Refugee Week Ambassadors are individuals from a refugee background who advocate for the rights of refugees and people seeking asylum.
The stories below are about people based in Australia, who have come from all over the world. Make sure you also check out our global ambassador video series here, to meet people who are now living in all corners of the globe.
Noor was born in 1995 in Myanmar, the youngest of five siblings. As a Rohingyan, she was born stateless, and life was very difficult for her family. When she was still a baby, her parents decided to leave the country to try and get a better life for their five children. Being stateless, their situation was extremely difficult, and they lived homeless and hungry for years in Malaysia. Her father sought asylum through the UNHCR and the family were finally relocated to Australia when Noor was 9 years old. It was hard building a life in a new country- her Mum had never been to school and suddenly had to learn a new language. Noor remembers starting school and not understanding anything that was going on. She says that coming to grips with her own identity, as someone whose life had crossed three cultures, was also a challenge.
Noor learnt English, finished school and went on to train as a teacher. Passionate about the power of education, she was motivated to teach by a desire to educate refugee women like herself. She now teaches at year 3 level in Sydney and is applying to teach refugee women in camps in Bangladesh. At her current school, 98% of the kids speak English as a secondary language. She remembers what that was like and sympathises with them. She’s thinking about training up in law in the future, to work in women’s and refugee rights. She says, “I want to be able to help refugee women break the poverty cycle through leadership and educational opportunities.” In her spare time, she describes herself as a ‘foodie’ and runs a food blog with her brother and two best friends.
You can catch Noor cooking her delicious Rohingyan beef curry as part of SBS Food’s Refugee Week video series. Cook a delicious meal for your friends and family and raise money for a good cause by getting involved in our Share a Meal, Share a Story project.
I arrived in Sydney in June 2015, after my family and I were forced to leave Syria because of the war. We were part of the revolution against the Bashar Assad regime, which meant we lived in constant fear. It was commonplace for people like us to be harassed, arrested or simply disappear. I was working as a teacher, preparing for my Masters degree and mentoring in the community. Every morning, I left the house, not knowing if I’d come back. One spring day, I was in the city doing paperwork, when a big bomb exploded – just like that. I wasn’t hurt, but it was shocking to see, first-hand, how a split second can change your life. As the war wore on, we didn’t have electricity for days and didn’t know when we would next see light. There was no phone coverage. I now look at the Syrian people as 18 million heroes, for having lived like this, day in, day out. To make matters worse, my father went to prison, where he was beaten and tortured. Today, he suffers from a bad back, as a long lasting reminder. My brother was also at risk of imprisonment because he was an activist. We desperately needed to leave.
First, we moved to Lebanon. But the people didn’t accept us as refugees and treated us badly. We had to work very hard for long hours, so we could afford basic life needs. We registered with the UNHCR, then applied to many countries, including America, European nations and Australia, where we had extended family. After months of waiting, we were accepted by Australia. The day we found out, I wept for joy. Then, I held on to my phone all day, waiting for a call about the next stage of the process! It sounds extreme, but, at that time, a phone call could be life changing.
We landed in Sydney on 18 June 2015 at 7:00 am. Coincidentally, the city was celebrating Refugee Week. It was helpful that I already spoke two languages: Arabic, Assyrian. The Australian people welcomed us with open arms. We felt blessed. I couldn’t wait to get a job and start paying taxes, to repay their hospitality.
Making a difference
I’m now working for the Refugee Council of Australia in a communications role. I’ve also volunteered in community organisations, including Auburn Diversity Service, Settlement Service International (SSI) and Sydney Alliance, where I’ve helped refugees to transition to life in Australia and engage with their communities. To progress my career, I’m studying Business Studies at Swinburne University. I plan to continue sharing my knowledge and experiences with ‘newly arrived’ families, to help them realise their potential. Through my journey, I’ve learnt to be strong and resilient. I’m forever grateful for the love the Australian people have shown me. I truly hope that the future holds positive change for refugees and people seeking asylum – people just like me.
Rnita and her mother Khochibo feature twice in our Refugee Week cookbook. Get the cookbook and get involved at our Share a Meal, Share a Story page here. Check out their recipes featuring as part of the SBS Food collection here. Download Rnita’s story here (PDF 345kb).
I grew up in Iraq, in a loving Assyrian-Mandaean family. But, by the time I was nine, things had become dangerous for us because of the war and political persecution. So, my parents made the difficult decision to leave. In the dead of a freezing night, they carried my brother and me in their arms to the border, which took 15 days to reach. We escaped to Iran.
