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Campaining for Afghan women's rights



I was born Hazara in Afghanistan. It is a place where my people suffer constant persecution and discrimination, and additionally, where women are considered second-class citizens. When I was two years old, my parents fled Afghanistan. We first arrived in Iraq and were subsequently given refugee status in Iran. Despite the challenges of growing up a foreigner in Iran, I completed my teaching degree, and also qualified to be a lawyer.

Asylum Seekers Transported To Christmas Island After Interception (Scott Fisher/Getty Images)

I lived and worked in Iran for 25 years, where I became a passionate advocate for the rights of refugee women. I established Persian and English literacy classes, training programs in computers and in handicrafts. Eventually, primary schools and high schools for Afghan children in Iran were established.

When a new government came to power in Afghanistan in 2001, I returned in 2003 to register the schools for Afghan refugees which I had established in Iran. Despite the change in government, the Taliban still had significant influence in many parts of the country. Domestic violence was common, but if women complained about their problems, it fell on deaf ears.

Seeing and hearing about this suffering was excruciating. I wanted to help. I returned to the province of my birth in Afghanistan and, together with the government, the United Nations, and other international NGOs, we established the Commission for the Rights of Women. I became the Director of the Department of Women’s Affairs for ten years.

We worked tirelessly to ensure that women’s voices were heard and so that they could gain access to legal aid and other essential services. We set up community centres to create avenues for communication and relationships between women, and where they could learn basic literally, cooking, and handicraft skills. We also established a park and gym for women to use.

My background as a Hazara and my work as a women’s rights advocate meant that I could not live safely in Afghanistan. I feared for my life and that of my children. In 2013, I came to Australia as a refugee.


'At the height of the pandemic, when the Prime Minister told temporary migrants to return home, many Hazaras asked, "where can we go? We have no home outside of Australia. Australia is home".'


Here, I had to start all over again. In 2018, decades after first training as a lawyer and teacher, I completed my High School Certificate at Bankstown Senior College and, with my two children, started university in 2019.

Despite finding safety, I could not turn my back on the Hazara people who are still suffering, both in Afghanistan and in Australia. Hazaras in Afghanistan have been subjected to the most violent and tragic crimes against humanity for centuries. Despite these atrocities, Hazaras have always practiced peace, obeying the rule of law, and a quiet life. We have also openly welcomed scientific education, democracy, and equal rights for women.

Yet to this day, my people continue to suffer at the hands of the Taliban. Indeed, on 11 May, 2021, the Taliban bombed the Sayyid al-Shuhada girls’ school in western Kabul killing more than 200 Hazara children. In November 2019, the Taliban invaded Oruzgan, Jaghori, Malestan, Kairan, and Sang Chark, all provinces with large Hazara populations, killing dozens and displacing thousands of women, children and men.

These kinds of unprovoked atrocities drive Hazaras to seek protection in countries such as Australia. Yet, here they face different challenges — many have faced years in detention or in the community, waiting for their claims for protection to be heard and processed. The uncertainty and prolonged separation from parents, children, grandparents, and siblings is profoundly crippling.

So many of those who are found to be refugees are eligible only for 3 or 5-year temporary protection visas. Others are so consumed with trauma, stress, anxiety, and depression that they cannot express themselves properly in interviews or courts and have their claims rejected. Every Hazara fears returning to Afghanistan.

COVID-19 placed an additional burden on people in my community in Australia. So many lost jobs, and despite years of working and paying taxes, were denied access to Federal Government income support payments. Many Hazaras are educated but cannot find jobs. Others work long hours for below-minimum wages but say nothing because they are desperate to remain employed. 

At the height of the pandemic, when the Prime Minister told temporary migrants to return home, many Hazaras asked, ‘where can we go? We have no home outside of Australia. Australia is home.’

I feel very passionate about supporting my community members, and so many others in need to feel welcome, to feel safe, and to thrive in Australia. I have worked closely with Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Australia, the Sydney Alliance, Settlement Services International (SSI), and others to advocate for all recognised refugees to have access to permanent protection, and for the Government to ensure that Hazaras fearing for their safety in Afghanistan not to be returned. Australia also should not forget us, as it prepares to depart Afghanistan.

My deepest passion lies with furthering women’s rights. I have had the opportunity to contribute positively to the public policy debates on these issues through organisations such as JRS Australia. It is important that women from my communities and other emerging diasporas have platforms and voices that speak directly to decision-makers and power brokers in Australia. Civil society can help us access those platforms.

