It’s only when Azita Abdollahian shares her story is when you realise how hard her life has been.
Azita arrived in Australia as an Iranian refugee with her husband (now ex) and two small children 20 years ago – not knowing any English and completely reliant on her partner for everything. Her house was furnished with things picked up from the street and they relied on the Salvos for other necessities.
Today, Azita is a successful businesswoman and runs her own beauty salon, Bebe’s Hair and Beauty in Castle Hill, New South Wales combining two of her passions – hairdressing and counselling.
Recently she also won Citizen of the Year (2018 Mayoral Commendation) for her community work. I talk to Azita about how she found the courage to build a new life in Australia.
Q. What’s your background and how did you arrive in Australia?
I came to Australia in August 2000. We were refugees to United Nations in Turkey. From Iran, we went to Turkey with my ex-husband and two little kids. My little one was three months old and my older was five years old. We were one of those lucky ones who stayed in Turkey only for 13 months. We came to Australia with permanent residency on a refugee visa.
When I came to Australia, I couldn’t speak English at all. We didn’t have anybody and it was so scary.
I couldn’t leave the house…
It was very difficult for me to leave my house and connect with other people because my ex-husband wouldn’t let me. He wanted me to stay home, cook and clean and take care of the kids. After a few months, I felt I was going to die if I didn’t talk to someone.
[when I went to drop my children], I remember this lady who’d been living in Australia for 17 years at that time. She couldn’t speak English very well and on anti-depressants.
She wasn’t working and that was a red light for me. I could see myself becoming her in the next few years if I didn’t do anything about it.
By force literally, I said to my husband, “I really have to work here. I can’t, I don’t want to be like that woman that I saw in the school.”
I found this hair salon worker ad in an Iranian newspaper and I thought, Okay, because I can’t speak English, probably I can work with these Iranian people. I don’t need the language as much. I contacted them and they asked me to come in for a trial. I told my husband and of course, he didn’t like it.
“The lady in the Iranian hair salon said, “You can work, but because you can’t speak English we can only pay you $5 a day.”
For the first few months, they didn’t even give me any money because I had to learn everything. I had no sick leave, no holiday pay, nothing. I barely had any money even for my own bus fare!
My husband wasn’t happy about me working especially for free. He would often stand near the door and threaten me against leaving. But I persevered.
Eventually from that hair salon, I started learning the language and through watching TV and kids movies. Before work, I used to make up stories at night using a dictionary and then tell it to customers the next day.
My husband put me down constantly in front of everybody because he could see that I was so focused. He would use anything in his power to just break me down in front of everyone. He would make fun of me, my looks and how I talked. I went through a lot before I left him.
One day I walked out…
One day I had enough of the verbal and physical abuse and walked out of the marriage with my children. I couldn’t recognise myself because I was this person that was absolutely influenced by him. I didn’t have enough self-esteem or knowledge. I didn’t even know how to pay bills because he controlled everything.
But I had two beautiful girls who built me back up. I had to prove it to myself and to them that I was not who he said I was. So I enrolled in university to study counselling. My first assignment got a Distinction!
My daughter and I were screaming and I was crying. That was the proof I needed that I wasn’t dumb.
It took a few years until I picked up my pieces and became strong. Don’t believe the lies that someone else dictates to you. I’m almost living my dream these days to empower women and others for a better life, for a better community, for a better world.
People don’t even understand how to feel when you don’t have anyone to rely on, when you don’t have anyone to go and knock at their door and say, “I need help.”
Especially if you can’t even speak the language to ask for help, how are you going to do it? It’s not easy at all. I’m a living example of someone that’s survived it. It’s possible to be successful, be strong and make a difference.