Hopes and hardships
My parents were hopeful that we’d pursue a better life in another country. But we faced many difficulties – from language barriers to violent situations. We also spent four years in and out of a detention camp, where we were given just enough food to survive. We endured hunger, sickness, loneliness and isolation.
Moving to Australia
Eventually, when I was 13, we moved to Australia – to Fairfield in Western Sydney. Unfortunately, because I hadn’t received an education, I found that I was a long way behind my peers. But I’ve done so much since then!
Helping others with their journeys
Today, I use my experiences of surviving and thriving as a refugee to help other people. For nine years – from 2006 to 2015 – I worked at the Fairfield Migrant Resource Centre, where I helped refugees and migrants to transition to life in Australia. Most of my clients came from traumatised backgrounds and many were dealing with the grief of losing family members. Helping in any way was so rewarding. Things that seem small can impact so greatly on someone’s life.
Building community and enriching education
Today, I work at the Refugee Council of Australia, where I coordinate Face to Face. This national education program aims at building community harmony, while increasing awareness of – and understanding about – refugees through face to face presentations. We facilitate them in schools and community groups, and as part of professional development.
I’m passionate about advocacy. I’ve represented the Australian Iraqi community at various NGO consultations and at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva, Switzerland. I also sit on a number of advisory and management committees, to ensure that there is an adequate voice for people from a refugee background. Australians are such intelligent people, but many still have the wrong idea about refugees. No one would flee their country for no reason. Usually, it’s because of victimisation and persecution. We’ve got to look at the bigger issues and deepen our understanding.
You can find delicious recipes from both Deena and her husband Evan in our Refugee Week cookbook. Get the cookbook and get involved at our Share a Meal, Share a Story page. Download Deena’s story here (310kb)
UN and photography In Afghanistan, I worked for the United Nations for seven years – in a pretty precarious job. I talked and negotiated with local war lords, to convince them to give up their weapons and join the Afghan government. This work took me to some of Afghanistan’s most remote provinces. Everywhere I went, I took photos – of mountains, villages and local people. I wanted to capture a side of my country that had been hidden from the world. My images have been exhibited in many nations, including Afghanistan, Australia, US, Canada, Holland and South Korea.
Meeting a Taliban blockade
In December 2012, I was driving with my family from Kandahar to Kabul, when the Taliban stopped us. I knew that, if someone recognised me from my work, we would be in great danger. My heart was in my mouth. I decided, on the spot, it was time to leave Afghanistan. The next day, we drove over the border to Pakistan – to Quetta, where I’d spent my childhood, as a refugee. But, a few days later –on 10 January 2013 – a bomb blast near our home killed more than 100 people and injured hundreds. We sold all our belongings and left for Indonesia, to seek asylum.
Indonesia: opening the first refugee school
We lived in Cisarua, a district in West Java, around 70 kilometres south of Jakarta. Around 5,000 Hazara Afghanis were there, who, like us, had fled the Taliban. When we arrived, everyone felt stuck and scared. We didn’t know what would happen to us or how long we’d be in limbo. So, we started to have meetings. We decided that, instead of waiting for someone to help us, we would be active and solve some of our problems ourselves. For example, we could open a school, where our kids could learn, and our educated women could teach. That’s how we started the first ever refugee school in Indonesia, the Cisarua Refugee Learning Centre. Today, there are ten refugee schools in Indonesia, with 1,500 students. We also decided to record our life in Cisarua – myself and another refugee, Khadim Dai who was 17 at the time. We worked with Australian filmmaker, Jolyon Hoff, who produced and directed our film, The Staging Post. It’s about refugee resistance and agency – about what is possible and what refugees can do with the help of friendship.
Australia: touring and studying
We were recognised as genuine refugees in 2013 and moved to Australia in 2015. In 2017, during Refugee Week, we launched The Staging Post, then we toured, screening the film more than 140 times in major cities and rural towns. We wanted Australian communities to know that refugees aren’t a threat. We are the victims of violence. We face the same threats that Australians do. We run away from Al Quaeda. We run away from Taliban. We run away from extremism. And we have agency. We have the ability to represent ourselves. Today, I live in Adelaide with my family. I am co-manager of Cisaura Learning, a registered charity, with Jolyon Hoff. I’m also studying at the University of South Australia. When I finish, I hope to return to Indonesia to work with refugees.
