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First Day: Ali Abbas’ incredible journey from Iraq to Australian football glory

Ali Abbas has a message for other migrants – don’t be afraid.

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“Take your opportunity, try to communicate with people and do whatever it takes,” he says.

“Don’t stay at home and be scared to come and be a part of the community.”

The 29-year-old footballer has taken a break from training with Sydney FC – the club he has called home since 2012 – to talk about his extraordinary journey from war-torn Iraq to Australia, where he has played professionally for more than five years. 

Abbas first came to the country in 2007 as a member of the Iraqi under-23 side to play against the Olyroos. Despite a stunning win at the Asia Cup earlier in the year, the Iraqi team had only an outside chance of winning the match, which would qualify them for the Beijing Olympics.

As he relaxes in the team’s changing room Abbas remembers driving into Sydney and to the beachside hotel where the team was to stay.

“It was very nice, very hot and nice weather,” he says. “I saw the beach and the view.  It was beautiful.

“I haven’t seen that before and I was imagining if I lived here, how nice it would be.”

The peace and calm was in stark contrast to the home Abbas had left behind, which had been rocked by instability under the 24-year dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, followed by the American invasion of 2003.

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In a 2014 interview with The Guardian, Abbas described the fear he had experienced daily in Baghdad.

“You’re going to go out, maybe you’re not going to go back home. Maybe you’re going to die,” he said.

“Maybe you are going to have your arms lost, or legs. I’ve got a friend of mine, he’s a brother, he used to play soccer, and he lost both his legs.”

“Take your opportunity, try to communicate with people and do whatever it takes.” 

Before he was due to return to Iraq, Abbas and two other teammates secretly left their hotel to seek asylum in Australia. The story made headlines around the world.

Abbas was granted asylum in 2008 but returned to Iraq later that year. It would be more than a year later that he returned to Australia to join the Marconi Stallions, and, later, the Newcastle Jets. On Australia Day in 2012, he became an Australian citizen.

“The first six months, to be honest, I haven’t met anybody because I haven’t speak any English so it’s a little bit hard for me to communicate,” he says.

But he was determined to make the most of the chance he’d been given.

“They have many opportunities here and I was grateful to have that opportunity and take it in both my hands.”

He has been playing with the Sydney FC for almost four years and is a favourite with fans.

“I’m really happy to represent that club,” he says. “That club means a lot to me.”

Abbas still plays for the Iraqi national team – he was recalled in 2014 – and holds a strong connection to his home. He says players are treated differently in the football-mad country than in Australia.

“In Iraq, when you walk on the street, you can’t, because they’re going to stop you on the street to take a photo with you,” he says. “It is completely different here. They know you but they don’t want to come up to you and ask for autograph or photo.”

Despite being plagued by a knee injury that has taken him off the field for the better part of a year, Abbas seems content. And he is keen for other migrants to Australia to enjoy similar success.

“Whatever you love to do – play soccer, play NFL, anything in your life – just come and try it with the people. Don’t stay at home and do nothing.”

This story was produced as part of the SBS series, First Day, airing on SBS World News throughout January.

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New Qld research helps melanoma treatment

People with aggressive melanomas could be spared the trauma of radiation treatments that wouldn’t work for them anyway thanks to world-first research at a Queensland hospital.

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A research team at the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane is testing whether patients are resistant to radiation therapy before it is offered to them.

Similar to how drug resistance is tested, individual patients’ melanoma cells are radiated in a petri dish to indicate how they would respond to therapy.

Lead researcher Professor Bryan Burmeister says each melanoma patient reacted differently to treatment and it was important to establish the best course of action as early as possible.

“I’ve been working with melanomas now for 25 years and it still amazes me how, in some patients, the disease melts away and in others it just laughs at you and kills the patient within a few weeks or months,” Prof Burmeister said.

The new research, which is still in its early stages, will mean patients resistant to radiation therapy will be spared unnecessary toxicity by undergoing the treatment.

In turn, those who would respond well to radiation would not have to undergo invasive surgery to remove their tumours.

Meanwhile, Cancer Council Queensland warned melanoma was the most common cancer diagnosed in young Queenslanders.

Spokeswoman Katie Clift said 110 melanomas were diagnosed in men under 35 in the state, while there were around 140 new cases for women in the same age bracket.

