When Abdul Sharifi started high school in Sydney after fleeing war-torn Afghanistan, he did not speak English and had never been to school. "They didn't really have proper schools in Afghanistan," he said. "So I didn't do maths, science, English, nothing."
Yet, against the odds, he is likely to be among the state's high achieving HSC students when results are released on Wednesday.
Abdul is a product of a western Sydney public school with a reputation for punching well above its weight. Despite more than half the students at Holroyd High School school being of refugee background and most starting with no or very limited English, about 40 per cent of its HSC students have received university offers in recent years.
Earlier this year, Abdul and his classmates Ateeq-ur Rahman and Eric Xu came second in NSW in a chemistry analysis competition, beaten only by the state's top performing selective school, James Ruse Agricultural High School.
Ateeq-ur, who finished the tournament with a perfect score, spoke almost no English when he moved from Pakistan in 2011. He has received a conditional offer to study medical science at the University of Sydney next year, provided he scores an ATAR of 88.
Under the university's E12 program, an early entry program for disadvantaged students that has made offers to 488 students this year, he would also receive a $5000 first-year scholarship.
"Money is a bit of a problem for us, so the scholarship would help me a lot to buy my books and pay my university fees," he said. "My dad is a taxi driver and my mum is a nurse so most of the money went into investing in the home loan."
Abdul has also received an E12 offer but his preference is to study engineering at the University of NSW, which would likely require an ATAR above 90.
Either way, it is all but certain he will begin a university degree next year. "I will be the first member of my family to go to uni and I want to make them proud and get a good job at the end," he said.
Holroyd's principal Dorothy Hoddinott, who has been at the school for 18 years, says the high expectations she has for her students will be passed on to future generations.
"When one of these students goes on this journey through education, they carry the entire family with them," she said.
She said she tells her students "no one can ever take your education from you. They can can strip you naked and take everything you own but what's in your head can never be removed".