Immigration

First Day: Saab Hasan fled conflict-torn Cyprus to fulfill horse training dreams in Flemington

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Saab Hasan recalls his early impressions of Australia, including listening to a radio broadcast of the Melbourne Cup - an event that was to seal his fate.

As the sun begins to rise above the famed Flemington race track, trainer Saab Hasan moves from box to box stretching the horse's legs to check for soreness and injury.

He hasn't had a day off in 12 years, but training horses is the only thing he's ever wanted to do.

He says he declared his intentions to his grandfather in Cyprus at the tender age of 3.

"So I came to him one day and said, 'Granddad, Granddad, I know what I want to be,' and he said 'whats that son?' and I said 'I want to be a horse trainer,' and he said 'where's that come from? We've only got two donkeys in Cyprus.'"

Grandfather Cemil Fedai holding baby Saab Hasan in Cyprus
Grandfather Cemil Fedai holding baby Saab Hasan in Cyprus with other grand children
Supplied


His early childhood was idyllic, raised by his Turkish-Cypriot grandparents on a small farm in Limassol, Cyprus.

They had animals and grew oranges, the harvest was enough to be self sufficient.

But in 1974 everything changed.

"Basically we became a prisoner in our own country," he said. "There was a lot of unrest between the Greeks and the Turks and as a result we were detained in our village and we couldn't go out."

That year, the Greek military junta launched a coup to overthrow the president; the Turkish forces in turn invaded.

"A bomb whizzed past us and she'd [mum] through herself on top of us to protect us."

The Hasan family was taken to a Turkish-Cypriot refugee camp along with the other children and elderly in the village.

"We were all laying down watching the bullets go over our heads and the bombs exploding and one of my fondest memories of my mum, was her singing to us, whispering to us go to sleep everything is going to be alright," Hasan says. "Then a bomb whizzed past us and she'd throw herself on top of us to protect us."

Saab hasan being held by his mother Behiye, grandmother Lutfiye standing with sister Saver
Saab hasan being held by his mother Behiye, grandmother Lutfiye standing with sister Saver
Supplied


Cyprus was divided, with Turkish forces taking over the northeastern portion of the island.

Hasan and his family left everything to flee north over the border. Fearing more conflict, it was decided the family would pool their money to send Hasan, his siblings and parents to Australia. However, his grandparents would remain behind.

"All I knew is that it was hot, we were going to come here and work and then we were going to come back home," he says. 'And I thought, 'ok let's hurry up and get this over and done with so I can get back home'. But deep down I felt I was being lied to by my parents and we weren't going to come home.

"I still remember Granddad put me in a taxi, turned around and walked away and never said goodbye."

Saver and Saab Hasan just before leaving Cyprus for Australia
Saver and Saab Hasan just before leaving Cyprus for Australia
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Sadness soon turned to excitement, as the Hasan family moved into their accommodations - a commission housing flat in Flemington, overlooking the race track.

Just weeks after arriving, 5-year-old Hasan would listen to the radio as Van Der Hum won the 1976 Melbourne Cup.

"We landed at Flemington, which is know as the heart of the Melbourne Cup, so my destiny was chosen," he said.

But the road would be long and difficult, beginning with a first day at a new school.

"I was the little wog boy who took his cucumber, half a watermelon and haloumi cheese and a loaf of bread and I was taught to share. But the Aussie kids just stared at me and said what's that we have meat pies," he says.

He took solace in his love of animals. As a teen he sought work in a stable, but refused by every trainer he wouldn't take no for an answer.

Saab Hasan leading the horse his brother rides
Saab Hasan leading the horse his brother rides
Supplied


"There was this one last stable I walked into, there was no one around, I picked up a pitch fork and just started working," he says.

"This guy came in and said, 'who are you?', I said, 'I'm your new worker', and he said, 'I'm the boss, I haven't hired you', and I said, 'bad luck, I'm your new worker', so his name was Mick Cerchi and he gave me my first break."

He learnt the business from the masters, such as John Sadler, David Hayes, and Bart Cummings, before branching out on his own in 2004, living a dream that was decades in the making. 

The next step in the dream is returning to the Melbourne Cup not as a spectator but as a competitor.

"To win it would be ideal of course, but if I can just compete in a Melbourne Cup and see that synonymous Arab-Muslim surname Hasan in the paper in the Melbourne Cup would be awesome," Hasan said. "It would be telling Australia thank you for giving me the opportunity."

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