“It is concerning to see so many cases diagnosed in those under 35 – a diagnosis of melanoma at such a young age can be particularly distressing,” Ms Clift said.

“Sun exposure in childhood influences the risk of skin cancer later in life – it’s vital for parents to protect young children from harmful UV rays as much as possible.”

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Pakistani student Hassan Asif dies with family by his side

Pakistani international student Hassan Asif has died just over a week after his mother and brother were finally granted permission to come to Australia to see him.

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Hassan, 25, died from terminal cancer on Wednesday morning in a Melbourne hospice, his brother Rameez Asif announced.

Both Rameez and his mother were with Hassan when he died, Rameez said in a statement, and had been by his side since they arrived in Australia on December 29.

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Rameez said he, his mother and their family in Lahore, Pakistan, were grateful for the care and support Hassan had received in Melbourne to be able to see him again before he died.

“It was like a dream come true to be with Hassan,” he said in the statement.

“We literally lost hope when our visas got rejected but we still made it to Australia. I have no words to describe how happy we were to be with Hassan.

“My brother got the best possible care. Thank you.”

The immigration department had initially denied Rameez and his mother visas to visit Hassan, who was diagnosed with cancer while studying architecture at a Melbourne university.

The department initially rejected the applications because it was not satisfied they would comply with the conditions.

However, after public backlash over the case, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton contacted Australian officials in Islamabad to review the case.

“I asked the department or the post in Islamabad to have a look at the case, to ask for additional information,” he told Sky News in December.

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“That’s happened and the visas have been issued so I’m hopeful that they can arrive in Australia soon, spend some time with their terminally ill son and brother and I think that’s what most Australians would expect.”

Hassan’s family have extended an open invitation to all those who would like to attend his funeral and pay their final respects to him.

A funeral service will take place on Thursday, January 7 from noon at Preston Mosque, 90 Cramer Street, Preston.

Community members intending to attend the funeral service are advised that the dress code in the mosque is modest attire. 

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Hopes Vic fire contained by end of Jan

Victorian fire crews are working day and night to contain an out-of-control coastal blaze by the end of the month.

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Weak winds and cool temperatures have helped firefighters strengthen containment lines around the 2500-hectare Wye River fire, which is burning in dense and mountainous forest.

Incident controller Gregg Paterson says while some rain is falling, it is only enough to “annoy” firefighters who hope to contain the fire by January 30.

“This is a very difficult fire,” he told AAP on Wednesday.

“The plan is to have the fire contained by the 30th of January, but if it were earlier, that would be awesome.”

The misty rain and low cloud coverage were making it difficult for aircraft to fly and water-bomb fire hot spots, Mr Paterson said.

More than 300 personnel, including 23 New Zealand specialist firefighters, are battling to control the bushfire that razed 116 homes on Christmas Day.

Mr Paterson said the New Zealand crew working at the north end of the fire had done some amazing work with hand tools such as rakes, also placing water-filled backpacks on the edge of containment lines to ensure the area was wet.

Crews wanted to gain as much ground on the fire as possible before predicted warmer temperatures on the weekend, Mr Paterson said.

Morale was high and good planning meant everything was going as smoothly as possible, he said.

“I’m really comfortable where we’re at – I’d just like the weather to go on being kind to us,” Mr Paterson said.

The Great Ocean Road was reopened at 8am on Wednesday.

That’s expected to bring some relief to tourism operators and business owners in the holiday playground after days of major disruption from the blaze.

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SA cold case arrest brings relief

The sister of missing South Australian Dale McCauley has urged the man charged with his murder to reveal where his remains are buried.

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Major crime detectives on Tuesday charged a 65-year-old man from the Adelaide suburb of Seaton with Mr McCauley’s 1998 murder.

Police will oppose bail when he faces court for the first time on Wednesday.

The charge followed a comprehensive cold-case review and a public appeal for information.

Mr McCauley’s older sister and sole surviving relative, Sandra Cole-Stokes, said the arrest had come as a shock after his disappearance was declared a major crime 18 years ago.

“It was a relief,” she told reporters on Wednesday. “I just thought it’s finally, hopefully, coming to an end now. I want to bring him back home.”

Mr McCauley’s truck, passport and Akubra hat – which his friends said he would never leave home without – were found at his home after he went missing.

Ms Cole-Stokes said her now-deceased parents had been robbed of the opportunity to learn what had happened to their son.

