Shortly after 7pm, as the hum of activity fades across an indoor pool in Canberra’s north, a handful of adults wait, eager to begin their lessons.
Dressed in everything from board shorts to trackpants, some smile at new friends, while others tentatively place their backpacks beside the pool.
The group shares a simple goal: to learn to swim. But they have been brought together by tragedy.
In October 2020, just days before he turned 25, Najeebullah (Najeeb) Rafee was enjoying a swim at a popular swimming spot in Canberra.
The Cotter River is often visited by kids and families looking to cool off on a hot day, and Najeeb had suggested a family outing there to to take everyone’s minds off the recent death of an uncle back home in Afghanistan.
Najeeb Rafee was “the most selfless person”.(Supplied)
Like many migrants to Australia, Najeeb could not swim, but he had brought floaties and a blow-up raft to protect himself in the water.
But, at about 5pm, Najeeb fell from the raft.
Najeeb’s parents and uncle, who were also unable to swim, jumped into the water to try and save their son.
His cousin left the river, driving 20 minutes back down the road to get enough reception to make a triple-0 phone call.
His other cousin stood on the road, desperate to flag down anyone passing by.
The Cotter River is just off the Murumbidgee, to the South West of the ACT. Pictured March 09 2022. (ABC News: Ian Cutmore)
By the time paramedics arrived, Najeeb’s father needed to be resuscitated.
Najeeb was taken to hospital in a critical condition, where he stayed in intensive care for 10 days.
The day he was taken off life support would have been his 25th birthday.
From Afghanistan to Canberra
Seeking a better life and escaping persecution from the Taliban, Najeeb had fled Afghanistan with his family in 2009.
They first travelled to Malaysia, and it was during this time that Najeeb’s family say his true charitable character began to shine.
Najeeb Rafee (left) and his family fled the Taliban in 2009, before arriving in Australia in 2014.(Supplied)
When language barriers prevented his parents from working, Najeeb accepted a job in a meat canning factory, bringing home $8 per day to support his family.
At the age of 12, he was promoted to supervisor.
It took five years before the Rafee family eventually made it to Australia — in 2014, they were granted visas thanks to sponsorship from their Canberra-based cousins.
Najeeb Rafee was recognised with a Young Canberra Citizen of the Year award for his community service efforts. (Supplied)
Once in the national capital, Najeeb completed high school and was later accepted into the Australian National University to study international relations and politics.
Between his studies, he would volunteer his time as a translator for refugees from Afghanistan, or as an English tutor for students at his old school.
So significant were his altruistic efforts, Najeeb was recognised for his community service by the ACT government in 2019.
‘Drowning in one of the safest countries in the world is just a tragedy’
Najeeb’s cousin, Hom Haidaiy, remembers his cousin as a generous man.
“He had endured a lot to get to where he was,” he said.
Hom Haidaiy didn’t know Najeeb while they were in Afghanistan, but quickly became friends once he arrived in Australia. (ABC News: Ian Cutmore)
“When you think back to his life in Afghanistan and surviving the Taliban and fighting and war, and then going through everything he went through in Malaysia, then just tragically drowning and passing away in one of the safest countries in the world is just a tragedy.
Hom said the swim-school was a good way to preserve Najeeb’s legacy. (ABC News: Ian Cutmore)
“That’s what the hardest part of it is.
“He finally got to a place where he had all these opportunities, he had the rest of his life at his feet, but not knowing how to swim is what took him away from us.”
In a cruel twist of fate, Hom said Najeeb had been booked in to begin swimming lessons the Friday after his death.
“He was actually meant to start exactly a week after he drowned,” he said.
Hom said he had stayed by his cousin’s side while he was in hospital, translating for Najeeb’s mother.
“She asked me literally every five minutes, ‘He’s going to be OK? He’s going to come home and we’ll all go to our place and we’ll have dinner, isn’t he Hom?'” he recalled.
“The only thing I could say was, ‘We just have to pray for a miracle.'”