Nonetheless, the quiet, daily work on the ground of supporting those in most need continues, often informally, within the community. We support each other with language classes, IT and digital training, handicrafts, legal matters, workshops on rights, and basic needs such as food.

My current goal is to build resources and capacity to properly support Hazara women and women from other emerging diasporas to feel safe and thrive in Australia.

My dream is that our people and all other refugees can live freely and with permanent protection in this country so that they do not need to worry about returning to situations of harm again, and so that they can bring their families to safety too.




Hava RezaieHava Rezaie is a mother, Hazara community leader, refugee women’s rights advocate, student, and member of the Advisory Committee member at Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Australia’s Finding Safety project. Hava is speaking at this year’s Refugee Alternatives Conference 2021 on a plenary panel called ‘Centering Community Organising and Grassroots Work in the Refugee Sector.’

Main image: Hava Rezaie speaking. (JRS Australia)

Topic tags: Hava Rezaie, refugee, asylum seeker, Hazara, Afghanistan, women's rights



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Existing comments

How shameful to hear your incredible story. To be an Australian who identifies as one who believes all human beings equally deserve to live a life free from violence. 20 years of war, the longest in history for Australia and the United states, now to be abandoned. Shocking.

Annette Brownlie | 22 June 2021  

Such great courage - the very thing we need more of in Australia. The "un-Australian" politicians we have running this country should hang their heads in shame

john frawley | 22 June 2021  

Hava Rezaie thank you for your story. I know personally from working in Afghanistan, and with Hazara communities (and others) in west Kabul and remote provinces, how hard Hazaras work for their country in so many fields of work, yet they face such awful discrimination by those who do not understand or reject them (and worse), as you discuss. As we remember again International Refugee Day, we continue urgent lobbying of our government in Australia to grant permanent residency and citizenship to people still 'waiting' here, so that we consider humanely those wanting to relocate and contribute in all ways in Australia where other Hazara people and communities have settled happily. Your concerns about the 'next stage' in Afghanistan are real, and I continue to join those lobbying for Afghan refugees, hoping too, that Australia supports, in all ways (including health and education) Afghanistan on the road ahead.

Adele Jones | 23 June 2021  

See my PETITION to UNITED NATIONS @ https://chn.ge/2Hpu2aa ~ wherein I am trying to get HUMAN RIGHTS INTERNATIONAL LAW (CEDAW) into the domestic level CEDAW ~ CONVENTION ON THE ELIMINATION OF ALL FORMS OF DISCRIMINATION AGAINST WOMEN ~ https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/cedaw.aspx All women are ONE. We don't have any female human rights at all. At the age of 64 I was illegally evicted from my marital home by a court judge. Before, I had my own roof for 36 years. The ex-husband had illegally transferred the marital property to his friend. The judges let the thief keep the lot.

Alexandra Samootin | 23 June 2021  

What an inspiring story. My husband and I fostered a 14 year old Hazara boy in Melbourne 10 years ago so we have known a great deal about the plight of the Hazaras.

Alison | 23 June 2021  

Mille fois bravo, Hava! The situation in the Middle East, of which Afghanistan is more a cultural part than it is of South Asia, is indeed dire. The resurgent Taliban, allied with the extreme Deobandi madrassas in Pakistan and India, as well as still having at least the tacit support of Pakistani military intelligence, are hell-bent on eliminating anyone who does not subscribe to their extreme deviant understanding of Sunni Islam. Afghanistan is, in my opinion, well on its way to being either a failed state or something like the 'Islamic State' which existed for a brief while further West under Isis. Murder, rape and torture are its hallmark. It is a pity that the Australian military have no one like the commendable Sir Mike Rose to condemn this pullout of Western forces from Afghanistan. This is lunacy, sheer lunacy and the results of the lunacy are happening in real time now and viewable on our TV screens. The Australian military, very often particularly our own brave women, did so much for health and education in Afghanistan in the areas in which we were. This is all under threat now. The situation in Afghanistan needs fixing so that all Afghanis can live in peace and equality. Of course Australia needs to have a generous refugee policy here.

Edward Fido | 23 June 2021  

Edward Fido: ‘lunacy’ Lunacy is incurring future burdens on the soul at four score instead of paying down past burdens with your vice-presidential pension.

roy chen yee | 27 June 2021  

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