Sipping a long black coffee on a cold wet afternoon in a buzzing Melbourne café, and hearing the sounds of noisy chatter from office workers on their lunch break is a constant reminder to Ahmed Mahgoub how his life changed since adopting Australia as his new home.
Born in Saudi Arabia to a Sudanese father and a Moroccan mother, Mahgoub opens up about his upbringing and how it was guided by daily rules and regulations in a country renowned for its highly religious, hierarchal, conservative and private society with a wealth of oil beneath their sands.
“I had a very modest upbringing and was fortunate enough to have parents from two different backgrounds which created a sense of humanity in me and also raised thoughts from very early on that you don’t need to be from the same country to unite,” he told Dscribe.
Mahgoub’s father, a human resources consultant, and his mother, an office administrator who stopped working to raise the family, moved to Saudi Arabia for financial and work purposes. But the country has restrictive laws, including women not being allowed to work or drive, a husband and wife cannot be seen holding hands in public, nor can teenagers enjoy the freedom of listening to pop music. So Mahgoud’s parents encouraged him and his two siblings to explore their own way of thinking and develop their own unique personalities.
Raised to follow the beliefs of Islam, Mahgoub explains his parents were “relaxed Muslims” which he laments may have contributed to his rebellious teenage years. This meant that as long as he pursued and believed in Islam, they would at times allow outside influences that did not conform to their religious ideology. They also accepted that their son would always question the status quo.
“Everything in our environment was just black and white, nobody questioned it and it never made sense to me that there was a sense of segregation amongst men and women, different cultures and nobody was questioning it,” he said.
“In a way, it all made sense to me when my brother and I used to sneak Michael Jackson video tapes home which we got from a black market shop because he was my idol. It all made sense to me when I watched him, it was ok to be different and still fit in, and our parents were fine with us watching the tapes,” he said.
At the age of 16, the family moved to Abu Dhabi, which Mahgoub describes as a complete “culture shock” even though Islamic traditions are also firmly rooted in the culture.
“I remember going to Burger King and my lips just froze when I went to order because I had never ever seen a female working in public. I couldn’t believe it and this was the moment it gave me the strength to have a greater belief that the simple things like dressing and eating differently are part of the human condition,” he said.
“I could go to university with females which was also strange because in Saudi Arabia, females had their own universities, so to be in a co-educational environment helped me learn a lot about myself and helped me to grow and adjust to my new-found values.”
In 2008, Mahgoub was completing a Bachelor of Pharmacy in Abu Dhabi when he was selected as one of the top performing students to attend a placement for three weeks at The Alfred hospital in Melbourne.
It was to be a life changing experience, and Mahgoub knew it the very first day when he caught a tram from Windsor to Parkville. He felt an instant sense of belonging that he’d never felt before and the piece of his identity puzzle he felt was missing, and he’d struggled with for so long, had found its place.
Ahmed Mahgoub on the importance of understanding diversity in society.
“It was wow, it was mind blowing, there are no other words to describe it as I had never felt so happy and excited to have goosebumps on the first day here because I longed for that connectedness and coming from such a segregated culture, I finally found it and that’s the beauty of Australia,” he said.
“During the placement, I worked with Greeks, Turkish, Irish, Egyptian and Iraqis which was just so different to what I was accustomed to and I knew that once this placement was over, I had to get back to Melbourne to live the life I wanted to live.”
“A feeling of oneness, community and multiculturalism is how I feel in Melbourne”
Striving to fulfil his dream to live in Australia and solidify his identity, Mahgoub returned to Melbourne, but soon discovered he had a number of setbacks and challenges to overcome. His qualification as a pharmacist was not a criteria high up on Australia’s immigration policy, which meant he had to change careers. He studied accounting for a further two years and soon after graduating, more hardship came despite his accomplishments and eligibility to stay in the country.
“I applied for approximately 40 jobs a week in a time frame of 12-14 months after completing my degree and I only got three interviews while working long hours as a kitchen hand. During that time, I went to a dark place and suffered depression which had me constantly questioning my sanity,” he said.
“People would say that I needed to change my name on my resume but I am a man of principle and wanted a job because of my accolades, I didn’t want to change my name.”
Fast forward to 2017 and Mahgoub says his home is now Melbourne as his soul connects to the city like no other place in Australia and no other place in the world. As a student experience officer at Kaplan, a professional education and training provider, his role is to help international students integrate into the community.
In addition, his volunteer work at AMES (Adult Multicultural Education Services) and his involvement with Music with Mates, an organisation connecting young new migrants in Melbourne with the community through music, allows him to not only help people experiencing the same struggles he did, but also to give back to the Australian community that welcomed him so warmly.
“I just love how most people in this community are naturally happy and always smiling, it was always my mission to stay here and what we share is much more than what makes us different,” he said.