Held hostage by Islamic extremists in a cave in Iraq, Indonesian journalist Meutya Hafid felt a lifetime of memories flashing before her, including her five years as a student at the University of New South Wales.

The reporter and anchorwoman for the Jakarta-based Metro TV had, in fact, got her start in journalism at a community in Sydney's eastern suburbs in the late 1990s, while studying engineering at UNSW.

Faced with prospect of beheading, the 28-year old says; "I thought it was the end of my life."

"When you are near death you appreciate life so much more....you have so much time to think about everything. Memories came like flashbacks....including my life in Sydney," she says.

Ms Hafid and her cameraman Budiyanto, both Muslims, were snatched on the notorious road from Baghdad to Jordan in 2005. Ms Hafid attributes their survival and release, after seven days imprisoned in a desert cave, to the personal intervention of the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The ordeal, she says, left her determined to campaign for the safety of journalists.

Ms Hafid is back in Sydney as the first Indonesian recipient of the Elizabeth O'Neill Journalism Award, which honours the former presse attaché at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta and her tireless efforts to build positive links between the Australian and Indonesian media. Ms O'Neill was one of five Australians who died in the Garuda plane crash at Yogyakarta this March.

Ms Hafid said she always loved physics and maths and had intended to work in manufacturing engineering after graduating from UNSW in 2001. But, when she returned to Indonesia from Sydney she fell into journalism, partly as a way of catching up with the news in her own country after the fall of former President Soeharto in 1998.

"After the kidnapping in Iraq I did think about changing careers, but I'd had so much support from ordinary people I thought I could achieve more by staying in journalism," she says. Ms Hafid took time out during her trip to visit the UNSW Faculty of Engineering.