February 7, 2020
Deena Yako’s story
As part of our Be A Mensch campaign, we are highlighting people within the broader Australian community who are doing good, making a difference, challenging stigmas and promoting inclusivity, respect and kindness.
This week we are sharing the story of Deena Yako, who fled Iraq with her family at the age of nine. Deena now channels her passion for the support of young refugees in Australia through her work with Refugee Council of Australia’s Face to Face program. Deena’s mission is to show kindness and empathy to those with fewer opportunities to help them flourish and reach their full potential in their new country.
Deena Yako was born in the city of Kirkuk, in the north of Iraq. Her father is Mandaean (a small religious minority) and her mother is of an Assyrian descent. The Assyrians are the indigenous people of modern-day northern Iraq, southeast Turkey, northwest Iran and northeast Syria. Deena comes from a large family; her father is one of thirteen siblings and her mother is one of ten. She has many first cousins and many second cousins scattered all over the world; the unfortunate reality of war and displacement.
Deena’s father owned his own business in Iraq as a goldsmith (a well-known trade amongst the Mandaean community passed through many generations) and he served in the military for as long as Deena can remember. Military service was compulsory in Iraq. Deena’s mother was stay at home mum who ran the household. Deena has a younger brother who was also born in Iraq, and a younger sister who was born in Australia.
Deena’s family escaped Iraq in 1986, a month before her tenth birthday. It took them fifteen days to travel by foot to reach the border with Iran in the hope that they would be granted political asylum. Deena’s father suffered at the hands of the former regime. Her mother’s brothers were both convicted of treason and executed, simply because they didn’t agree with and participate in any political agendas set up by the Baath Party. It was only a matter of time before it would be Deena’s father’s turn.
It was in the middle of winter, with freezing conditions and limited food and shelter. Deena’s family managed to reach the Iranian border, but they were barely alive. They were taken into custody and shortly after transferred to a detention centre. About one year later, the family was given community detention status, and they awaited their departure from Iran. With their new status came restrictions on being able to get an education and to work. Settlement in Iran was not an option; they had to either return to Iraq or seek refuge elsewhere. Deena, her parents and her brother arrived in Australia in 1990 under the Refugee Humanitarian Program, following many failed attempts to resettle in any country that was willing to take them in.
After arrival, it took about a week for everything to sink in. Deena recalls she cried for a year, begging her parents to take her back to Iran. Everything was completely different in Australia. Deena felt alone and isolated. Her studies suffered greatly from the trauma she had experienced during her childhood experiences of war, displacement and uncertainty. These experiences took a major toll on her wellbeing. Being a teenager and completing her studies, learning a new language and then having to sit for her Higher School Certificate exams all seemed so much to deal with. Deena failed her Higher School Certificate and wasn’t able to go to university. After school she worked many jobs so she could contribute financially and assist her family. She then went on to work full time and study part time to obtain her Diploma.
Deena has worked in the resettlement of refugees since 2006 in both government and non-government organisations. Her main focus has been on young refugees, instilling her passion for young people having the opportunities she never had.
Deena’s involvement in the Refugee Council of Australia’s Face to Face program gives her the opportunity to engage with the wider public on many levels. After experiencing the reality of the derogatory and harmful comments directed at refugees, she wants to show the broader public the human stories behind refugees – the highs and lows, the destruction, the suffering, and mostly the resilience – to help build empathy and understanding.
Deena expresses she wants her work to act as a bridge for young people to reach their dreams. She says, “There are so many brilliant young people with beautiful minds that can conquer the world if they’re given the right opportunities and are supported through their settlement journey.”
Channeling her own experiences and empathy, Deena has dedicated herself to being one of those people who will support, and most importantly believe that change can happen through acceptance and education.