From earthquake victim to air force officer

Air force officer, Pakistani immigrant and keen cricketer, Flight Lieutenant Abdul Khan, is based at RAAF Base Williams in Laverton. (CPL Jacob Joseph)

Ten-year-old Abdul Khan couldn’t have known while watching RAAF cargo planes deliver assistance to survivors of the 2005 Pakistan earthquake, that 15 years later he’d be doing the same thing.

Young Fight Lieutenant Khan and family were among those affected by the earthquake, which killed at least 80,000 people and displaced millions more when it hit the mountainous regions of northern Pakistan.

“Our houses were made of mud so when the water came through everything just collapsed and we had to start again,” remembered Flight Lieutenant Khan of when the earthquake hit.

Another of his memories is the international response to the disaster, including from Australians.

“I remember seeing then Prime Minister John Howard on the news,” he said. “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 at RAAF Base Williams in Laverton.

When his family later immigrated to Melbourne, Khan dreamt of joining the Air Force before he knew the English word for plane.

However 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, but seeing an air force ad during his second year rekindled his dream.

He enrolled in officer training school in Victoria where any fears about acceptance were soon put 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.

The memory of Australia helping Pakistan stayed with the flight lieutenant, when he joined Operation COVID Assist in Papua New Guinea where he was now the one in uniform helping others.

Now he’s helping other Muslim Australians join defence, recently speaking at a recruitment event at the Melbourne Grand Mosque where he related his experiences as a Muslim in uniform.

“Seeing a Muslim speaking about defence creates a positive image,” he said.

“I want to help the next generation and change perceptions of defence in the Muslim community and beyond.”