AUSTRIA, Vienna, March 28, 2016, Mojtaba Tavakoli (22, in the door with the red sweater) and his friends during a barbecue on the outskirts of Vienna.
Mojtaba Tavakoli had only elementary education when he fled the Taliban in Afghanistan at the age of 13. Now 22, he is studying molecular biology at the Medical University in Vienna and aiming for a future in cancer research. Personal loss and the kindness of those who supported him motivate Mojtaba. “I have seen things that people twice my age have not seen,” he says. “This makes me strict with myself to use my opportunities and make my family proud.” The Tavakoli family belongs to Afghanistan’s oppressed Hazara minority. Mojtaba’s parents, who were farmers in Ghazni province, found themselves surrounded by the Taliban. In 2006, they sent two of their sons to Europe. Mojtaba travelled with his older brother Morteza, 18, who drowned on the crossing between Turkey and Greece. Alone and frightened, Mojtaba continued the journey to Austria, where he was taken into care as an unaccompanied child and supported by an Austrian couple, Marion Weigl and Bernhard Wimmer. They are like family to him now. After he was granted asylum in Austria, Mojtaba was able to bring his Afghan family to join him. Another brother, Mustafa, 12, died of cancer in Vienna in 2014. Fighting disease and fascination with science inspire Mojtaba as he works with cell cultures in the lab. “I am interested in the possibilities of the brain,” he says. “The brain is plastic. You can change. A lot depends on you.”
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