When Afghanistan fell to the Taliban last year, Shabnam Safa watched on with more trepidation than most.
Shabnam grew up in Pakistan as an Afghan refugee, before her family emigrated to Australia when she was a teenager. Life wasn’t easy for Shabnam but, as her story will prove, she is more than her hardships.
A new Australian
Shabnam grew up in a place called Hazara Town, close to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Her parents were teachers, and well respected among the community. However, Shabnam’s parents wanted more for their children. So, they emigrated to Australia as refugees when Shabnam was 15 – a process which Shabnam found incredibly difficult.
“At the time you don’t think about it. You’re just focused on the next thing, doing what’s required of you,” Shabnam told the Finding Hope podcast.
However, Shabnam’s role in her family changed overnight.
Shabnam’s parents had invested in English lessons for their children – so Shabnam quickly became the translator for the family – and, as the eldest of her siblings, essentially becoming the head of the household in Year 9.
“I became the parent of my family,” Shabnam said.
“Up until that point, my parents had been the ones I had gone to with all my questions – they were my Google.
“All of a sudden, that changed. All the questions were referred to me.”
As well as the sudden influx of responsibility on Shabnam’s shoulders, it had perhaps an even greater effect on her parents.
“I saw my parents being reduced to their inability to speak in English,” Shabnam said.
“Even though they have multiple degrees between themselves, and decades of work experience in teaching and international development. It meant nothing in Australia.”
A guiding light
Shabnam has taken her lived refugee experience and is now using it to make the transition for other refugee families smoother.
Shabnam has taken her lived refugee experience and is now using it to make the transition for other refugee families smoother. As the Community Development Training Lead for Community Refugee Sponsorship Australia (CRSA), Shabnam is in charge of training groups of local Australians to sponsor refugee families moving into their towns.
The program, called the Community Refugee Integration and Settlement Pilot (CRISP), has seen refugees from Afghanistan, Syria and Myanmar settle in Australia in recent months. Groups of everyday Australians rally around refugee families – helping them to find housing, work, enrol children in school, apply for Medicare and even navigate Australia’s complicated public transport network.
A similar program has had massive success in Canada over the past 40 years – settling over 300,000 refugees in this manner. Slowly, other countries, including Australia, are adopting the program.
Shabnam believes the program has incredible potential – both for refugee families and the Australian community at large.
“You don’t start from scratch,” Shabnam said.
“The [program] brings together groups of everyday Australians who want to do something practical to support refugees and start building their new life in Australia.
“People can get quite overwhelmed looking at the sheer need of refugees around the world right now.
“This program is providing the opportunity to make a difference in one family’s life.
“That is still making a difference.”
“People can get quite overwhelmed looking at the sheer need of refugees around the world right now… This program is providing the opportunity to make a difference in one family’s life,” – Shabnam Safa
Fourteen years since arriving in Australia, Shabnam and her family have each found varying levels of peace and contentment – something which Shabnam believes needs to be talked about more.
“We mostly focus on how difficult the journey must have been. It’s the most intriguing part. But it’s just a part of the journey,” Shabnam said.
“Some thrive when they arrive in another country and finally have a sense of safety and security.
“But some take that as a sigh of relief, a sign that they don’t have to work as hard anymore.
“Everyone goes through that at their own pace.”
Listen to Shabnam’s full interview on Finding Hope in the player above.
To find out more about CRISP, visit the Community Refugee Sponsorship Australia website.