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Afghan refugee and optometrist recognised in Deakin Alumni awards

A Deakin optometry graduate, who fled his war-torn homeland for Australia and has gone on to change lives through philanthropy, has been recognised with a top university award.

Mr Khyber Alam, an Afghan refugee who arrived in Melbourne with his family in 2007, was this year’s recipient of the Deakin Young Alumni of the Year award. The accolade recognises graduates around the world who have achieved success in their communities and professions.

The award is in recognition of Alam’s selfless devotion to people less fortunate. While furthering his own career, he has been a volunteer optometrist in rural Australian communities, Bangladesh and India. He has also raised more than $75,000 for various charities.

Khyber Alam as a volunteer optometrist in India.

Using his own savings Alam has also established an orphanage in eastern Afghanistan, which he hopes will house up to 60 children and become the first of many across his native country.

“I’m grateful to everyone who nominated me for the award, but I don’t think people need to be praised or acknowledged for serving our global community. It should be our duty – if we can do it, we should do it, and we must do it,” Alam, who is currently working towards his PhD at Deakin, said.

Alam was 13 when his parents and eight siblings fled Afghanistan due to the turmoil left from the Soviet-Afghan war between 1979 and 1989, and later the 2001 US invasion.

As a teenage refugee he arrived in Australia with his family traumatised and shy, two challenges exacerbated by the fact he could not speak English. “I went to an English language school. I still have a card that I used to carry with me, which said if I’m lost please return me to the school.

“The age of 13 and 14 is the age when you’re starting to know yourself and you’re starting to know other people around you. I was put in this strange environment, having to learn about this new society, the language, values and way of life.

“It was challenging, but from year nine onwards my teachers have been exceptional and instilled the faith in me that I have the capacity to do well if I stay focussed and work hard.”

Alam was also inspired by his hard-working parents and quickly became proficient in his adopted language. He continued to excel and eventually became school captain in his final year.

Spurred on by his childhood experiences, and with two of his grandparents in Afghanistan suffering untreated vision problems, he was drawn to optometry for its ability to transform lives.

As well as working as an academic and clinician, and following his undergraduate and masters studies at Deakin, Alam is now undertaking a PhD in the School of Medicine on vision impairment.

However, it is his Afghan orphanage named ‘House of Knowledge’ that is perhaps his biggest achievement. His father has been influential in the project, even travelling to Afghanistan to identify a location.

“Growing up I have met a lot of kids and people who have been orphaned unfortunately, and I always wanted to do something for them. Now being in a place of some influence and in a position in life I can give back to them rather than choosing a luxurious life for myself,” he said.

Despite the award, Alam remains modest about his achievements and credits his parents Sharifa Alam and Sher Alam, along with Deakin mentors Professor Alex Gentle, Dr Heather Connor, Professor Sharon Bentley, Associate Professor James Armitage and Ms Jac Kirman.

 

The ‘House of Knowledge’ orphanage in eastern Afghanistan that Khyber Alam established with his own savings.