The theme of "restoring hope" to refugees shone through during Ali Ali's speech on Saturday.
The former Afghan asylum seeker delivered the keynote address during the first western Sydney launch of Refugee Week at Granville Town Hall.
Ahead of the event, the 30-year-old Hazara man, of Merrylands, shared the tale of his journey from Jaghori in Afghanistan to Australia via Indonesia on a rickety boat with 130 others.
"Once you get on a boat, the risk is only of drowning," Ali said. "Given the despair, that's not a big risk."
Ali fled at the peak of the Taliban's power, when the religious extremists were kidnapping young Hazara men, taking them to the battleground and forcing them to fight: "The whole purpose was to wipe you out."
As the persecution intensified, Ali's mother — who died in a refugee camp told him to flee.
Alone, and only 17, he dodged the authorities and made it to a vessel he described as "unseaworthy".
In May 2001, Ali landed at Christmas Island, after 36 hours at sea, to the words "welcome to Australia" and "you are safe".
"What more can you expect than that?" he said. "The Australian authorities, including Customs and the people of Christmas Island, were so marvellous.
"I will never forget the treatment we received."
After being detained at the remote Curtin Immigration Detention Centre, Ali enrolled at Holroyd High School and continued his studies while on a temporary protection visa.
He graduated from UNSW with a master's degree in international law and international relations.
During those years, he worked non-stop, including as a forklift driver, a factory worker, food packer, tiler, car washer, labourer, cleaner, metal fabricator, strawberry picker and taxi driver.
In February, he moved into his own flat.
"It has not been easy," he said.
"But it was not only my commitment, it was not only my hard work, it was also the support of the community and from my teachers . . . I was not alone."
He said his message for Refugee Week was for Australians to "take a different look" at the issue of people seeking asylum.
"We don't need a military solution for this humanitarian issue. We don't need to punish these asylum seekers, those refugees who desperately need our help, our affection and our compassion."