A then 10-year old Abdul Khan couldn’t have known the whirr of RAAF cargo planes, delivering vital medical assistance to survivors of Pakistan’s deadliest earthquake, would lead him to Air Force and put him on one of those planes delivering aid 15 years later.
CAPTION: RAAF Flight Lieutenant Abdul Khan at the Cricket NSW home grounds during the Air Force cricket team training and development sessions, Sydney. Story and photo by Corpora Jacob Joseph.
In one of the worst natural disasters in history, at least 80,000 people died and millions were displaced in 2005.
Australia joined the international response and medical teams travelled to remote clinics in the mountainous regions of northern Pakistan.
A young Flight Lieutenant Khan and family were among those affected by the disaster.
“Our houses were made of mud so when the water came through everything just collapsed and we had to start again,” Flight Lieutenant Khan said.
“I remember seeing then Prime Minister John Howard on the news.
“I had no idea what he was saying but the Urdu translation told me about how people from all over the world had come to help our community.”
It was a formative experience for the engineer currently posted to Chief Information Officer Group.
When his family moved to Melbourne after his father was granted a skilled visa as a computer engineer, fragmented memories from his old home helped shape aspirations in his adopted country.
He dreamed of becoming an Air Force pilot before he knew the English word for plane.
A high school teacher set him on a different course.
“He told me it would be hard to join the military as a Muslim and that put me off a career in Defence,” Flight Lieutenant Khan said.
Instead, he enrolled in electrical engineering at RMIT.
In his second year, he saw an ad for Air Force and it reawakened his curiosity for service.
He was soon enrolled at Officer Training School in Victoria.
It was there that mateship spanned the gap between cultures and put fears about acceptance to rest.
“During the field exercise, while I slept a mate kindly prepared warm water for me as they knew I would need to wash before prayer,” Flight Lieutenant Khan said.
“This is when I knew joining Defence was the right decision for me.”
Flight Lieutenant Khan has also found diversity on the cricket pitch, where he can be found playing opening batsman every summer.
“Sport is a way to get to know everyone, especially cricket where you have different cultures all out there playing together,” he said.
“It’s a way to meet people and get their side of the story too.”
The memory of Australia helping Pakistan stayed with the Flight Lieutenant, who was quick to volunteer for Operation Covid Assist in Papua New Guinea.
This time he was the one in uniform who would be there for someone else.
Now he’s on a mission to help the next generation of Muslim Australians.
It’s what took him and ADF Careers officers to the Melbourne Grand Mosque in October, to show worshippers that Defence is working to create a workforce that is representative of a multi-faith society.
The mosque engagement was a first for ADF Careers.
Thousands of worshippers attended the special congregation and Flight Lieutenant Khan related his experiences as a Muslim in uniform.
He said wherever he went, his chain of command has accommodated the needs of his faith, making space so he can pray throughout the day and even sourcing halal-certified ration packs.
“Seeing a Muslim speaking about Defence creates a positive image,” he said.
“They think, if he can adapt to the environment and has been welcomed, so could we.
“I want to help the next generation and change perceptions of Defence in the Muslim community and beyond.”