If you Google ‘Zakia Baig’, you’d be forgiven for not being quite sure what it is she actually does. There are credits from The Wheeler Centre, Multicultural Arts Victoria, the Emerging Writer’s Festival. There are her interviews on SBS, her statement to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. There are mournful, intimate poetry readings. And there are her fierce, impassioned pleas for humanity in the treatment of asylum seekers in Australia and in offshore detention. It is this role for which she is perhaps best known – her work with refugee and asylum seeker communities in Dandenong, and specifically her founding of the Australian Hazara Women’s Friendship Network (AHWFN).

The founding principle of the AHWFN is women’s empowerment – enabling women to seek independence and find their place in a new society.

Zakia is well versed in the importance of empowerment. Her family history is one of dislocation – she is a third generation refugee, her grandfather having escaped Afghanistan to Pakistan and raising his family there. As tensions in Quetta built and the Hazara community was exposed to more and more violence, Zakia and her husband took the difficult decision to send Zakia to Australia on a skilled migrant visa. She arrived in Australia alone; her children came to join her after a few months, and her husband arrived six years later.

“So I came here and tried to make my way,” says Zakia. “The culture here is the complete opposite of what I had known – it’s about individuality, finding yourself, pursuing your own dreams. I was overwhelmed by this for a couple of years but it was liberating! It felt like I had come out of a box – and I started AHWFN to show other women that if I could do it, they could too.”

“My vision was always that women should be an equal part of society, alongside men, but in Australia, Hazara women are even more behind than they were in their own countries”

‘Empowerment’ looks very different for different people. For some, it may mean finding meaningful work. For others, it may mean getting to grips with Melbourne’s public transport system, and Zakia works to provide all her women with the foundations they need to create the life they want for themselves. These foundations include English lessons, computer literacy lessons, and the very popular driving lessons, which help women get their provisional licenses. These things may seem small to Australians, for whom these are fundamental rites of passage, but for Zakia, it is impossible to overstate the significance of giving women these freedoms:

“My vision was always that women should be an equal part of society, alongside men, but in Australia, Hazara women are even more behind than they were in their own countries – they are more isolated, they are more dependent. I want to help them come out of their boxes and to feel confident being in all areas of society. If they’re mums, they should feel confident going to their children’s schools to ask questions. In this way they will be building themselves and building society at the same time.”

The cultural context of the group is crucial when delivering services aimed at empowerment. It is not always in the traditionally lauded achievements that we should be recognising progress and contribution. “It’s not just about work,” says Zakia. “Women who are mothers and grandmothers can now drive, they can shop, speak English, they can go about their everyday business. We cherish every day where this happens – the pass their leaner permits and suddenly feel Australian, they wear Australian clothes. People being able to feel confident when they speak – these small things are so important.”

Despite Zakia’s passion and drive, the fight for inclusion from the community sector has been challenging. It has been a constant struggle to find the financial support necessary to keep the organisation afloat. CommunityFour’s approach, by contrast, has been a breath of fresh air. ‘Unfortunately, there are so many organisations who are in it for themselves,’ Zakia says, ‘But Gavin and CommunityFour work in collaboration; it’s never about forcing ideas. He helps but it’s led by us. We tell him about our community’s needs, and he helps us find solutions.’

One such solution has been the development of an English curriculum for AHWFN’s classes. Structure, consistency and a solid grounding in educational best practice are important components of learning – but low levels of literacy and minimal formal education amongst the women called for an innovative approach that places the women themselves at the heart of the work was crucial.

“We wanted to understand not only what they wanted in the curriculum but also what their experiences of engaging education had been in the past,” says CommunityFour’s CEO, Gavin Ackerly. “We needed to know what had and hadn’t worked for them. It was really interesting in that they asked for music and fun as integral parts of the learning experience.”

Gavin’s Symbiotic Innovation method allows for this measure of collaboration – it offers a framework for growth that can be entirely shaped by a community’s needs. The learning driven by the curriculum was then complemented by networking with the wider community, first with volunteers and then with external groups. One successful event saw the women of AHWFN participating in a netball game at the Hampton Park Football and Netball Club. As Gavin comments, “learning language is pretty useless if you don’t get to use it, and if you don’t feel a level of safety and trust.”

Gavin and Zakia at VMC Awards

Gavin and Zakia with colleagues Jenny and Sheryl

This approach – giving Zakia and her women room to grow from the inside out, rather than in response to outside pressures, however well-meaning – has allowed AHWFN to retain its uniquely warm and loving culture. Women with little literacy in Hazaragi, and with very little confidence, have blossomed with the support of AHWFN; at the organisation’s AGM, women are given the opportunity to speak a few words in English to the group. For some, this might be something as seemingly simple as their name, their age and where they live – but the achievement is immeasurable, and for those of us fortunate enough to have been present at these meetings, the pride in the room is palpable. The nurturing environment Zakia has built will enable more and more women to build their confidence and faith in their own abilities in a safe and familiar space. Evaluation of the curriculum model of learning and supported networking found that the feeling of connectedness to Australian society had jumped from just 8% to an astonishing 82%.

Alia Sultana is just one example of the difference that an empowerment-driven model of community support can make. Arriving in Australia, she needed to work, but with little English and lacking in confidence, she struggled to find her way until she met Zakia.

‘She  wanted to be connected, she wanted to go out and find opportunities for herself and for her daughters,’ says Zakia, ‘but she felt her English skills were too much of a barrier. I told her it’s not about English, it’s about courage.’ Since then, Alia has started work with another community organisation obtained a job in a hospital, and most recently launched her own catering company. Clearly, courage is not a virtue that Alia, or any of the women AHWFN is supporting, lacks.

Zakia’s influence on her community has been huge, and truly measurable not in the number of women who walk through the doors of the AHWFN (nearly 200 women have learned English, taken driving lessons and computer literacy classes over the last five years) but in the increased connectedness to Australian society that so many now feel. Where before there was dependence and isolation, now there is assurance and a sense of wider community and belonging. For many of these women, carrying with them their own stories of personal tragedy and trauma into a less than welcoming political climate in Australia, this has made all the difference.

Zakia Baig receiving VMC Award

Zakia receiving an award from Victoria’s Multicultural Commission

And the impact of AHWFN has not gone unnoticed. For her work “integrating Hazara women into the wider Australian community through English literacy and life administration programs that aim to reduce women’s economic and social isolation”, Zakia has recently been honoured by the Victorian Government’s Multicultural Commission with an Award for Meritorious Service to the Community. These accolades are offered in recognition of the outstanding contribution that culturally and linguistically diverse communities have made in enhancing Victorian multiculturalism – and there can be no doubt that Zakia is truly contributing to a more open, diverse and tolerant state.

‘How can we ignore the potential that is arriving here?’ concludes Zakia. ‘How do we make sure that we include all these people who have so much to give? Australia is a great, great country – the whole word lives alongside each other here, and I want to give my community the chance to give back. The women in my country are like genies in bottles – you just have to unleash them!’

Author: Rebecca Mackinnon

Author: Rebecca Mackinnon