Fleeing Eritrea's bombs to fight racism in Australia
Issued on: Modified:
About 2,000 Eritreans live in Australia, many of them granted asylum after being tortured by President Isaias Afewerki's regime. Despite the emotional and sometimes physical scars they bear, some have become prominent figures in Australian society. Berhan Ahmed is one of them. He is the first person of African descent to run for a seat in parliament.
The relaxed scene in the back garden of Ahmed's family home in a quiet suburb of Melbourne couldn't be further from the conflict he fled to come to Australia.
Extraordinary Eritreans series - Berhan Ahmed
He remembers "big fighter planes from Russia" bombing his home town.
"I left at the age of about 15," Ahmed recalls. "I did my Grade 11 and 12 in Sudan at the refugee camp. The UN was offering scholarships for refugees and I was given scholarship to study in Alexandria University, to study agricultural science."
He applied to work on trams. "I lied to them, to be honest. I said I was working as a tram conductor in Sudan. So, from then, I started to study and I did my masters at La Trobe University in animal science, got myself to Melbourne University, did my PhD and then I got a job at Melbourne University and that's where I am, still."
Ahmed says his early days in Melbourne were a struggle. But it was this period that motivated him to stand up for his community, as well as other minority groups in Australia, against what he sees as racial discrimination.
It didn't take long before he began to be noticed within Australian society and state politics.
In 2004, he was the first African-born Australian to run for parliamentary office. And in 2009, he was awarded the Victorian Australian of the Year Award in recognition of his humanitarian efforts.
"I keep putting myself at the national debate of all issues, as a Muslim, as an African, as a migrant and as a black man," Ahmed says. "I would like to stand as an independent. Issues that affect my background, my community and broader society, including the Aborigines, which is an injustice. It's always seen within the prism of the white man. Now, we need to see it differently."
Customers at a bakery specialising in bread from the Horn of Africa have warm words for Berhan Ahmed.
"He is a uniting figure," says one. "A uniting figure and symbol of Africa; a voice for the voiceless."
"He's a passionate person that would like to work or give his time for African issues," says another.
Ahmed plans to reach out to his people in Eritrea as well.
"Looking into the challenges facing Eritreans, particularly the refugees being a market for body organs everywhere, I'm proposing by end of 2013 or early 2014 to organise an international conference addressing an Eritrean and international solution," he says.
Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morningSubscribe