Growing up in war-torn Kurdistan to serving in the Australian Army: A reflection on my journey and the ANZAC spirit

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

To be born and to grow up as a child in the mountains of Kurdistan, at a time of war, the word Australia did not exist in my vocabulary or my mind.

Anything outside the Zagros Mountains seemed like a world that I would never be able to see in this life – as escaping and surviving our decades-long nightmare was unimaginable.

Life was about surviving now and today. We will manage what comes tomorrow then. We will sleep somewhere when we need to, we will eat something when we have it, and we will try to hide somewhere when we have to.

For now we have to avoid being seen by the aircraft that has been hunting us.

For now we have to wake up at 3am, walk through the 1 metre of snow and freezing cold, grab our blankets and hurry into the hole that my father dug out of the side of the mountain.

All this as the howling of artillery shells flew over our heads and explosions rang out around town. He did this so that we may survive if our tiny one bedroom mud hut was hit.

As a child you may never know the reasons why life is how it is, but you know you are running, hiding under any rock, shrub or a tree that may provide you some protection when the bombs start dropping. You are in a never-ending fight for your life.

Hardy growing up in Balisan.

My father was a teacher and a political activist. He was one of the founding members of the major political party in Iraq (PUK). My whole life growing up was surrounded with politics, war, violence, prosecution, fear of being captured and going to a processing camp.

With very little access to food, water and shelter, we spent days at a time hiding in caves in the mountains with nothing at all (I often say I am a modern day caveman).

As a Kurd we were stateless – we were in no man’s land between Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. With nowhere to go, we were sitting ducks for the Iraqi regime to capture, kill and gas us. In 1988 Saddam Hussein ordered the gassing of the Kurds. Our town ‘Balisan’ and the surrounding villages were amongst the first group of villages that were gassed. We lost almost half of the people in our village in under 12 hours. I was the middle child of 5 boys (aged between 3 to 10 years old). We, a family of 7, were one of the lucky ones as we all survived.

Life only became harder and more uncertain by the minute. We had to take much bigger risks with our lives, moving through minefields, barbed wires, sneaking past military outposts all around the borders between Iraq and Iran during the Iraq – Iran War. We had to cross the borders into Iran illegally in an attempt to escape the war and in the hope of reaching a place where we would have some sense of normality. A place we could call home.

After almost 2 decades of war, refugee camps and 3 weeks spent in an Iranian prison camp, we were lucky enough to make it to Australia in July 1997. I did not speak English, knew no one, had no idea about the culture, the people and its history.

I remember walking out of Sydney International Airport as I took my first breath of air. I felt like I was reborn. It was precisely in that moment of time I decided to make this place home. It still took me well over 3 months to realise I was here in Australia, often finding myself thinking “When I go to Australia I will…” I would then stop and remind myself that I am actually here, I am home and I am free.

Free to do all the things I had ever imagined, I soon realised I was hungry for knowledge, however my language skills were very limited. I hit the books and started studying and learning English. I got into competitive sports, aiming for the Olympics. Two and half years later I received my Australian Citizenship. Within a few months of this happening, I decided to join the Army.

I spoke with my father and told him I was interested in joining the Army. At first he asked me “why? Have you not had enough of war in the last 2 decades?” to which I responded, “this is my home now Dad. I need to learn about my new country, its culture and people.” He agreed and I enlisted in the Army in 2000. I remember receiving my uniform on Remembrance Day of 2000. As I put that uniform on I felt a sense of pride and belonging that I had never felt before. I felt that I was part of a family that I never had, a citizen of a country I never had. I soon made a lot of friends that I will have for the rest of my life.

I completed every training, every course and took every opportunity I could. I went in every Military Skills competition, visited all the historical sites and tours, all the war memorials in Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand as well as many other places. What I discovered was, at every tombstone and memorial there were the names of young men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice so that we could have the freedom to enjoy today. It was their sacrifice that created a world and a country outside of the mountains for me to dream of escaping to, so that one day I could grow old in peace.

After 13 years of Fulltime and Reserve, I left the Army having completed multiple deployments, taken part in ANZAC Day Services every single year, made friends for life, and learned about our history and our people.

I learned about the Army’s core values of Courage, Initiative, Respect and Teamwork, understanding and learning why they are the cornerstone of the Army’s culture. You read stories about ordinary Australians doing the most extraordinary things. You read about countless acts of valour and self sacrifice to save your mates. You walk the footpaths that diggers have walked decades before you, under circumstances unimaginable. You can’t help but have an overwhelming feeling of love and respect for those diggers. As you visit each site the writings and images become real, stories play back in front of you. The life they lived is not just some words in the history books.

