From a land-locked war zone to working on Newcastle Harbour, the inspiring story of a refugee who has a team of boaties keeping him afloat

The crisp winter chill that fills the air at Midcoast Boatyard & Marine seemingly melts away upon witnessing the warmth of smiles that surround much-loved employee, Sakhidad.

‘Sakhi’ is an Afghan national who arrived in Australia last August after the Taliban took control of his land-locked motherland. As Sakhi stepped off a chartered military flight and onto Australian soil, he says he was more determined than ever to secure employment and build a bright future with his wife, Fatemeh. 

Sakhi’s resolve and a fateful introduction meant that within three months, he had traded scenes of war and oppression for daily views of Newcastle’s picturesque harbour.

Olivia Gollan was a volunteer at CatholicCare’s Refugee Hub, where she taught English to new migrants. After meeting Sakhi, she reached out to friends to enquire whether they may be interested in taking on a new employee.

In Afghanistan, Sakhi had worked as a tiler and managed a crew of more than 30 employees. Yet, as he explained to Olivia, he was willing to take on any job that would earn him an income and enable him to contribute to his newly adopted country.

Joe de Kock and Belinda Randall own Midcoast Boatyard & Marine, which employs a team of 20 staff and provides maintenance, modifications, and re-designs of boats. Upon receiving Olivia’s call, they were conflicted, pulled between a desire to provide an opportunity for Sakhi but also wary of the complications that may arise from employing a new migrant with limited English-speaking abilities and no experience in the marine industry. 

After some discussion, they decided it was important that they at least give Sakhi a chance. So an introductory meeting followed, to which Sakhi bought his wife, Fatemeh.

Fatemeh is from Afghanistan, and she lived in Iran for a long time before she arrived in Australia as a refugee in 2016. A few years later, in 2019, Fatemeh and Sakhi made plans to reunite in Iran and be married. The newlyweds spent 40 days together before the realities of war and visa processing forced them to part ways and once again, continue their relationship online. While the distance between them was challenging, Fatemeh used her time in Australia to work fulltime at a local school, and engaged a lawyer to help bring her husband to Australia on a spousal visa. They describe the moment they came together in Newcastle as being filled with emotion and tears. Finally, they could build the life together they had always dreamed of. As such, they were equally buoyed by Sakhi’s opportunity to meet with Joe and Belinda.

With Fatemeh’s assistance, the conversation between the small business owners and Sakhi flowed, and they offered him a casual job as a yard hand. 

“During that first meeting I explained that wellbeing is a top priority for all our employees and that Sakhi would need to become familiar with our safe work practices,” Belinda said. She added that she suggested that while not essential, getting a White Card at some stage in the future would be a good idea.

To Belinda’s surprise, Sakhi and Fatemeh asked for a copy of the workplace manual so they could study it together.  

“A few days later, Sakhi showed up for his first shift with his White Card accreditation and a list of safety-related questions. I have never had someone be so prepared for their first day!” Belinda said.

Sakhi’s commitment left a good impression, and it didn’t take long before he was offered a full-time permanent role.

“Sakhi has a fantastic work ethic, but more than that, he is just such a pleasure to be around. He is always smiling, and his presence has greatly impacted our already close team.”

A few months on, and as Sakhi confidently makes his way through a maze of vessels, it’s hard to imagine that this time last year, he had never set foot on a boat or even seen the ocean.

While Sakhi’s English continues to improve, he is fluent in the universal language of mateship.

With a paintbrush in hand, he is at ease as he gets to business on a yacht alongside his down-to-earth colleagues, who are as ‘Aussie’ as they come. And while his workmates have never been to the Middle East, they have enthusiastically embraced learning about Sakhi’s culture.

“Have you been to Sakhi’s home for tea and seen the set-up?” they ask, keenly referencing the generous hospitality of Sakhi and Fatemeh at their home, which is adorned with Persian rugs and floor cushions.

As Sakhi’s workmates explain their plans to take their newfound friend to experience quintessential Australian pastimes like the footy and a day out on the harbour, it’s clear they’ve taken a real shining to him.

But like any genuine mateship, they’ve also helped him through some adjustments, not just the fun times.

From taking Sakhi to the dentist to helping him get his driver’s license, it seems they’re always on hand to help. They even helped him purchase a new car and transfer the registration into his name. And when, through a lack of understanding, he got a fine for not paying the registration, the boatyard’s receptionist advocated on Sakhi’s behalf to have it overturned. When the appeal was rejected, knowing Sakhi arrived in Australia with very little, she volunteered to pay the fine out of her own pocket. 

“The team here have all stepped up to help Sakhi; it’s been incredible to watch,” Belinda said.

“Any initial concerns I had about employing Sakhi have been far outweighed by the benefits he has bought to our business. I would recommend anyone in a position to take on a new employee to consider broadening the scope of their workforce to include people who have experienced hardship and are looking for a foot in the door,” Belinda said. 

Sakhi’s life in Newcastle is a world away from his experiences in Afghanistan. Yet, cultural changes aren’t the only adjustment he has to make, with Fatemeh set to deliver their first baby next month.

As Belinda asks Sakhi how Fatemeh is feeling, with a knowing laugh, she encourages the expectant parents to get as much sleep as they can now before the baby arrives. A big smile comes across his face as he nods his head in agreement.

Watching the Midcoast Boatyard & Marine team interact with their newest employee, you get the feeling that what was initially considered a risky appointment has quickly become a labour of love for all involved.  


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Lizzie Watkin Image
Lizzie Watkin

Lizzie is Team Leader Content for the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

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