The pair had limited contact during their adult lives but Ms Cole-Stokes said she had suspected her brother had been murdered.

“I thought it was strange that his bank accounts hadn’t been used (and) his passport was still at home,” she said.

Before disappearing, the 44-year-old had returned from Yuendumu, a remote Northern Territory Aboriginal settlement, where he ran an art centre. An acquaintance from the settlement was staying with him when he went missing.

Major Crimes detective superintendent Des Bray said the charged man was known to Mr McCauley and no further arrests were expected.

Police have again urged anyone with information to come forward.

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Services sector ends 2015 on a weak note

The services sector ended 2015 on a poor note, with activity falling in December for a third month following weak demand and heavy discounting before Christmas.

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The Australian Industry Group’s Performance of Services Index (PSI) dropped 1.9 points to 46.3 points in December, falling further below 50, indicating the sector is contracting at a faster pace.

Ai Group chief executive Innes Willox said the survey’s respondents said spending before Christmas was selective.

“Businesses reported an early onset of price discounting as competitors tried, largely without success, to maintain sales volumes,” he said.

Mr Willox said the outlook for the start of 2016 was far from encouraging, with another decline in new orders continuing falls that began in September.

During December, only the health and community services and personal and recreational services sub-sectors enjoyed a lift in activity.

Hospitality was steady, while the seven remaining sub-sectors all contracted.

Of note was the downturn in activity in the property and business services, which dropped to it lowest level June.

The sub-sector enjoyed solid expansion in the third quarter of 2015, but conditions deteriorated in the last two months of 2015.

Respondents to the survey put the poor end to 2015 down to commercial banks increasing their mortgage interest rates in order to meet increased capital requirements set by the financial regulator.

A cooling housing market, and ongoing weakness in business-to-business services also weighed on the sub-sector.

But CommSec’s chief economist Craig James said the survey’s results didn’t appear to line up with other recent retail or business surveys, employment data or anecdotal evidence.

“Retail sales are growing at a normal four per cent annual pace; Christmas sales figures were solid; and employment in the services sector has been soaring,” he said.

“So the services gauge may be more of an outlier at present.”

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Fears over unvaxxed kids at Qld centres

Queensland’s government is fearful infection could spread at childcare centres that accept high numbers of unvaccinated children.

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New legislation allows centres to refuse children who aren’t immunised. However, at least two providers have said they would welcome these enrolments.

“I would caution against that because you are creating a bed where infection can spread rapidly,” Acting Health Minister Dr Anthony Lynham said on Wednesday.

“If you have a cohort of children that are essentially all unvaccinated that would be extremely dangerous.

“I would be very fearful of an outbreak at a particular childcare centre, very fearful indeed.”

Dr Lynham said the centres would be leaning on those children that had been vaccinated to stop the spread of disease.

However, he said it was a personal choice for both parents and providers.

Churches of Christ Care, which runs 20 centres across Queensland, announced late Tuesday that it would welcome unvaccinated children.

“While unvaccinated children are not excluded, we do encourage all families to vaccinate children,” general manager Jane Carter said.

The centres will take precautionary measures including keeping records and monitoring, and special consideration will be given to unvaccinated babies.

Childcare provider C&K, believed to be the state’s largest, made a similar announcement last week.

Under the federal “no jab, no pay” law, which came into effect on New Year’s Day, parents who don’t immunise their children will stop receiving childcare benefits and rebates.

The legislation, passed in state parliament last year, gives centres the power to refuse to take children under five whose parents have failed to ensure they complete mandated vaccination schedules.

AAP cleo/mjg/glg

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‘Bikies behind Vic strip club shooting’

Bikie gangs are behind a drive-by shooting at a Melbourne strip club in which a man was shot in the face.

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The man, aged in his 40s, was shot outside the Kittens club in South Melbourne late on Tuesday night – the second drive-by at the venue in less than two months.

A car carrying at least two people drove past and three shots were fired from the passenger side, before the vehicle took off, police say.

The vehicle was later found burning in Melton West, about 40km away from the strip club.

Detective Superintendent Peter De Santo said the injured man was a bouncer who was hit three times in the forehead by shotgun pallets.

He blamed outlaw motorcycle gangs.

“At this stage, there appears to be a connection between the shootings, which are targeted, and OMCGs involvement in those drive-by shootings,” Det Supt De Santo told reporters on Wednesday.

