and creativity to help clients look their best. My main task is to help clients get the best outward appearance possible.” 

After she graduates with a Diploma in Aesthetic Therapy, Haneen said she would like to work in cosmetology and start her own business.

"I feel very fortunate to be living here and beginning a new journey alongside my family. I feel like I am at the beginning of my journey and heading in the right direction," she said.

"I'm excited for what the future holds."

Feature image: Supplied/Mamamia

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