Afghan engineer Abdul Gulistani has seen and survived greater personal and professional challenges than most of us could imagine. After leaving Kabul in 2017, he is now working for John Holland on Melbourne’s West Gate Tunnel Project.
Growing up in Kabul, Abdul Gulistani watched construction projects advancing across the city. He was particularly fascinated by the extension of power lines through various neighbourhoods and the progress they promised.
This drove him to become an engineer and earn his Bachelor of Civil Engineering at Kabul Polytechnic University. It also saw him working for a decade across Afghanistan, building bridges, schools and hospitals during the period of US occupation.
But as the troubled nation continued to experience conflict, including regular attacks by the Taliban, it was Gulistani’s passion for progress that saw his work, and his own life, under threat.
“The Taliban was and is against the future development of Afghanistan,” he told create. “They killed engineers. They killed anybody who worked to develop Afghanistan.”
Gulistani’s work in the provinces of his country saw him living and working out of US Army bases. The grim reality was that without the protection of the military, it was unlikely an engineer would have survived.
“The Taliban tried not only to kill me, they tried to kill all engineers,” he said. “They saw progress as the country becoming weaker.
“I once left an Army base in the provinces, and soon after I returned to Kabul the Taliban attacked the base with rockets. When there were rocket attacks there would be places we could go for safety, to hide, but there was always great danger. On some projects, rocket attacks happened once or twice a day.”
In Kabul, Gulistani had to move houses several times to avoid becoming a Taliban target. In 2017, it all became too dangerous, and he made the difficult decision to leave.
Re-engineering a career
For four years, Gulistani worked in Pakistan as an office engineer for a property development company. Here, he coordinated a team of 10 engineers, helped manage project requirements, and procured materials and equipment.
His role also covered drafting of project plans, monitoring compliance to various codes and practices, assessing tenders and preparing contracts.
In 2021, Gulistani and his family, which included his wife and four children, received news that they were able to move to Australia. They landed in the Northern Territory to spend 14 days in quarantine.
“A quarantine team leader in the Northern Territory said to us, ‘You are now free. You can live life however you’d like.’
“It was the first time I had ever heard such a thing. I was so happy. I turned to my wife and we smiled. It was the first time we’d ever felt we were free.”
Gulistani started out picking cherries on a farm in South Australia. He also worked a similar job picking apples. Next was a job as a painter.
All the while, he wondered how he might breathe new life into his previous career as an engineer.
“A friend in Melbourne who had known me from Kabul called me and told me about an organisation called CareerSeekers,” he said.
“I registered with them and over two or three months we communicated. I went to Melbourne where they provided a course for one week to learn about Australian culture. Then I went back home for another month.”
Finally, a call came from John Holland, which works with CareerSeekers to place refugee engineers into projects. In the past three years of the partnership, John Holland has employed over 100 refugees and asylum seekers via CareerSeekers.
“They told me they have an opportunity as a junior engineer, working with the infrastructure project team,” Gulistani said. “I immediately shifted my family to Melbourne and started working with John Holland in November last year.”
As part of the national partnership, CareerSeekers interns have been placed in roles across Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and Queensland, and across John Holland’s infrastructure, major projects, and rail and transport businesses, and in corporate functions.
Rob Evans, Executive General Manager – Infrastructure at John Holland, said the program, which was recently extended for a further three years, is transforming lives for the better.
“Our data shows more than 80 per cent of CareerSeekers [participants] have moved into full-time roles at John Holland or are working casually while completing their studies,” Evans said.
Still on contract with John Holland as a contract administrator on the West Gate Tunnel Project, Gulistani is regularly surprised by the differences in workplace culture.
Having spent a decade working in an environment where his life was at great risk, he said he now feels safe, valued, empowered and engaged.
“The human resources team is at a high level, the communication is at a high level, and the machinery we use is at a high level,” he said.
“When we communicate with another organisation or team, we do it without issue. I feel the team’s support. I feel the business working to build my abilities and empower me.”
“In Afghanistan, the environment is against you every step of the way. Here, you’re always supported, and health and safety is very important.”
Perhaps most importantly, Abdul and his family are enjoying their lives in an environment of safety rather than peril, freedom rather than fear.
“I am working in a safe country,” he said. “My children go to school, and I know they’ll come home safe.”