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From Iraq to Onehunga2 min read

Feb 4, 2020 2 min

From Iraq to Onehunga2 min read

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Among the Year 13 pupils who graduated from Onehunga High School at the end of 2019, was a student who has overcome obstacles most of us could not imagine facing. For 20 year-old Dhia Ugla, who received the Dennie Walls Endeavour Cup, graduation was a personal triumph.


Originally from Iraq, Dhia was 15 and living with his family in Mosul when it was overrun by ISIS in June 2014. The terrorists closed all the schools, and it was to be more than four years before he was able to return to a classroom. Even worse, academics like Dhia’s father were singled out for brutal treatment.

Eventually, to save his own life, Dhia’s father had to leave his family behind, and escape from the city, risking execution if he was caught. Dhia, his mother, younger brother and sister stayed, and were forced to endure three years of terror. They only left their home when it was absolutely necessary.

In July 2017, Iraqi forces and their allies finally liberated Mosul; the Ugla family fleeing the city at the height of the battle and dodging gunfire as they ran. They then spent another year in Baghdad, obtaining passports and permission to re-join Dhia’s father, who had been granted refugee status in New Zealand. In mid-2018, the family was finally reunited.

Despite not having had any schooling for more than four years, and barely able to speak English, there was no way Dhia was going to be denied an education. He says, “I believed in my ability to succeed.” He started applying to high schools for the 2019 year, but unfortunately he ran into another barrier. As a 19 year-old he was classed as a mature student, and New Zealand schools are not obliged to accept enrolments once students are over 19. A number of schools declined to accept him.

Fortunately, OHS principal, Deidre Shea, has the belief that if someone wants to learn, it is her job to help them. She says when she met Dhia, she was so impressed by his determination that she had no hesitation in enrolling him. “It was our privilege,” she says.

In January 2019, Dhia finally went back to school, and in just one year managed to catch up on those lost years. He admits it was intimidating at first, and initially he did not tell anyone how old he was. However, he says the wonderful support he received soon made him feel like he belonged.

Dhia has nothing but praise for New Zealand, OHS, and his teachers, particularly his ESOL (English as a Second Language) teacher, Nonette Roberts; he says he could not have succeeded without her. His journey continues on  – he is now at the Auckland University of Technology studying Construction and Engineering.


Dhia Ugla with his ESOL teacher Nonette Roberts