First Day: Iranian migrant and Labor politician Sam Dastyari


Growing up in a warzone and fleeing Iran for Australia sowed the seeds for Sam Dastyari to become a politician committed to migration issues.

In the 1970s, a young Iranian couple made the decision to hide out in a small town on the southern coast of the Caspian Sea.

Left-wing and pro-democracy engineering students, Naser and Ella had been expelled from university in Tehran for joining the Iranian revolution and feared the wrath of the country's repressive regime.

Speaking from an office in central Sydney, their son Sam, now a high-profile Labor senator, says the Iran-Iraq war that broke out in 1980 posed further risk for his parents.

"The real fear for dissidents in Iran during that period was that once the war was over, the focus of the regime was really going to turn inwards," he says. "It was going to be about hunting down and persecuting those dissidents who might still exist in their ranks."

As the end of the war drew closer - it would finally conclude with a UN-brokered ceasefire in August 1988, after the death of an estimated one million people - the couple and their two children were granted visas to come to Australia, where they could live safely.

The senator, now 32, says he remembers the day they waved goodbye to their relatives and set off.

"We packed a couple of suitcases – that's all we were allowed to bring; that’s your entire life – and put them in the car," he says. 

The family arrived in Sydney in January, a stark contrast from the frozen landscape they had left behind.

"My first memory of this country is just that hot Sydney summer sun just blowing me away."


Arriving in the middle of the bicentenary, Mr Dastyari says life in Australia seemed like a party.

"When you’re a kid and it’s a new environment, you get off the plane and there's this exciting new place to explore. Everything seems wonderful," he says.

"I look back now and realise just how scared my parents must have been at that point in time."

The family settled in a small, one-bedroom apartment next to railway tracks in the western Sydney suburb of Blacktown and the children were enrolled in a local school.

Were you born overseas? We'd love to hear about your first impression of Australia as a new migrant. Contact us on or via Twitter @SBSNews using the hashtag #FirstDaySBS

"I began my schooling without being able to speak a word of English," he says.

But he wasn’t alone.

"The school was full of different migrant stories: different backgrounds, different identities."

After two years of sharing one room, the family moved to Penrith. His parents took jobs where they could and worked hard to build a life for their children.

"When your parents have sacrificed as much as they sacrificed for my sister and me to be able to come here and be a part of this society, you’re always indebted," he says.


Sam Dastyari entered federal politics in 2013, recounting his journey to Australia in his first speech in the Australian Senate.

"None of us in this chamber should ever forget that whatever our political differences, whatever the issues of the day, we're lucky to live in this great nation, a place that prides itself on pursuing opportunity and equality," he said.

He then laid out his hope; to change the national discussion around refugees and asylum seekers.

"The rhetoric of our national discussion about the so-called boat people still lacks a real sense of compassion," he said.

Related reading

More than two years on, he says he is still grateful to live in a country where he can speak for those who don't have a voice.

"My goal will be that [through] what I do in politics, and pursuing what I believe, I will be able to pay a small part of the incredible debt that I will always owe this country." 

He says he has told his two daughters, aged four and two, about how he came to Australia. However he's not sure they will ever be able to appreciate what life is like without freedom and democracy.

"You can never really understand to not have that," he says.

"And on one level, I don't want my kids to ever have to experience it either."

This story was produced as part of the SBS series, First Day, airing on SBS World News throughout January.

Source SBS

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch