To mark International Women’s Day we profile Shabnam Safa, one of the many inspirational women we get to work with at Diaspora Action Australia.
When you open the Noor Foundation website, these words are the first thing you see: Learn. Achieve. Give back & leave an impact.
Shabnam Safa, born in Afghanistan and co-founder of the Noor Foundation, has taken that mantra to heart. She was the Victoria State karate champion in 2015, a national champion in 2014 and has also won many international athletic awards. She has gained numerous accolades for her scholarship and for her contribution to Australian society, including the 2016 Holt Australia Day Award. In 2014, she founded a not-for-profit organisation that has helped hundreds of Afghans throughout Victoria.
She is 21 years old.
Shabnam’s achievements demonstrate how important family support can be in reaching one’s potential. “Many Afghan men, even in Australia, don’t want their wives to drive or work. My parents never felt that way. If my brothers could do something, then I could do it as well.”
“When I was two my parents fled to Pakistan due to the Russian invasion,” Shabnam recollected. “My family are Hazara. The Hazara are members of the minority Shia branch of Islam, and we’re often well educated. So when the war started, the Taliban targeted members of this group. Families ran for their lives, including mine.”
For twelve years, Shabnam and her parents lived in Quetta, Pakistan. Unfortunately, their ethnicity eventually dogged them in their new country. Her parents, who are firm believers of education for boys and girls, placed her in an all-girls’ school, consisting primarily of Hazara. Women ran the school—a very controversial business model for this conservative region. “Several times the school received bomb threats, or messages that somebody would throw acid on us. When that happened, the school would shut down. When things seemed to quiet down, the school would reopen.”
Her parents applied for a visa to live in Australia. In May 2009, Shabnam, her parents and three younger brothers set foot on Australian soil. “I always found Australians to be welcoming.”
Shabnam’s parents have devoted their lives to educating others. Her father was a high school teacher in Afghanistan and, while in Pakistan, her mother started a primary school for orphans and poor children who could not afford to attend mainstream school. Some of their horrified neighbours would chastise her father for allowing his wife to be so independent.
“I was always interested in karate, but I could never learn martial arts in Pakistan. When I came here, I grabbed the opportunity with both hands. My father said, ‘Go for it!’” Shabnam started training in Unsu Kai Karate as a trainee assistant instructor.
“It was the best decision I ever made. It taught me that if you are truly passionate about something, you don’t let gender stereotypes stop you from doing it. I want more girls to think like that: don’t let society get you down.”
In 2014, Shabnam was selected as the Australian representative to attend the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations – Education First Summer School. Seventy-five youths were selected from 100,000 applicants. While at the camp, these future leaders engaged in cross-cultural dialogue in order to strengthen their ability to create global change.
“The people at the camp were amazing – there were young people in Syria who were fighting against ISIS, for example. I felt very small. When I came back, I decided I was going to make a difference: start small and make a big difference, especially to oppressed women. That is what I want to do.”
Give Back & Make an Impact
Shabnam has always combined her studies with community service. She has been involved in the City of Casey’s Access & Inclusion Advisory Committee, the Multifaith Multicultural Youth Network, the Victorian Refugee Health Network and the Centre for Multicultural Youth.
A daughter of immigrants who have suffered numerous hardships, Shabnam understands the need to work hard and give back to those who have helped her and her family.
“The Afghan community here has been through many hardships, as refugees they have nothing. The Casey Council was so supportive of my family in our first years in Australia, so that’s how it started, I was a youth ambassador in my local council and soon was doing other roles in the state government. Then I thought: why don’t I try something of my own, to do things my way?”
The Noor Foundation
And so the Noor Foundation was born. Shabnam and her friends created this not-for-profit organisation in order to help newly arrived immigrants in Victoria.
“We help people do the small but important things a case worker can’t, or won’t do. We speak the local language (Dari), we’re from the community and all of us underwent the problems that new immigrants have, and all of us struggled with English.
“People may be too embarrassed to ask someone from the state to help them understand a Centrelink letter or explain how to use public transport, or to ask for a Dari-speaking female volunteer who can take a woman to a doctor’s appointment and then help her understand the doctor’s instructions. We can do these things.”
The Noor Foundation has a website and a Facebook page. “People find out about us, word of mouth. We have helped more than 150 people this past year. We now have 25 volunteers, all high school and university students serving the Afghan community. We don’t have volunteers from other backgrounds, but we would love to expand: if we got, for example, Turkish volunteers, we could serve the Turkish community.”
Shabnam and her co-founders would like to expand the Noor Foundation’s services to help rural students in Afghanistan gain access to education. She is now studying biomedical science at Swinburne University, with the goal of becoming a doctor. “I’d like to go back to Afghanistan and work at a hospital. I have no memories of Afghanistan and I want to go and help out.
“I could not do what I do without my parents. My mother always fought for the girls. She used to teach elderly women in Pakistan, without their husbands knowing! She’d teach them basic literacy skills one or two hours a day, understanding this knowledge would boost their self-esteem.
“My parents will always support me. They always say: ‘Go and make your own decisions, make your own mistakes. We will not stop you.’ So, let’s see where life takes me!”
For more information on the Noor Foundation, go to noorfoundationaustralia.org
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