As a young girl in Afghanistan, Zimra Hussain watched the boys playing soccer and wished she could get out there, too.
But cultural protocols dictated she could only watch from the sidelines – with those same protocols having dashed the dreams of her mother Sakina, who harboured ambitions of becoming an international footballer.
Zimra and her mother are Hazaras, a Persian speaking ethnic group from the mountainous region Afghanistan’s central highlands. The Hazaras are widely thought to be the county’s most oppressed ethnic group, having suffered persecution since the late 1800s.
Having fled the genocide of her people at the hands of the Taliban, Sakina took her two daughters to Pakistan in the hopes of finding safety. But Pakistan was no safe place for the single mother and her daughters.
“It was the same for the Hazara people in Pakistan – very day we were facing genocide in Pakistan. It was really dangerous for my daughters and myself to live there as we didn’t have those rights to live freely,” she said.
“I used to live like a security guard in taking care of my kids, it wasn’t a normal life. Our tribe was targeted, and if people were identified as Hazara they were at risk of being shot or worse.
“When we landed in Australia, I stepped out of the plane and I felt like I could breathe again. I found the meaning of life here, my kids are safe now – life is valuable here.”
“When we landed in Australia, I stepped out of the plane and I felt like I could breathe again. I found the meaning of life here, my kids are safe now – life is valuable here.” – Sakina
One of the first things the family had to adjust to in their new life in Australia was the role women played in society and the realisation that women could purse their ambitions and dreams. So it was no surprise that Zimra quickly found her way onto a football field, only this time it wasn’t a soccer field, it was an AFL field.
Zimra quickly found a passion for AFL through a program set up by her local pastor, Ross Savill. It was here she was dubbed the “Afghani Axe”, as she and dozens of other refugee children used footy as a vehicle to connect with the community.
“It was just so good finding that freedom, and knowing that I could pursue my dreams. In my first game I was just in my jeans and had no idea what I was doing but I fell in love with it,” Zimra said.
“Everyone just gets around you and they don’t care what the colour of your skin is – everyone’s equal on the footy field.”
The 15-year-old mid-fielder has moved through the representative pathways and is now being touted as a future star of the AFLW. She’s already been encouraged and supported by some of the county’s top female footballers.
“Having that contact, and being helped as a junior footballer will only help me even more when I get to their level.”
Sakina said sport was a good way to close cultural gaps in communities.
“When Zimra started playing footy it really helped us and I found the community really supportive in every way. People in the footy club would help kids with homework and their studies and those people were such a blessing,” she said.
And how does Sakina feel when she sees Zimra running out onto the footy field?
“It was a big deal for me to let my daughter play because when she started it was with boys, it’s a rough game and I thought she would be hurt. When she started tackling those big boys, and their parents would ask Zimi not to tackle their boys so hard I knew she could do it,” Sakina said.
“She’s really sporty and she’s really good at footy – she can make my dreams come true.”