Friends determined to honour Najeeb’s legacy
For Annie Gao, the loss of her friend inspired her to establish a swim-school program.(ABC News: Ian Cutmore)
The tragic way Najeeb died, and his generous spirit, gave his loved ones an idea — a swim school, in Najeeb’s honour, to teach people like him about the water.
According to Royal Life Saving Australia, approximately one in four drowning deaths in Australia is a person who is born overseas.
For Annie Gao, one of Najeeb’s closest friends, that statistic is unacceptable.
“His passing really affected a lot of us really deeply,” she said.
“He was so full of life and character. He brought so much joy to our lives.
“He was also probably one of the most selfless people I ever met. Even if he was super busy … he would just go out of his way to help a friend.”
Andrew Nolan, Clare McBride-Kelly, Liam McBride-Kelly and Annie Gao founded Canberra’s Refugee and Migrant Swim Program. (ABC News: Ian Cutmore)
Earlier this year, Annie and three other friends opened the Refugee and Migrant Swim Program (RMSP) in Najeeb’s honour.
Its goal is simple: to teach water safety to many who have never seen the water before.
“This is just our way of doing something also to back to the community and prevent any other people from experiencing this kind of loss,” Annie said.
Jonas comes to the swim program with his mum, Juliet. (ABC News: Ian Cutmore)
Every Thursday evening for an hour, a team of instructors faithfully teach swimming skills at no cost to participants, who hail from places like South-East Asia, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Many students in the program have never tried to swim before. (ABC News: Ian Cutmore)
“In our research, we found that Canberra was the only city in Australia that doesn’t have a tailored program for people from a refugee and migrant background,” another of the program’s founders, Clare McBride-Kelly, said.
Juliet is a student at Refugee and Migrant Swim Program. Originally from the Congo, she now calls Canberra home.(ABC News: Ian Cutmore)
“We saw that there was a critical need to fill that gap.”
Jayd Arbalis is the coordinator of the swim program and one of the instructors.
“When I received that phone call and was listening to [Najeeb’s] story, I just wanted to be part of it straight away,” she said.
Growing up in Queensland, she said, she had spent her whole life by the water and wanted to share her passion with others.
Jayd Arbalis says her family also didn’t know how to swim.(ABC News: Ian Cutmore)
But, like the people she is teaching, many of her family also cannot swim.
“My family, my parents-in-law, they came from Greece so they don’t know how to swim. Even my husband doesn’t know how to swim,” she said.
“Getting people from the diverse backgrounds that they have here in Canberra into the swimming pool, teaching them about water safety, teaching them how to just be happy in the water.
“It’s an amazing opportunity to be a part of.”
‘It gives so much meaning and purpose for us’
Among those benefiting from Najeeb’s legacy is Afghan refugee Muhammad Qayum.
Muhammad and his wife were airlifted out of Kabul by the Australian Defence Force late last year.
“Basically we were in the airport for five days. [There were] so many rockets … and my wife became unconscious over there. She went through lots of torture over there,” he said.
“We are so grateful and thankful to the Australian Army and the Australian people and the Australian community. We never, ever forget their kindness and how they helped us.”
Muhammad says he is “so grateful” to the Australian community.(ABC News: Ian Cutmore)
Muhammad said he had jumped at the opportunity to learn a new skill in his new home country among fellow refugees and migrants.
“It’s our first time that we are swimming in the swimming pool so it’s going to be very amazing and we enjoy it a lot,” he said.
“It gives so much meaning and purpose for us.”
Hom thinks it’s the perfect legacy for Najeeb to have left behind.
Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.Juliet learning to swim
“I think it’s really fitting because it just goes to who he was as a person and what his character was too,” Hom said.
“To have this program, it’s come out of tragedy, but exists in the hope of preventing further tragedies.
“He was just a beautiful person at heart and he always wanted to give a hand to anyone, doesn’t matter what it was.
“He was always willing to help people.”
Reporter: Antoinette Radford
Photography and videography: Ian Cutmore
Digital producer: Kate Midena
Digital editor: Elise Pianegonda