As you stand in the little chapel at Changi Prison in Singapore and look at the beautiful brass cross; handmade out of an artillery shell case by the Australian soldiers, you realise the sacrifice and the struggle that those young men went through, creating a chapel to give them hope.

You realise this same sacrifice as you walk over historical sites such as the Burma Railway, also known as ‘Death Railway’. Here 61,000 Allied soldiers were subjected to forced labour during its construction, of which almost 10,000 were Australian. 2,815 soldiers died due to hard labour, removing 7 million cubic meters of earthwork and rock, shifted to build a 420 km railway.

I look back at my life growing up and where I am today. I smile and think “you are an extremely fortunate and lucky man, and I am forever grateful and privileged to have had the opportunity to serve in the military.” I often remember standing there looking at my mates with a smile on our faces and the certainty of knowing we will always support one another.

No amount of words can describe what ANZAC means to me. I take a great deal of pride in educating my kids about the spirit of the ANZACs and our history as Australians. We are a nation of many; from different backgrounds, beliefs, languages and pasts, that have come together, united by a shared dream, a dream to make this place and the world a better place for all.

Every day is a reminder that we have more in common as Australians than what divides us. Every day is a reminder that we are extremely fortunate to be in this country. So this year I ask that you go out there and support our ANZACs, remember them, have a chat with a past or a current serving member & learn more about our history. Gallipoli was one of the many battles that Australians fought & died in to defend our freedom today.

Lest we forget.

Hardy Azeez is a Product Manager at Willow.

About Willow
Willow is the digital twin for the built world. Our mission is to empower every person and organisation to connect with the built world in a whole new way. For more, visit


For media inquiries, email us at

Close Menu

Rich Miller

Chief Technology Officer

Rich is responsible for building out Willow’s software engineering practice and has a passion for embracing technology challenges and developing solutions to solve them.

Barrack Place, 151 Clarence Street

Dale Brett

Chief Product Officer and Co-Founder

Dale is the Co-Founder & Chief Product Officer at Willow, Australia’s fastest growing provider of smart technology for the built world. With a personal drive to solve complex and real-world problems with technological solutions, Dale leads the technology, product, and innovation at Willow.

In the last two years alone, Dale has led the ideation and implementation of groundbreaking technologies such as the WillowTwin™ Technology Platform, the Marketplace, and the WillowRail Operations to name a few. The technology is now being utilised by the world’s largest real estate owners, including Microsoft, AXA, and Investa Property Group. The common goal being, to make the world more sustainable, connected, intuitive, and innovative.

Joshua Ridley

Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder

Joshua oversees the strategic direction, growth, and management of Willow. He is passionate about culture, people, and growing a global company that has a positive impact on our world.

Joshua has built a reputation for his strong leadership and innovation with some of the largest and most admired owners of infrastructure and real estate, including the Durst Organisation and Macquarie. He believes in building a global network of strong partners and has spearheaded partnerships with leading organisations such as Microsoft, thyssenkrupp, and Strukton Rail.

He has overseen the development of over $10B of projects through Design and Construction in a senior leadership capacity, and has partnered with preeminent architects, including KPF, Foster & Partners, Perkins Will, and Grimshaw. In Australia, he has worked on major projects with companies including Investa, GPT, Mirvac, Grocon, Brookfield, Multiplex, John Holland, CPB, Pontiac, Star, and NSW Government.

Joshua is our lead corporate spokesperson, covering the history of Willow, our vision for the built world, client engagements, and breaking stories.

Download our brochure

We respect your time and privacy. This document is packed with valuable content. Could you share just a little information before downloading?

Download our eBook

We respect your time and privacy. This document is packed with valuable content. Could you share just a little information before downloading?

Queens Plaza Park

Top Golf (various locations)

Waterloo Road Campus

477 Collins Street

100 Queens Street

32 Smith Street

567 Collins Street

Sydney Metro Martin Place

Daniel Kalnins

Global Head of Digital

Daniel is responsible for the technical and strategic direction of the Digital Engineering Services Team. He is also a member of the Senior Executive Team in helping shape the path of the current and future business focus.

Tempo Drummoyne

Sydney Light Rail

Corporate Connect Stages 2 & 3

Summer Hill

Global Switch Ultimo

Pittsburgh International Airport

60 Martin Place

480 Hay Street /
The Westin Hotel Perth

The Sandstones Precinct

The Star Sovereign Resort

The Ribbon

Gerard Francis

CEO WillowRail, Global Head of Infrastructure

Gerard oversees the strategic direction, growth, and management of WillowRail and Willow’s Infrastructure operations.

