Nine years ago, Syrian-born Nayran Tabiei arrived with her husband and daughter at Christmas Island after a journey by boat through shark-infested seas. “We jumped without thinking. ISIS behind you and the water in front of you,” she said.
It was a relief to be out of Syria, but Australia’s immigration detention centre on Christmas Island was tough — rooms were cramped and missing meal times meant going without food. After a year in immigration detention, Mrs Tabiei has made a life in Melbourne, where she is constantly giving back to her community.
On Wednesday last week, she was recognised for her contribution at the Victorian Multicultural Commission’s Refugee Awards. When she first arrived in Australia, Mrs Tabiei desperately wanted to work and study to support her daughter in Melbourne and her three sons she had left with their grandmother in Iran, but her bridging visa prevented that. Instead, the former chef devoted all of her time to volunteering — mainly teaching English and cooking for people who were homeless, refugees or the elderly. After three years, she was finally granted a temporary protection visa, which offered a few more freedoms. Now she works at community organisation commUnity+, teaching English to refugees and running swimming lessons for migrant women.
“I love to help people, to empower women to stand on their feet,” she said.
Mrs Tabiei also supports people with mental health problems and disabilities, going to their homes to cook and keep them company. Even though she can work now, she feels stuck in limbo. Her temporary protection visa does not allow her to bring over her sons, who she has not seen since she came to Australia.
“I’m fighting for this paper, to be Australian, because I love to be Australian,” she
said. Mrs Tabiei said she has “knocked all the doors” trying to get permanent residency, calling and emailing members of parliament to ask for help. While being recognised for her work in the community was nice, she said, she could not take her
awards to the Department of Immigration to support her claim for permanent residency. “I wish for this paper, to buy a house or buy a business, because I want to open my coffee shop, restaurant — anything that is in my name, to present me as a person,” she said.
Ku Htee, 21, spent the first 15 years of her life in a refugee camp in Thailand. There was no electricity and living in the camp was “just like a prison”, she said. “You couldn’t go outside the camp. If the Thai soldier caught you, you would probably go to jail,” she said.
Ms Htee’s family had little money. Her parents were members of Myanmar’s Karen community, and had fled for the Thai border during the civil war. Her family boarded a plane to Australia in 2015. When she began school, she was confused about the
different rules, such as not being able to go home for lunch. “You had to stay in the school the whole day. I never had that experience back in camp,” she said.
Ms Htee knew little English, so school in a new country was a big adjustment. But she went on to graduate year 12 in 2019 at Bendigo Senior Secondary College. She now works for the Bendigo Community Health Services, where she helps Bendigo’s large Karen community adapt to life in Australia and prepare for emergencies, such as bushfires and floods. “I am someone who didn’t know a lot of English, who needed a lot of help to feel confident, to engage with people, and to know the services better,” she said. “If there’s someone who can help in their own language, they feel much more comfortable to ask the questions they want to ask.”
Ms Htee received the Young Leader Award at the refugee awards for her work helping the Karen community. She has played a key role in providing support for the Bendigo Community Health Services’ COVID-19 hotline, to help the Karen community book vaccine appointments and understand COVID-19 health advice.
“A lot of people got their vaccine in recent months, so we did a good job,” she said. One day she wants to become a nurse. She hopes that, through this, she can continue helping diverse communities, as someone who can relate to the struggles of building a new life from scratch.
When COVID-19 hit Australia, Heidelberg Mosque youth group leader Yusuf Liban found himself with a new challenge: Helping his community respond to the pandemic. People knew him from around the mosque and trusted him, so the 24-year-old worked with the mosque to develop a COVID-safe plan and to set up QR codes for contact tracing. Like Ms Htee, on Wednesday Somali-born Mr Liban received the Young Leader Award for his work supporting multicultural communities in Australia.
When Mr Liban was five, he came with his mother and eight siblings to Australia as a
refugee. His parents wanted him and his siblings to get a better education. “It’s an amazing journey, and I’m very honoured to have had this journey,” he said, reflecting on his time in Australia. On top of his work supporting the local Muslim community through the pandemic, he has also played a key role in the COVID Quarantine Victoria (CQV) program to support people arriving in hotel quarantine, particularly Afghan refugees. “Some of them came with the clothes on their backs, I’m talking shirt, jumper, pants and nothing else,” he said. “It was an honour to work alongside the amazing CQV team.”
In this role, he liaised with interpreters to ensure multicultural communities could get the information and support they needed. As a fluent Arabic and Somali speaker, his language skills came in handy to establish trust and communicate with people.
Mr Liban also took it upon himself to source prayer mats and Qur’ans for Muslims in hotel quarantine, as well as culturally safe food. “Halal food is not just halal food — there’s halal food from the African continent, halal food from Asian continent, and halal food from Western continents,” he said.
On top of his work with the mosque and CQV, Mr Liban is striving to help the multicultural community to celebrate their “creative excellence” through fashion.
He is working with the City of Melbourne on creating a fashion show for Melbourne Fashion Week, featuring clothes that appeal to Muslim women’s sensibilities.
“It’s about helping the multicultural community and saying, ‘Hey it’s okay to pursue a creative career, just like I did’,” he said.
Mr Liban said Australia still had a way to go in supporting its multicultural communities, but that he saw progress was being made. “There’s no such thing as perfect, but we definitely are better than where we were yesterday.”
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