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UTS Student Awkar Ruel wins prestigious Opera House award

Awkar Ruel Photo: Janie Barrett

Monday August 22, 2016

After being bullied at his new Sydney school because he couldn’t speak English, 16-year old refugee Awkar Ruel had a choice: succumb or survive.

His family, Assyrian Christians, were driven out of Iraq into Syria because of religious persecution. The family of five arrived in Australia in 2012, where the former top student was frustrated at his inability to understand anything in class beyond “hi” and “how are you”.

A handful of haters called him an “import” and, worse, told him to get out because he couldn’t speak the language.”I went home, lay down on my bed, and teared up, and I couldn’t understand it. I was one of the good students there [in Syria and Iraq], and now I can’t understand anything. What can I do about it? Stay here and cry or do something about it.”

With near accentless English, Mr Ruel, now 21, said he chose the latter.

Two years later, the Bexley school boy was voted school captain of Kogarah High after learning English by watching videos and reading while studying for year 11 and year 12. On Thursday, Mr Ruel, who is studying architecture at the University of Technology (Sydney), was one of five Australian university students to win a scholarship, the Multidisciplinary Australian Danish Exchange (also known as MADE by the Opera House) to study in Denmark, the home of Jørn Utzon, who designed the Opera House.

The Opera House was his inspiration when he arrived in Australia

If New York’s statue of liberty has been a sign of hope and new beginnings to generations of American immigrants, Sydney’s Opera House was that to Mr Ruel.

Awkar visited the Opera House the day after he arrived. “It was something else, it was a masterpiece, and it has become my inspiration. Whenever I’ve got free time, I come here, wander around the Opera House.”

Like Utzon, Mr Ruel wants to leave his mark on the world. That night five years ago, he decided he wasn’t going to let one or two people ruin his life.

“You can have 100 people who are nice to you, but one person who is mean can leave a mark and scar you … so I didn’t let them leave a mark. I am going to learn,” he decided then.

“It doesn’t matter who you are, no matter where you come from. Just because you are born here, speaking English doesn’t make you a better person than someone who was unfortunate to be born in a war zone.”

The exchange program aims to strengthen the links between Denmark and Australia. The Sydney Opera House’s CEO Louise Herron said the site’s world heritage listing notes that the building was a result of a multidisciplinary “collective creativity” of architects, engineers and builders. The exchange program would ensure the “same vital international, intergenerational and interdisciplinary links continue into the new generation”, she said.

Written by Julie Power originally posted on SMH