Science graduate urges fellow Afghan refugees to 'dream big'
Molecular biologist Mojtaba Tavakoli has come a long way in the 10 years since he fled Afghanistan with only an elementary education.
Tonight, he is giving the keynote speech at an awards ceremony in Vienna, organized by the Association of Afghan Pupils and Students, which he helped to found. The 23-year-old science graduate, soon to start a doctorate in medical research, urges his fellow Afghan refugees: “We must dream big.”
He tells the community, and his proud extended family: “I stand here because of you,”
Applauding in the audience are his parents – mother Rehana and father Joma Ali – and Marion Weigl and Bernhard Wimmer, an Austrian couple who effectively adopted him when he arrived as a frightened, unaccompanied minor.
“This is a good evening,” says Joma Ali, who was a farmer in Afghanistan, growing potatoes, fruit and vegetables in rural Ghazni province. “I am very satisfied.”
As a boy, Mojtaba helped his parents in the fields. “There was no science in my childhood,” he says. “And all I knew about Austria was that there were woods.”
"The scariest part was not knowing who I could trust."
The farm was surrounded by the Taliban. The Tavakoli family was at particular risk, as they came from the persecuted Hazara minority. “Sooner or later, we were going to be attacked,” says Mojtaba. “Europe was our only hope of safety.”
At the age of 13, Mojtaba and his older brother Morteza, 18, were sent ahead to Europe. Tragically, Morteza drowned on the sea crossing between Turkey and Greece, and Mojtaba was left to make the journey through the Balkans alone. “The scariest part was not knowing who I could trust,” he recalls.
In Austria, he was taken into care and supported by Marion, a health care specialist, and Bernhard, an environmental scientist, who introduced him to science. “I was inspired by Charles Darwin,” says Mojtaba. “He brought me to biology.”
Once he was granted asylum in Austria, Mojtaba was able to bring his Afghan family to join him, but tragedy struck the family a second time when another brother, Mustafa, 12, died of cancer in Vienna in 2014.
Personal loss and gratitude for the support he has received motivate Mojtaba. “I have seen things that people twice my age have not seen,” he says. “This makes me strict with myself to use my opportunities and make my family proud.”
At the ceremony, Mojtaba is receiving a certificate and a book prize from the Afghan association to mark his success in completing his BSc in molecular biology at the Medical University of Vienna. In fact, he has nearly finished his MSc in neuroscience and later this year will begin a PhD on neurodegenerative disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease.
“It’s a big field and there’s little research, so it’s an up-and-coming subject,” says Mojtaba, who had considered doing further study in Scotland, a centre for neuroscience. Instead, a Marie Curie scholarship from the European Union will allow him to study in Austria, at the Institute of Science and Technology in Klosterneuburg.
“I have a dream that one day … someone from our community will win a Nobel Prize.”
This means he will stay close to his parents, three sisters and one brother. The younger ones are still in school but the oldest girl, Sohela, 21, is receiving a school leaver’s prize at the ceremony and the association’s best wishes as she heads off to university to study physics.
As each student goes to accept his or her prize, applause rings out in the Festsaal (grand hall) of the Ministry of Transport, Innovation and Technology. This is a night for celebrating Afghan achievements and the community’s contribution to Austrian society.
Another member of the audience, Reihana Mohammadi, 18, says she was there to support her brother. “He’s going to university to do economics. He’s a role model for me. This gives me something to work for.”
Soraya Auhadi, 19, beams as she comes off stage, clutching a certificate for finishing school, and has permission from the Vienna Chamber of Commerce to open a restaurant. “I took a three-month course in accounting, hygiene, customer service and labour rights and now I can employ others in my business,” she says.
All the students are aiming high but, in his address, Mojtaba urges them to “dream even bigger”.
A slight, bespectacled figure, he speaks in fluent German. He does not mince his words about the difficulties refugees face in integrating into Austrian society. He calls on fellow Afghans to take an interest in politics and not to be passive in their new homeland.
“I have a dream,” he concludes, “that one day an Austrian government minister will have Afghan roots, and that someone from our community will win a Nobel Prize.”
The hall resounds to thunderous applause.