My full name is Habiburahman. But I’m well known as Habib. I’m a member of the Rohingya community, from Western Burma – also known as Myanmar. Since 1982, the Government has refused citizenship to us. We aren’t allowed to say we are Rohingya or report what happens to us to the authorities. We are the unspeakable. I’m over 35 years old now and I’ve been stateless for my entire life.
Selling bread on the bridge
I was 19 when I fled Burma. I’d been harrassed, arrested, tortured and forced to work against my will. First, I crossed into Thailand via the Golden Triangle. One day, in January 2000, I was selling bread packages and flowers on the bridge between Malaysia and Thailand, when I was called over by a Malaysian Border Force guard. I had to cross the border, to reach him. He asked me for my passport. I said, “No, I left it at home. I’m selling bread on the bridge.” He said, “No, you have come into our territory and you are illegal here.” Border Force put me into a Malaysian detention centre for the first time.
I spent a total of ten years in Malaysia – from 2000 until 2009. I worked with Rohingya organisations, Burmese political opposition groups and local NGOs. I was detained in detention centres five times and deported to the Thai border on three occasions.
A boat to Australia
In 2009, I decided to go to Australia, by fishing boat. After three and half days of sailing, not knowing where we were heading, we were found by an Australian aircraft. Within an hour, the Australian Navy had saved us. I spent 32 months in detention centres, before being released in Melbourne by August 2012.
Founding the Australian Burmese Rohingya Organisation
When I arrived, there was only a few Rohingya people in Melbourne, but many more have come since. I wanted to raise the voices of our oppressed Rohingya people. So, I founded a Rohingya organisation, called the Australian Burmese Rohingya Organisation. We began by engaging our people in English classes. Then, through Refugee Survivors and Ex-Detainees (RISE) and Monash Wholefoods, we provided food banks and support for accommodation. We’ve also cooperated with local NGOs, communities, activists and the Immigration Department, to ask for help to release our people from detention centres. I work casually as a support service coordinator at (RISE) and serve as Secretary of the Arakan Rohingya National Assembly (ARNA), an international Rohingya organisation based in the UK.
‘First they erased our name’
In 2017, I published a book, First They Erased Our Name, which I co-wrote with French author Sophie Ansel. It’s an updated version of my first book, Taboo Burmese, which I published in August 2012, while in detention. It’s about my life and the story of my people. The book was launched in the European Parliament in February 2018 and Maria Arena, a Belgian Member of the European Parliament, invited me to speak. I was unable to attend, because of my visa restrictions in Australia. If I leave the country, I won’t be allowed to re-enter.
I don’t remember much of my life in Khartoum (Sudan). I was only five old years when I left, with my mum, brothers and sister. But I do remember living in Egypt. We went there first, for two years as refugees waiting for a humanitarian visa. I remember the hardships our family faced and the amazing moments of triumph, such as when Australia granted our visas. We moved to Adelaide.
First impressions of Australia
I was eight when I came to Australia, so I pretty much grew up here. It was interesting at first. It was a very different society. The first thing I couldn’t get over was how cold it was! The food, too, was really weird. I could not get over Vegemite and how much Australians loved dogs.
Poetry and writing
I am a writer, I write poetry and in May 2019 I launched my debut book, Tomorrow’s Dream: A Poetic Anthology, at one of my favourite spots in Adelaide: African Village Centre Restaurant in Henley Beach.
As a Pan Africanist, a lot of the activism work I do is centred around the beliefs I have as young African woman who has grown up in diaspora. I believe in a free, self-reliant and self-defining Africa. My activism embodies arguments that deconstruct present day neo-colonial regimes. These beliefs are not just for myself but also for the greater network of African refugees and migrants pushing for self-determination and a well-defined agency of self. This year I was a guest speaker at the Refugee Alternatives Conference, run by the Refugee Council of Australia. It was an important event, because it provided a platform where we can talk about our experiences – without those experiences being defined or compromised, to fit a story or label, and where other people can be progressive in our journey.
‘I don’t want to be saved’
Australia is a great place for refugees and refugees contribute to Australian society in so many great ways. But it’s not just important for Australians to welcome refugees economically and socially – because we all know the benefits of that. We’re also fighting for acceptance, fighting to be recognised and fighting to be seen as human beings. I don’t want to be saved, I have already survived. Many refugees are tired of being told that they are being saved. I just want to survive, like everybody else – and you can be part of my survival.
