Diaspora Action Australia (DAA) strives to help diaspora groups effect change in their countries of origin, as well as to highlight to government agencies and international NGOs the important work that these organisations do. Over the years, DAA has worked extensively with several Afghan diaspora groups and saw the need to connect these various organisations to each other, as well as with people in the aid and humanitarian sectors working with Afghanistan.

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DAA, in partnership with the Melbourne Refugee Studies Program at the University of Melbourne, hosted a one-day forum at the University of Melbourne on 27 November. More than 20 Australian-Afghan diaspora organisations were represented, as well as the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and international NGOs, including Oxfam Australia, World Vision, Save the Children and Care Australia. More than 90 individuals attended the event.

Speakers in the opening session emphasised the urgency to bring people, groups, and countries together in order to strive for common goals. Mr Jez Hunghanfoo, Chair of the Board, DAA, paid tribute to the benefits offered by diaspora organisations. Minister for Multicultural Affairs, Robin Scott, urged groups to learn to gain access to decision makers in order to effect changes in policy.

Mr Ghollam Abbas Farasoo, Charge d’Affaires, Embassy of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, highlighted the 150-year history of Afghans in Australia. Denise Cauchi, Director, DAA, noted the significant work done by diaspora works worldwide, and Dr Les Terry, Coordinator and Research Fellow, Melbourne Refugee Studies Program, University of Melbourne, described his new community-based program as an initiative that is working towards improving the lives of Afghans living in Australia.

Keynote presenter Annemarie Watt, Director, Afghanistan Political Section, DFAT, reviewed Australian-Afghan relations since the nineteenth century. She stressed the need for Afghanistan to keep working towards improving its social and political infrastructure: eliminating corruption and gender inequality, and improving access to world markets.

Four leaders of different Australian-Afghan organisations then took centre stage. All of them mentioned the importance of empowering Afghan women — both in Afghanistan and Australia. Dr Nouira Saleihi of the Australian Afghan Development Organisation discussed the need to ensure that women continue on to higher education. She also stated that less than half of Afghan teachers have actual diplomas, so teacher training is crucial.

“Earn money and get respect!” stated Zakia Baig of the Australian Hazara Women’s Friendship Network. Her organisation focuses in part on Hazara women who have become widows due to targeted killings, both in Afghanistan and Quetta, Pakistan. These women need skills in order to become breadwinners; she also stated the need for children to be able to gain access to education.

Dr Sakhijan Mangal of the Afghan Australian Rehabilitation and Development Organisation noted that a 2011 global survey named Afghanistan as the world’s most dangerous country in which to be born a woman. Not only do the majority of women and children experience violence, they often do not have access to basic health care, he said. His organisation attempts to make basic health care available to all Afghan citizens in five districts.

Najeeba Wazefadost of Hazara Women of Australia mentioned that empowering women and making them aware of their rights must happen both in Australia and Afghanistan. Women need to be trained to become leaders in both countries. She also pointed out that all the different Afghan diaspora groups should work together. “We need to come together as a community here in order to help our home country,” Ms Wazefadost said.

In the first part of the afternoon, participants attended one of three break-out work groups:

Work group 1 focused on protection and human rights for communities, and was led by Louise Oliff from the Refugee Council of Australia. In this session, participants discussed the following: definitions of refugees and individuals’ basic rights for protection; what the UN can and cannot do; Australian asylum seeker policy; the strengths of diaspora groups in effecting change; and the importance of effective advocacy, including developing access to media.

Work Group 2 focused on economic development and remittances to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and was chaired by Bashir Keshtiar from the Australian Afghanistan Business Council. Most participants agreed that the creation of small business and the development of the agricultural sector were the key to unlocking the country’s potential. However, corruption and repressive laws that do not allow women to own land are hindrances that must be overcome.

Work Group 3 investigated ways that the various Afghan diaspora organisations and communities could collaborate. After reviewing the goals of three diaspora organisations — the Noor Foundation, the Australian-Afghan Initiative and Afghan Women’s Organisation in Victoria — panelists and audience members explored various issues. They included: how to collaborate with non-Afghan community groups; how to tap resources for shared projects; and the possible role of a third party (such as DAA) in bringing some of the groups together.

In the final session, executives from four international humanitarian agencies discussed their work in Afghanistan — World Vision, Save the Children, Care Australia and Oxfam Australia. These organisations’ efforts range from agricultural initiatives, children’s health care and education, women’s rights, and policy creation. All speakers agreed that short-term solutions were no longer viable: aid must eventually result in self-sufficiency.

Speakers also agreed that working with diaspora groups was very beneficial, and stated that they would welcome the chance to work with such groups, in an advisory capacity, in the future. Ben Murphy of Oxfam Australia observed that these agencies could have an increased role to play in helping diaspora organisations gain funding as well as access to policy makers.

The forum ended on a positive note. Ms Watt from DFAT stated that Australia is still very interested in working with Afghanistan. “We are not stepping away from Afghanistan [due to the Syrian crisis],” she assured participants. Dr Terry noted that he would like to work with participating groups to start one or two small projects and seek funding.

Participants were very enthused at the close of the event. There was clear interest in running this sort of event again the future, and finding ways for groups to have opportunities to work together. Talking about suggestions for the future, one Afghan-Australian organisation representative said: “Providing more opportunities [and] platforms to collaborate and network with other diaspora community groups.”

Amy Rashap

– Writer

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