With a wealth of experience in the Infrastructure space, Gerard has utilised his depth of knowledge and leadership to provide strong governance, strategic direction and operational stability as Willow enters a new phase of growth and maturity.

Sallyann Aitken

Vice President of Sales, Infrastructure

Sallyann leads Willow’s new business development strategy and customer engagement.

Jim Cooney

Board Member

Jim is the chairman and majority shareholder of TCI Renewables. Jim co-founded TCI Australia in 1996 and under his direction the TCI Group has become globally one of most successful and reliable technology systems integrators. The TCI Group provides a full suite of services and tailored solutions to dozens of major international clients operating in Australia, North America and Europe. Following TCI Australia’s listing on the Australian Stock Exchange in December 2004, Jim won the prestigious Ernst & Young Australian Entrepreneur of the Year award for 2005. Jim is a Chartered Engineer of 25 years commercial experience in Europe and Australia, holding a Bachelor of Engineering from the University of Sydney, a Master of Science from the University of London and the Diploma of Imperial College.


Cube is a fully secure, supported plug and play device that enables all the benefits and value of Willow’s solution for your building or infrastructure network/vehicle. Installing a Cube creates an environment where apps from any language and framework can run securely on the edge, whilst streaming live data to the cloud.

David Ossip

Vice President of Growth, General Counsel and Company Secretary

In addition to being Willow’s General Counsel and Company Secretary, David is responsible for leading Willow’s engagement on items of strategic importance in his capacity as Vice President of Growth. David successfully managed Willow’s Series A capital raise in 2019 and prior to this was a solicitor at a top-tier Australian commercial law firm, where he specialised in commercial litigation.

Download our brochure

Fill out the form below to receive a copy of the WillowTwin™ Command Platform brochure.

Scott Smith

Global Head of Microsoft Partnership

Scott is responsible for building out the Willow partnership with Microsoft, identifying and executing on the significant opportunity for both organisations resulting from the unprecedented computing power available via the intelligent cloud and intelligent edge.

Tess Hattingh

Chief Operating Officer

Tess has an overarching role across many facets of the Willow business, from company strategy to HR, Marketing, and Operations.

With over 20 years’ experience, Tess ensures the wheels are oiled and the Willow way is upheld.

Toni Trumbull

Vice President, Real Estate Solutions

Toni works closely with our Real Estate customers to explore new digital strategies designed to create value for their business. As part of this role, her responsibility is to communicate the customer voice back to the Willow team to ensure complete alignment and success.
Toni has over 15 years experience in the management and operations of commercial assets for large institutions as well as having a strong passion for science and technology and how it applies to the built world. This passion and the critical role data plays in the digitisation of Real Estate has led Toni to undertake a Masters in Data Science, complimenting her degree in Property Economics.

Catherine Harding

Legal Counsel

Catherine provides legal guidance and support across company activities and oversees compliance with regulatory and industry requirements. She is the in-house Counsel for both Willow and EG.

Catherine has extensive experience in international and domestic public policy development, and communications.

Mary Carroll-Coelho

Customer Success Manager

Mary actively works with and listens to our customers. Together, they define the future partnership between Willow and their company. She defines the key problems to solve; often describing her work as, “helping our partners figure out if they want socks or warm feet.” What the real issue is and how data can help us solve it.

Mary has spent the last ten years working in architecture, construction technology, and education. She has overseen the construction of designs ranging from 5,000 sf to 1,400 ac. She has worked with leaders in the design industry including KieranTimberlake Architects and Atelier Jean Nouvel. As a manager in the Construction Innovation Studio at the We Company, Mary has worked across the globe and understands the benefit and need for data in the real estate industry.


Experience provides a seamless, intuitive and enjoyable mobile experience that incorporates the latest in emerging building technologies including smart access control for doors, lifts and lockers all controlled via your smart phone. The app is a powerful tool to attract and retain tenant engagement whilst providing powerful analytics and insights.

Time Machine

Time Machine is a native Willow application that enables users to compare & analyse live data, troubleshoot faults, and discover insightful trends across an entire portfolio.

Command Platform

Command Platform is a single interface for all operational aspects of your digital twin, including operational performance, live information from edge devices and inputs from third-party applications.

Live Data

Live Data is a SaaS feature of Willow. It aggregates data in real time from all devices at a portfolio or infrastructure network-wide level and enables a connection-friendly data set for third parties to read and leverage data via the Willow App Store.

