Photography: Australian Defence Force
Nadia Al Lahham has always craved a career that would give her the opportunity to give back to the community. She’s found that with the Australian Defence Force.
While living in war-torn Palestine, Nadia’s grandmother learnt a few medical skills and aided the people in her village who were too poor to afford any other treatment.
Nadia's father is an engineer, and instilled in his daughter a love of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) as well as the desire to help people.
When the opportunity arose to join the Royal Australian Air Force as a civil engineer, Nadia knew that a life spent giving back to others was the path she was meant to follow.
Nadia first joined the RAAF in 2018 and was posted to Richmond NSW, at No. 65 Squadron, an airfield recovery squadron. Since then, she has been posted across the country including Adelaide and Townsville.
Enlisting wasn’t always on the cards for her.
“Before considering engineering, I looked into the health field because I always wanted to help people,” she said.
“By doing physics and maths at school, and doing well at it, I thought maybe I’d pursue engineering and specifically civil engineering because you have an influence in people’s day-to-day lives by providing and designing infrastructure that helps people.”
Learning of her grandparents’ journey to Australia, she knew there was more to life than chasing riches and rewards.
"My grandparents and my dad were refugees from a Palestinian background. They came from a war-torn country and very low socioeconomic environments. It just kind of resonated with me that I wanted to give back and there’s more to life than just making money."
Nadia Al Lahham
While her university cohort began applying for roles in the corporate world, Nadia set her sights elsewhere. She initially submitted an application to serve in the Australian Army but pivoted to begin her service with RAAF instead.
Nadia said even her mum wasn’t thrilled about her joining Defence, having come from a conservative background.
She’s since changed her mind.
“Initially my mum wasn’t a big fan of me joining Defence, just coming from that Middle Eastern culture where the girl stays at home with the family until she gets married,” Nadia said.
"I guess after I served a few years, she’s noticed how far I’m progressing and how happy I am, she’s been really happy with that."
Nadia Al Lahham
“Seeing some of the things we get recognised for, I think she’s immensely proud.”
Nadia's time in the RAAF has been filled with electrifying moments.
Three months into her base airfield engineering role, she got an urgent call at three o’clock in the morning. The call led to a high-pressure situation that turned into a career highlight.
“I got a call from my boss to say that I need to pack up my stuff and fly to Kangaroo Island to help in assessing the runway after it was damaged by one of the aircraft that took a wrong turn,” she said.
“That would have affected a lot of the assistance that was provided to the town at the time... so that was a defining moment.”
This was just one instance that made her realise the scope of her role and the impact she could have on her community.
Nadia has since made the transition from RAAF to Army and is now at the 6th Engineer Support Regiment. She has recently returned from Exercise Talisman Sabre, where she was based in Townsville for four weeks.
Nadia is no stranger to being a female in male-dominated fields, from university to the army. She may be in the minority as a woman in engineering, but her experiences have been overwhelmingly positive.
“I remember when I was an airfield engineer, the last two cohorts that went through were all males,” she said.
“It’s still a struggle but we’re getting better.
"I think Defence is getting better at creating an environment that is a bit more permissive for females and more friendly."
Nadia Al Lahham
When she looks back at a younger version of herself who just wanted to help other people, the product of her grandmother and father who lived to serve others, she thinks of what she would say to that ambitious young woman.
“I would say to her just trust yourself,” she said.
“Even though times are hard, or people are trying to tell you different things, or you’re having a hard time at school, just keep going. Just have a goal and keep that goal in mind and fight for it.”