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From Syria to Copenhagen

via Sydney Opera House

Danielle Edwards
Sydney Opera House

Every time Sargoon Ruel Zomaya went to work in Iraq he said goodbye to his family as if he’d never see them again. He and his family had fled war in Iraq and moved to Syria in 2006. But Sargoon Zomaya, a well-regarded engineer and project manager, had to repeatedly make the treacherous journey back into Iraq to find work.

When they moved to Australia as refugees in 2012, he was unable to translate his qualifications. The stress of powerlessness led to a heart attack.

Sargoon Ruel Zomaya always says to his three children: “I have no properties, no investments and no money but I have you. I’ve invested in you and I’m so happy to see what you’ve become. You are my buildings.”

The metaphor could not be more fitting; Awkar is an architect and his older brother Ashoor is a civil engineer. The Sydney Opera House has been a source of inspiration for Awkar as long as he’s known about Australia; he visited the building the day after he arrived in Australia as a refugee, at the age of 16, and describes it as a masterpiece.

“When I trace my life from the beginning, I can see what led to this moment.”
Awkar Ruel

In January this year Awkar travelled to Copenhagen as part of a specially chosen group of students to undertake a six-week Multidisciplinary Australian Danish Exchange program, funded through the Opera House’s philanthropy program.

MADE allows five engineering, architecture and design students from Australia to work together on a cross-disciplinary project, mentored by a range of prestigious Danish firms and organisations. The program aims to continue the international and interdisciplinary links first forged by Jørn Utzon, the Danish-born architect of the Opera House.

While in Copenhagen, 21-year old Awkar and his fellow students will prepare a response to a built environment brief, informed by study tours, masterclasses and workshops.

“I want to gain as much knowledge as possible while I’m there, learn as much as I can because I think it’s a great experience,” Awkar told Sydney Opera House before his departure.  “I want to come back as a different person with a different mentality and different approaches to problems which will push me in my career and my studies.”

He says multidisciplinary design is critical as it leads to unique solutions that would never be reached unless architects, engineers and designers come together. (The Opera House itself pioneered novel building techniques thanks to the close relationship between Utzon and engineer Ove Arup.)

Awkar is determined to use his life to create change, whether through his passion for sustainable design or inspiring others by sharing his experience as a refugee.  

“When you see other people struggle, people who don’t have their basic human rights, electricity, water and shelter, you appreciate how lucky you are and you want to give back,” he says.

He recently spoke at Amity College to a group of year twelve students, encouraging them to never take their experiences for granted as their unique story is what makes a person who they are. Awkar has lived in a war zone, became a refugee, learnt fluent English and overcame high school taunts of being an ‘import’ to become school captain and now a scholarship recipient.

“As Steve Jobs said, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking back. And when I trace my life from the beginning I can see what lead to this moment - working so hard and now earning a place on this program.”

Awkar will complete his MADE program in March 2017.

Established in honour of the Opera House’s 40th anniversary, the MADE program supports five Australian and five Danish students each year and will create an alumnus group of 100 students by the Opera House’s 50th Anniversary in 2023.

MADE by the Opera House

Multidisciplinary Australian Danish Exchange

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