Mojtaba dreams of finding a cure for cancer.

He was 13 when he escaped from Taliban violence.

Mojtaba, 22 years old: “The journey to Europe was very tough. I was only 13 at the time. I lost my older brother on the way. He drowned on the crossing between Turkey and Greece. After that, I had to manage on my own. The hardest thing for me was not knowing who I could trust. But I was lucky. In Austria, I found a family who supported me and who supports me still. And now I am at university, studying molecular biology.

There was no science in my childhood. I helped my parents in the fields in Ghazni province [in Afghanistan]. They were farmers, growing potatoes, fruits and vegetables. We were surrounded by the Taliban. As members of the Hazara minority, we were always at risk. It felt like being in prison. We couldn’t move freely and sooner or later, we were going to be attacked. Europe was our only hope of safety.”

“My Afghan family is with me now and I’m following my dream of doing cancer research. I would like to go abroad to do my PhD, maybe to Scotland because they have good brain specialists there. I am determined to fight cancer.”

Austria. Mojtaba Tavakoli's story

Mojtaba Tavakoli, 22, fled Afghanistan at the age of 13. Today, he is studying molecular biology with a focus on cancer research at the Medical University of Vienna in Austria. ©UNHCR/G. WELTERS

Austria. Mojtaba Tavakoli's story

Mojtaba, 22, holds his youngest brother Omid Tavakoli, 1, and his mother Rehana Rahimi, 46, in his family's home. ©UNHCR / G. WELTERS

Austria. Mojtaba Tavakoli's story

The Tavakoli family enjoys a traditional dinner together. From left to right: Mojtaba's mother Rehana Rahimi (46), sister Zahra Tavakoli (17), Mojtaba Tavakoli (22), brother Omid Tavakoli (1) and his father Joma Ali Tavakoli (53). ©UNHCR / G. WELTERS

Austria. Mojtaba Tavakoli's story

Mojtaba (second from left) and his friends at a barbecue in the countryside of Vienna, Austria. “I love Vienna, It’s a beautiful city that I call home.” ©UNHCR / G. WELTERS

Austria. Mojtaba Tavakoli's story

Mojtaba works in a laboratory at the Medical University of Vienna. At the age of 13, he and his brother fled the Taliban, but his brother drowned in the Aegean Sea. Today, as a medical student, he dreams of finding a cure for cancer. ©UNHCR / G. WELTERS

Austria. Mojtaba Tavakoli's story

Mojtaba studies late into the night in his room at his guest family's house. He hopes to pursue a PhD in cancer research. ©UNHCR / G. WELTERS


Mojtaba Tavakoli had only elementary education when he fled the Taliban in Afghanistan at the age of 13. Now 22, he is studying molecular biology at the Medical University of Vienna and aiming for a future in cancer research. The Tavakoli family, members of Afghanistan’s oppressed Hazara minority, sent two of their sons to Europe in 2006 to escape the Taliban. After his older brother Morteza, 18, drowned in the Aegean Sea, Mojtaba continued the journey alone. In Austria, he was supported by an Austrian couple, Marion Weigl and Bernhard Wimmer.

Once he was granted asylum in Austria, Mojtaba was able to bring his Afghan family to join him. Another brother, Mustafa, 12, died of cancer in Vienna in 2014. Personal loss and the kindness of those who supported him motivates 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.”

Written by Helen Womack

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Mojtaba and his brother took their chances crossing the Aegean Sea in desperate bids to reach Europe. 2015 saw a record breaking 1,000,000 people risking their lives with hope of reaching Europe for dreams of a better future. Like so many families, Mojtaba lost his brother to the Mediterranean waters. Afghans make up the 2nd largest population of refugees crossing these waters.