You can catch Flora performing her original poetry as part of the official 2020 Refugee Week entertainment line up. RSVP here. You’ll also find her delicious ful medames and the story that accompanies it, in the Refugee Week cookbook- get involved here. Download Flora’s story here (676 Kb)
Evan Yako is an Assyrian session drummer, educator, music producer and creative director of Real Rhythm Studio in Sydney, Australia. His passion project, Healing Through Evan Yako’s Drumming, supports young people connect with the power of music in schools. His first solo album, Inspirational Stories will be released in 2020.
Evan’s passion for world, fusion and jazz music began in childhood and his earliest memories include playing pots and pans as drums. Not being raised in a musical family, Evan rescued plastic buckets from the local neighbourhood to create music. He soon became known for his unique drumming style and before long he was asked to audition for a local band. Evan turned up with his buckets and in that moment, history was made.
Recognised in the industry as a session and studio drummer, Evan Yako has supported local and international artists get acclaim. He has performed in numerous world music, jazz and folk festivals including Peats Ridge, Blues and Roots, Art Not Apart and the National Folk Festival Canberra. Evan has played drum tracks in over 45 albums and performed for Australian and American television including for Sunrise, Fuel TV, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and SBS.
Evan hails from a unique cultural ancestry, that of the Assyrian people. His grandparents were displaced from their Indigenous ancestral territories in the Hakkari region and ended up in Iraq. At the impressionable age of 16, after years of war, Evan was forced to flee with his family as a refugee and arrived to Australia in 1995. Among the first drummers of history, Evan continues an ancestral legacy with a modern fusion twist. He resides in Sydney, Australia with his partner Deena and daughters Melody and Harmony.
Evan provided a recipe for his mum Helen’s delicious Assyrian cookies for the Share a Meal, Share a Story project. Get your hands on it here.
Photo Credit: Sargon Odisho
Saba Vasefi is a multi-award-winning writer, journalist, academic, poet and documentary filmmaker. She researches her doctorate of philosophy on exilic feminist cinema studies and teaches at Macquarie University. She writes for The Guardian on the rhetoric of displacement and reports on the narratives of refugees incarcerated in Australia’s detention regime. Her journalistic works have appeared on the BBC, SBS, BuzzFeed, The Age and Sydney Morning Herald.
Saba is a Discoursing Diaspora Editor for Verity La creative arts journal. She was twice a judge for the Sedigheh Dolatabadi Book Prize for the Best Book on Women’s Literature and Issues, as well as for the Ballina Region for Refugees (BR4R) Seeking Asylum Poetry Prize. New South Wales Parliament House recognised Saba’s success in directing the Diaspora Symposium–Social Justice Award, and commended her ongoing contribution to women’s rights and social justice.
Saba’s poems have appeared in a variety of journals including Wasafiri Magazine of International Contemporary Writing in the UK, Australian Poetry Journal, Transnational Literature, and Anthology Solid Air: Australian & New Zealand Spoken Word. She has been awarded the NSW Premier’s Multicultural Medal in Art and Culture; Humanitarian Media Award, an Honorary Brave Rising Star Award for her courageous writing on the gendered impacts of seeking asylum; the Commonwealth Scholarship, and The National Council of Women Award for her academic research.
Samah grew up in an Assyrian family in Baghdad. In 2003 following the collapse of Saddam’s dictatorship and the US military intervention, life changed. Schools, hospitals, shops and any form of normalcy became a target for violent extremist militias and new vocabulary such as “military checkpoints”, “curfews” and “electricity generators” were introduced.
In 2010, Samah was awarded the Iraqi Student Project Scholarship to continue higher education studies in the US. Graduating with a degree in Political Science Samah returned to Iraq to participate in aid efforts caused by the Islamic State invasion. When the threat of the extremist groups reached Samah’s ancestral village in the north, her family left to seek asylum in Turkey. “For the first time in my life, I saw myself as a refugee and knew that this would always be part of my identity,” Samah said. While in Turkey Samah continued to work with Syrian and Iraqi refugees largely focusing on refugee reintegration and access to education.
In 2019 Samah’s family were given a refugee humanitarian visa to resettle in Australia. Today, Samah is actively involved with refugee resettlement organizations and refugee-led national advocacy networks representing the Iraqi community. Samah is also focused on education and is leading a research project focused on refugee access to higher education. Finally, Samah is a public speaker and works alongside the Refugee Council of Australia and Amnesty International using her own experience and story to raise awareness on the global refugee crisis.
Samah and her mother Aedah (and their delicious dolma) are part of the Share a Meal, Share a Story project. Get the cookbook and sign up to host a meal here. You’ll also catch them on SBS Food Online’s special Refugee Week series here.