6 min read
Muslim woman Ayah didn't think Australia’s defence force was for her. But here she is
Born overseas and from a culturally diverse background, Ayah Khalid thought a military career in Australia would be out of reach. But this year she began her service for the RAAF in Adelaide and has ambitions to rise through the ranks.
Published Friday 21 January 2022
By Abby Dinham
With the engines of the P-8A Poseidon roaring overhead, Flying Officer Ayah Khalid ducks under the hatch of the weapons bay of a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) aircraft.
The 23-year-old speaks with a ground crew member as they run over the inventory of switches and settings in the belly of the Boeing 737, a passenger plane that’s been modified to incorporate maritime surveillance and attack capabilities.
It’s her first month as an armament engineer at RAAF Base Edinburgh in South Australia; just the beginning of a military career she once thought to be out of her reach.
“It was a dream I never thought would never actually come true. 'I thought, come on, be realistic. What would I be doing?' Especially as a female of a different culture, you just think: 'I’ll find a job next to home and settle,'” she says.
As a female of a different culture, you just think: 'I’ll find a job next to home and settle'. - Flying Officer Ayah Khalid
Born in Kuwait, Ayah is the second of five children. Ayah’s mother is Lebanese-Australian and became a citizen after coming to Australia as a student in 1983 during Lebanon’s civil war. Her father is an Egyptian mechanical engineer.
When Ayah was 11 years old, the family moved to Egypt to be closer to their relatives and to seek opportunities in higher education. But within two years, the Arab Spring reached Cairo.
“It was all mainly in the city, the main riots, but at some stage, it got out of hand and spread to the suburbs. It came where we lived and that’s when I felt a bit unsafe in my home,” she says.
The 18-day uprising in 2011 spilled out from the capital into the suburbs. Almost 900 civilians were killed, thousands more injured. Ayah’s family made the decision to come to Australia, 20 years after her mother had left, and to a country the rest of the family had never seen.
“Because we were pretty much returning citizens, we didn’t have any support services to help us like asylum seekers or refugees. It was like, 'you’re Australian, you know what you’re doing,'” Ayah says.
“It was a lot on my parents, but we were all together.”
The family spent five weeks in a hotel figuring out how to restart their lives in Australia.
“What I really remember about first arriving in Australia is that I loved how clean it was and how organised it was. Just walking down the streets - I loved that.”
Settling in Melbourne’s north, Ayah decided instead of catching up on Year 11, she’d tackle Year 12 head-on. From her first day, every recess, lunchtime and after school hours were devoted to study.
Ayah, who speaks English and Arabic, not only caught up to the other students, she finished the year dux of Coburg High School with an invitation to study aerospace engineering at RMIT, fulfilling a destiny she’d predicted years earlier.
“I was like 14 or 15 and I didn’t even know what engineering was, but I told my dad: 'I’m going to be an engineer like you one day.'”
I told my dad: 'I’m going to be an engineer like you one day'
Her other passion was the military. Discovering she could combine the two, she applied to join the air force upon completion of her degree. With the decision made, all that remained was to inform the family.
“Some were shocked, some were supportive. Especially my grandpa - he was very shocked but very supportive - like, 'I can’t believe you did that', but in a good way.”
Ahead of basic training, she didn’t know what to expect. Ayah says she had some concerns the uniform would not meet her religious requirements, or that the mess may not offer a Halal option, but thanks to the guidance of a hijab-wearing army officer, she felt at ease.
Donning the uniform for the first time, Ayah says was a day she’ll never forget.
“I was almost dancing in there because it’s a few things; I don’t believe I actually got here, I went through a lot and here I am, and also I have just achieved the dream I always wanted.”
It’s a dream Group Captain Alison McCarthy can relate to in some ways. Raised in a military family, she signed up for Australia's Defence Force Academy in 1992. Approaching her 30th year in the RAAF, she says much has changed over the course of her career.
“A lot of the aircraft I remember from when I joined, like the F-111s and classic hornets, they’re all in museums now. So that part of it has changed a lot and the diversity of the people we work with has increased dramatically.”
Alison was the only woman, alongside 30 men, in her academy intake. Today, more than 25 per cent of the air force is made up of women and last year 40 per cent of defence force graduate recruits spoke a language other than English.
Alison says diversity in the forces brings knowledge and perspective.
“We want those unique experiences, we want that unique perspective, we want that as part of our team. The greater range of perspectives we have in our team when we are solving some of those future challenges, the better position we're going to be in.”
While Australia is the third country Ayah has lived in, it’s the first she calls home.
Beginning her career as an officer this year, she says she intends to serve her new country for many years to come.
“I feel like I’m supporting something important. I’m not just working for a random organisation. It gives you a sense of purpose.”
She is aiming to rise through the ranks to squadron leader within the next 15 years. Beyond that, she says she’s keeping her options open.
Alison says Ayah is forging a path for all women of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds in Australia.
“Having people like Flying Officer Khalid as an example that we can show - if she really enjoys her career, if she’s successful and really likes what she does - then people if they see something of themselves in her, they might think 'maybe I can enjoy a career in the air force as well.'”
This article is part of the My Australia series which explores the untold stories of extraordinary people in Australia. .
The Change Agents podcast series also hears from people in Australian communities who have become role models for change. .
Would you like to share your story with SBS News? Email