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VCE 2016: Scholarship for orphaned refugee whose story broke readers' hearts

Three months ago, Tala Afshak* was labouring through VCE without parents, a visa, or a faint hope that she could afford university fees.

The Iranian refugee, who was in community detention when she spoke to Fairfax Media in October, shared the horror of losing her mother at sea on her journey to Australia in 2013.

In the story featured on the front page of The Sunday Age Tala said that she wanted to be a nurse so she could "help people to survive".

The article triggered an avalanche of support for Tala as dozens of readers contacted Fairfax Media offering donations, accommodation and mentorship.

"I am a secondary school teacher and most of my students lack the resilience and focus that this young woman has," one reader emailed. "She should be made to feel welcomed."

Another wrote: "I too am an 18-year-old girl studying for my VCE but can in no way parallel our experiences ... my family and I would like to offer our support and/or accommodation to 'Tala' and her brother."


Melanie Raymond, chair of Youth Projects, a Glenroy-based organisation supporting disadvantaged youth, set up a fund for Tala which generated nearly $2000 to help pay for her education and living expenses.

Youth Projects has advocated relentlessly for Tala to find her affordable accommodation and employment.

Tala's story also inspired La Trobe University to offer her the scholarship of a lifetime.

From next year, she will study nursing for free, and the university will give her $3000 a year to cover living expenses while she undertakes the course.

"La Trobe is pleased to be able to offer the first of our new Humanitarian Scholarships to such a worthy recipient and to give her the opportunity to make her dream of becoming a nurse a reality," said Vice Chancellor John Dewar.

"Refugees on bridging visas and people seeking asylum in Australia face significant challenges to access higher education and are currently required to pay international students fees to enrol."

The university will offer this scholarship to eight asylum seeker students over the next three years.

Tala, who was also offered a scholarship by another university, said she was overjoyed.

She and her younger brother were also offered a Temporary Protection Visa soon after the story was published.

"The scholarship is a really good opportunity for me, someone who doesn't have parents or anyone. I feel now I have someone who is helping to support me, and I can support my brother as well."

Many of Tala's friends and teachers who did not know her back story broke down in tears after reading the media report.

She was awarded an "all-rounder award" and an English as an Additional Language award at her year 12 formal graduation.

She arrived at the event dressed to the nines after several fashion brands offered her outfits for her formal.

Representatives of Fame and Partners, Sportsgirl​, Mecca Cosmetica​, Rubi​ Shoes, 3INA and Bronx and Banco all offered their support. Tala was also treated to a one-on-one styling session at Forever New.

Tala said she had formed new friendships with readers who reached out to her after the story.

"It made my life so much better … these people were strangers, but they treat me like their daughter or sister and make me feel like I have many people who care about me."

Tala Afshak* is not her real name.

If you would like to support Tala, contact Youth Projects on 9304 9100 or email

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