“The only thing I knew about Australia was Skippy the kangaroo,” reveals Michael Ascharsobi when first asked about the land he now calls home.
The Bachelor of Science in Information Technology and Master of Science in Internetworking graduate now works at Google. He started at the company in 2011 as an apps strategist, before moving into operations managing workflow processes. It’s a far cry from Ahwaz, the small Iranian town that borders Iraq, from which he fled at age 16.
“I follow a religion, Sabian Mandaean, which in Iran is different from the mainstream,” says Ascharsobi. “So growing up was a little difficult because I had to keep my religion in hiding.” He even had to lie about his religion to enter high school and was never sure if his secret would be discovered. It was.
In 2001, the Iranian Government offered the young mathematician the opportunity to attend a maths Olympiad in the United States. The catch was he first had to convert to Islam.
“They actually found out I lied during my school application, so I didn’t make it to the camp,” recalls Ascharsobi.
When he told his parents, they immediately got in touch with people smugglers to fly Ascharsobi to Indonesia on a forged passport. He still remembers the grueling seven-day journey across the open ocean, to a then-unknown destination.
“We had 200 milliliters of water every day. They give you a cup of water, and that was it for 24 hours. It was pretty much survival – is the boat going to pieces? If there’s a storm what’s going to happen?”
Fortunately for Ascharsobi, his boat was picked up by the Australian Navy. From Darwin, he was flown to South Australia where he was told his asylum application would take three to six months to process. It was the beginning of a two-and-a-half year wait behind barbed wire.
Eventually, Ascharsobi was granted a temporary protection visa and, with the help of a friend, moved to Sydney to enroll in a Certificate III in IT (Technical Support) at TAFE. A year later, he found out UTS offered scholarships to refugees. He applied and was accepted.
“University felt really formal to me, but what I really liked was that I could make very good relationships with all the lecturers and tutors – they’re really easygoing, and they were very helpful.”
Ascharsobi credits UTS as providing him with the industry contacts needed to make a new start in his new country. “Before going to university, I couldn’t even get a job. After UTS, I had five job offers, and I didn’t know which one to take!”
Eventually Ascharsobi chose a network support position at Cisco. That was until he received a surprise email from Google asking him to come in for an interview. He did, and landed a prized role at the heart of the global company.
In addition to this nine-to-five role, Ascharsobi teaches a first-year foundation subject, Network Fundamentals, at UTS once a week. He is also featured in the Federal Government’s Bridges to Higher Education documentary series, Models of Achievement. He says it’s all part of being able to share his passion for IT with the next generation and to expand his own horizons in the computing world.
“Going to UTS gave me the confidence to say, ‘If I can finish a degree, if I can go get a job at Cisco and I can go work at Google, what’s next?’” We’ll just have to wait and see.