SYDNEY // A softly spoken teenager has become the first refugee from landlocked Afghanistan to qualify as a lifeguard in Australia. Imtiyaz Saberi, 17, could not swim or speak English when he arrived in Melbourne in 2005 but has become the face of a multicultural campaign to warn migrants of the dangers of Australia's endless beaches as well its rivers, backyard pools and lakes.
"The first time I went to the swimming pool in Australia I went in pretty deep and the lifeguard had to save me and pulled me out of the water. I was scared back then but now I'm all right," said Kabul-born Imtiyaz in a soft, broad Australian accent. He became a lifeguard in the southern state of Victoria after completing a demanding practical and theoretical course. The high school student recalled the moment he saw for the first time the wide blue expanses of Port Phillip Bay, Melbourne's aquatic playground. "It was amazing. I felt like diving in but I couldn't swim. It wasn't easy to learn and it took me a little while to get the techniques but I got it in the end."
Lifesaving groups hope Imtiyaz's achievements will inspire other young refugees and migrants to join their ranks. It is estimated that one-fifth of victims of drowning on the Victorian coastline since last July were from ethnic minorities, who are traditionally, along with foreign tourists, seen as being particularly vulnerable to accidents in the water. "In many cases they are coming from societies where there is no culture of water safety. They find themselves in the idyllic location of a swimming hole in our fantastic outback or at a beach and they can find themselves in trouble very, very quickly," explained Justin Scarr, the chief operating officer with the Royal Lifesaving Society Australia. "They didn't realise the current was so strong. They didn't realise how quickly a normal situation can turn into a life-threatening one."
The incidence of drowning deaths in Australia has risen sharply over recent months with officials reporting the number of fatalities over the Christmas period was double that of last year. Mr Scarr said that encouraging the country's growing Muslim population to appreciate the dangers and delights of the surf had been difficult in the past often because of differences in language and culture, but he pointed to the success of special initiatives in Melbourne and Sydney that had resulted in members of the Islamic community working in aquatic centres as lifeguards and managers.
"That changes the dynamic of that local swimming pool quite considerably and we find that all of a sudden the community at risk sees the local pool as a safe place that is welcoming and encouraging," he added. About 300 people drown on average in Australia each year and authorities have set a target for this grim toll to be cut by 50 per cent by 2020. It is a challenge that many experts believe will not be achieved because of the recklessness increasingly displayed by older men and the disorientating effects of alcohol, which is a factor in more than 40 per cent of drowning deaths.
"Men tend to overestimate their skills but underestimate the risks and therefore get into trouble," said Richard Franklin, the national manager for research and health promotion with the Royal Lifesaving Society Australia, who has analysed all fatal water accidents between 2002 and 2007. The research showed that children under five had the highest rate of drowning, while people over 55 accounted for more than one-quarter of deaths in the water.
The study also revealed that more Australians drown in rivers than at the beach. "A river appears to be a reasonably safe environment but you've got power boats, jet skis, people swimming ... it is not that well-regulated," Mr Franklin said. "It appears to be flat and calm on the surface and people think it is reasonably safe but they don't think what is going on underneath [the surface] and the power of the water."
On patrol at Melbourne's Edithvale beach, Imtiyaz said he would be well-prepared when the time comes for him to leap into action to save a distressed swimmer. "It will feel great," he said. "I would love to rescue someone because then I will have a story to tell people and those younger than me to encourage them to be involved in lifesaving." email@example.com