He reassured Victorians the shootings were not random.

“These are targeted shootings and not indiscriminate shootings, and unfortunately even though they’re happening in the community, they’re more targeted than not,” he said.

The Echo Taskforce has taken over the investigation.

Det Supt De Santo said he did not believe it was a drug war or feud between bikie gangs, but would not go into more detail due to an ongoing investigation into two other shootings in early 2015, and 2014, believed to be linked to Tuesday night’s drive-by.

He warned those involved they were putting innocent lives at risk.

“South Melbourne is a very populated area, there’s a lot of restaurants there, and these shootings put innocent lives at risk,” he said.

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Record high for new car sales in 2015

The automotive industry is in 2016 gunning for a seventh straight year of more than one million new car sales, after setting another record in 2015.

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Motorists bought more cars than ever before last year, snapping up more than one million new vehicles for the sixth successive year.

Australians purchased 1.155 million new vehicles in 2015, eclipsing the previous full-year record of 1.136 million sales set in 2013, Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries (FCAI) data show.

FCAI chief executive Tony Weber expects a further 1.1 million new vehicles to be sold in the new year.

“When you have had a record year three years out of the last four, you wonder where the market will obviously go,” he said.

“(But) we don’t see anything on the horizon that will slow sales in terms of the broader economy.”

Mr Weber said the industry outperformed general economic conditions last year, with sales up 3.8 per cent compared to 2014.

“This is an outstanding result in that environment,” he said.

And the falling exchange rate won’t drive prices up for consumers, with competition red hot and interest rates at all time lows, Mr Weber said.

“That’s what’s driving the market. Competition is so strong prices remain low despite the depreciation of the Australian dollar,” he said.

CommSec chief economist Craig James said car affordability is at the best levels ever recorded.

“Car affordability is even stronger on a `quality adjusted’ basis – vehicles built in 2015 are far superior to those sold in the early 1970s,” he said.

It would take someone on the average wage to work for 23.8 weeks to purchase a new Ford Falcon in 2015, whereas it would have taken 31.6 weeks in 2010, CommSec research shows.

Mr James said vehicle sales should remain solid in 2016, with employment rising, record wealth levels and the Reserve Bank likely to remain on the interest rate sidelines.

“The area to watch is the housing market, as softer home prices could restrain car buying enthusiasm,” he said.

Encouragingly, it’s not just so-called `standard’ vehicles being sold, but luxury rides are taking a bigger share of total sales, Mr James said.

Sports Utility Vehicle sales continued to skyrocket in 2015, making it the fastest growing sector for a sixth year in a row.

SUVs now account for around 35.4 per cent of the market, up from 31.7 per cent in 2014.

And Toyota continued its reign as Australia’s favourite in 2015, posting the company’s 13th straight year as the market leader and 19th time overall.

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Govt rejects suggestion of $30 pap smears

Health Minister Sussan Ley has slammed claims the removal of bulk-billing incentive payments for pathology services will leave women paying $30 for a pap smear.

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Pathologists have warned of potentially fatal consequences if women are forced to fork out $30 for the cervical cancer screening test.

They say the cost will need to be passed on for all pathology tests, insisting previous government cuts mean laboratories will be unable to absorb the costs if the government goes ahead with its plan to scrap the payments from July 1.

Labor has vowed to block the measures in the Senate with opposition health spokeswoman Catherine King calling on the government to allow debate on the issue, amid concerns the measure could be bundled up with other Medicare regulations, making it harder to defeat.

Ms Ley’s office hit back on Wednesday, insisting the removal of the incentive payment was separate to the Medicare rebate paid for procedures like pap smears.

It argues stock exchange-listed pathology companies are concerned about the impact on shareholders, not patients.

“Medicare is not designed to be a guaranteed bankable revenue for corporations, nor is a taxpayer-funded payment like this provided to cross-subsidise other costs of doing business for pathology companies,” a spokesperson said.

The health minister has previously conceded “some may be worse off” under the changes.

Ms King says the government should have negotiated with the pathology sector to ensure bulk billing was protected.

Any barrier to accessing pap smears would have health consequences, she added.

“They introduce a very big blunt instrument, no warning, no negotiation with the sector,” she said.

Labor made cuts to pathology when in government, but Ms King said those savings were made in consultation with the sector and some were redirected to bulk billing incentives.