Twin Creator

Twin Creator provides insights into digital twin creation. By
tracking spatial data, asset data and live data inputs, it allows
users to validate the progress of the twin visually and intuitively.
Through the Twin Creator, head contractors and owners can
better manage their stakeholders and supply chain deliverables,
reducing defects and data loss.

Nicholas Moore


Nicholas is a former Chief Executive Officer of Macquarie Group Limited. He retired after 33 years at Macquarie, and 10 years as CEO from 2008 – 2018.

Nicholas has a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Laws from UNSW. He was admitted as a solicitor and is a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants. In 2017, Nicholas was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Business from UNSW.

He is Chairman of Screen Australia, The Centre for Independent Studies, The Smith Family, Willow Technology Corporation, the National Catholic Education Commission, and a Member (and former Chair) of the University of NSW Business School Advisory Council.

Nicholas was previously Chairman of the PCYC NSW from 2002 – 2015, and the Sydney Opera House Trust from 2015 – 2020.

Adrian Fisk

Chief Financial Officer & Global Head of Partnerships

Adrian’s responsibilities include strategic direction, financial performance, partnership management, and processes across Willow’s global network of offices.

Contact us

Help us improve the Willow App Store. We will get back to you as soon as possible.

Contact us

Help us improve the Willow App Store. We will get back to you as soon as possible.

Rachel Ebalan-Ramirez

General Manager, Manila

Rachel leads the overall operations and general management of the Manila office to ensure all activities are aligned with the company business objectives.

She serves as a key part of the Operations Executive Group with input into the strategies formulated for operational growth, practice improvements, efficient resourcing and project delivery, culture development, and structure across the whole business.

Rachel oversees all Manila-based Shared-Services Teams and manages the execution of an effective and collaborative approach in providing support to the global company operations.

Andrew Phelan

Vice President Operations, North America

Andrew oversees the delivery and implementation of Willow’s solutions to all customers across the region.

Justin Gurney

Global Head of Delivery

Justin is responsible for the management and delivery of all contracted projects across all regions. He is inspired by Willow’s vision and drive to transform the property industry and brings to Willow over 25 years of experience in architecture and construction.

Dr. Michael Easson, AM FRICS FAICD

Director and Co-Founder

Michael guides Willow’s vision and strategic direction, provides corporate governance oversight and assists the company in fostering strategic long-term relationships. Michael’s experience in infrastructure and property is extensive across the private and public sectors, with over 35 years experience in real estate development and investment.

Adam Geha

Executive Director and Co-Founder

Adam is responsible for guiding Willow’s capital raising activities and regularly reviewing financial strategy and performance.

In addition to his role with Willow, Adam is the CEO and Co-founder of EG Funds Management, where he has led and supervised over USD 1.8 billion in commercial property investment and development for over 20 years.

Lee Fogarty

Principal & Head of Pre-Contracts

Lee leads the proposals and commercial engagement frameworks company wide. He specializes in contractual negotiations and strategic leadership of the digital delivery of building information modeling driving architectural procurement, facility handover and building operations.

Lee has been involved in a large number of projects from design phase into construction and operation. He knows how to harness the latest technologies to build buildings in the virtual world creating streamlined documentation that facilitates more cost and time efficient projects.

Shaun Klann

President, Global Head of Real Estate

Shaun leads the United States and European operations of Willow as well as managing the company’s Real Estate operations. With a background combining engineering, strategic consulting, and property development, Shaun has come to be recognised as one of North America’s most sought after smart building experts.

Shaun is our lead spokesperson for growth in the US and Europe.

Rani Adam

Chief Innovation Engineer

Rani oversees the technical development and engineering on a global scale. His experience to date, having produced technology for a spectrum of sectors, is both visionary and practical. In creation of technology for e-commerce, rail, fintech, infrastructure and commercial real estate applications, Rani enables effortless user experiences. His experience in complex backend design has allowed for B2B (business-to-business), B2C (business-to-customer), and P2P (peer-to-peer) interactivity and economy.

In addition to realising universal applications for technology (spanning web and mobile), Rani is responsible for leading Willow’s Software Engineering Teams through complex and specialised project conditions.

We use cookies to improve your experience on our website by personalising content and advertising, and to analyse our traffic. We also share information about your use of our website with our affiliates and partners. By clicking ACCEPT, you consent to our use of cookies. You can change your mind at any time by taking the steps set out in our Privacy Policy, where you can also learn more about how we use your cookies.