One of the things that come across immediately when I talk to Maryam Zahid is her strength of character and conviction.
This activist believes passionately in the idea that all women should be free. They should have freedom of speech, dress and movement.
Maryam believes in the idea that all women should be free. They should have freedom of speech, dress and movement.
And she’s not afraid to speak up for these beliefs, even if it goes against the majority’s opinion.
At the age of 20, after arriving in Australia as a refugee, she persuaded the local school in her area to take her in even though she was well above the average age. “As a woman in a war-torn country, I wasn’t allowed to go to school or be myself or do the things that I like, because of all the displacement. I was determined to change that in Australia,” she said.
Maryam is passionate about supporting people in her community, focusing on those from minority backgrounds. She’s also dedicated to empowering women and ensuring they are recognised and valued for the care and love they provide to their families and communities. She believes that stronger families lead to stronger communities.
I chatted to Maryam about the work she does for women in her community through her organisation, Afghan Women on the Move.
Q. Can you tell me a little about yourself?
I came to Australia as a refugee in 1999, so in a way it was not really my decision. I was forced to leave Afghanistan at the age of fifteen. I lived in Pakistan for 5 years before coming to Australia. My siblings and I came here without any family.
Q. What were your first impressions back then?
It felt like a magical place in a way. I don’t know how to put it into words, but when I first stepped into Melbourne airport, I remember feeling that I didn’t have to hide anymore. As a woman first, as a human being, I now had that basic human right of freedom… I didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission to do things.
I felt safe and didn’t feel scared anymore.
I decided to move to Sydney because I felt there were more Afghans or that I’d be living next to Opera House [Maryam has a sense of humour and often pokes fun at herself], but it never happened! When we were granted our Australian visas, they showed us photos of the Sydney Opera House and told us that was where we were going. When I came to Melbourne, I said, “Where’s the Opera House? Where’s everything?” They said, “It’s in Sydney.”
I said, “Okay, I’m going to Sydney,” so we moved.
Q. Can you tell me about Afghan Women on The Move?
Afghan Women on the Move is a safe platform for women in my community, outside of religious and political influences. It started to provide Afghan women with a social place where they could voice their opinions freely without censure. I wanted to walk the talk, I didn’t want to go on social media and just post inspirational messages. I wanted to do something real about it.
Surprisingly I didn’t experience much negativity. Instead, the women really rallied around me taking up various volunteer duties to organise these events. Now I have over 2000 followers just in Sydney. It took work to gain their trust but now there’s a wonderful community spirit!
My first event was a cooking show followed by a cultural night where we ate, danced and cried. It was amazing to see the women who are so restricted in their daily lives show their true, free selves.
Q. You recently organised an art exhibition called Daneha, how did it come about?
Daneha means seeds in the Afghan language. It was a collaboration between the Afghan and Persian communities of Blacktown. Daneha is a multi-faceted artistic program made up of a visual arts exhibition, artist talks, musical performances and theatre. The main theme was the displacement of the Afghan community across the globe, and putting down roots in other countries.
The project happened with collaboration with other international and local artists and it gave us so much positive publicity. The arts exhibition featured works by members of my group. For these women to let themselves be photographed and seen by the public was a huge achievement for themselves and me.
Q. What are your top tips for other migrants?
Keep moving and exploring.
Talk about your likes and dislikes, and remember that your freedom, the privileges that we have in Australia comes with responsibility. So you can’t take everything and give nothing in return. Think of how you can give back to the community in a volunteer capacity, creating something for your community, providing someone with support, or even keeping your streets clean.
The more we keep the community and country safe in which we are living; we’ll never experience the terrible conditions many of us have left behind. You need to work toward the safety of the place you’re living.
About Maryam Zahid
Maryam came to Australia as a refugee in 1999 at age 20. After completing her HSC, she studied social work and community services. She works as a Domestic Violence Prevention Project officer for Sydney West Multicultural Services, working with community leaders and with newly arrived refugees and migrants in Western Sydney.
Maryam is a bi-lingual health educator at NSW Refugee Health. She also volunteers for various community causes that she believes in. She is the founder and director of “Afghan Women on the Move”, an initiative which mentors refugee women, nurturing self-empowerment through art and cultural programs and storytelling.
Maryam has been recognised her for her tremendous work in the community by receiving two awards – as a finalist in the Blacktown Women of the year and Influential Mother of the Year from the NSW Afghan support association for her active role as a mother and mentor for many other members of the community. In 2018, Maryam received the ZEST award for her outstanding volunteer work and community leadership in recognition of her contribution to Greater Western Sydney.
Follow Afghan Women on the Move on Facebook.
All photos supplied by Maryam Zahid.