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Inside stories: A path to advocacy

Inside stories: A path to advocacy

By Sahema Saberi

Interviews 

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Lawyer Sahema Saberi was 13 when she arrived in Australia – starting as a Hazara refugee with no English, her Journey to legal admission was far from easy. 

I was recently admitted as an Australian lawyer in the Supreme Court of Victoria. It has been an absolute honour to be the first person and the first woman in my family to have the opportunity to craft my own future. 

My journey to this point began when 20 years ago my father decided that Afghanistan and Pakistan, where most of our family members lived at the time, would no longer be safe for us. My family is originally from Ghazni in Afghanistan and while Dad sought asylum in Australia, my six siblings and mother waited for him in Quetta, Pakistan. For many years Ghazni was one of the safest areas in Afghanistan and Quetta one of the safest in Pakistan for Hazaras. Hazaras in both cities today continue to remain a target for the extremist groups and ISIS affiliates. Dad was particularly worried about the safety of his four daughters. He, like all Hazara fathers, wanted us not only to be safe but also to be able to get an education.

After saving up his money from his work as a shoemaker and a dairy producer, Dad made his way to Indonesia where he took a boat to Australia. Dad knew very little about Australia except that it was a safe place where you wouldn’t be killed because of your religion, ethnicity or political opinion, where your daughters and sons could go to school freely, and where you could purchase a property or carry on a business without any discrimination. 

At the time, there weren’t many Hazara asylum seekers coming to Australia. The boat Dad was travelling in was in a terrible storm, twice he almost drowned but fortunately they were rescued by the Australian Navy once they entered Australian waters and shipped to Christmas Island. From there he was put into Woomera detention centre for about seven months. For seven months we had no idea if he was alive and well until my mother finally got a phone call to say that he was OK.

At Woomera Dad was found to be a genuine refugee and got a temporary protection visa. He went to live in Dandenong and worked as a dishwasher in a bakery. He’d ride his bicycle 14kms seven days a week from Dandenong to Clayton. He was paid $13 an hour and from that he sent us money to cover our expenses in Pakistan where we waited for him with hopes that we could one day join him in Australia.

It was six years before we saw Dad again. All that time Mum was looking after us by herself. When Dad was finally able to come and see us in 2005, he barely recognised us. Before he visited us he had applied for a subclass 200 visa for us to join him in Australia on a humanitarian basis. Within six months we had been accepted as genuine refugees. It’s so different now. Now families can wait up to eight years for a visa.

When we first arrived in Melbourne, I was 13. My two high school age siblings and I had to attend English language school before we could start at Dandenong High School. But I was determined to start school as soon as I could, and within three months I convinced the high school that I was ready to start there. It was really hard for the first few months though, and Years 11 and 12 were particularly difficult. But I worked really hard and I ended up graduating in the top 15 per cent of the state. 

I didn’t have anyone to support or guide me in terms of my career. I thought I wanted to become a doctor but my careers teacher wasn’t very encouraging about my chances of that. So I studied science at Monash, and I did really well. But I was not able to secure an interview for medical school, so I decided instead to do my own research into the mental health issues in the Hazara community at the University of Melbourne. After that I got an offer from St George’s University of London to do postgraduate medicine, where I would study in Cyprus and the UK. But by that time, I had already realised that maybe medicine was not for me. 

My research supervisor had noticed that during my research I would use any opportunity to advocate for my community and against their ongoing persecution. She sat me down one day and said, “I know you would make a great doctor, but I also think you’d make an excellent lawyer and I think you should consider law before you step into the medical world. Because your community needs people who can represent their interests". 

Before this I hadn’t ever thought of doing law but by this time a lot of people had told me I would make a good lawyer. My youngest sister was also considering law at the time and initially I thought we can’t have two lawyers in the same family. But everyone said to me, you’ve got that fire in you, you would make a great lawyer. 

I started the Juris Doctor mid-year at the University of New South Wales, and then I got scholarships to transfer to the University of Melbourne the following year. In 2018 I interned for four months in New York doing policy work on a range of human rights issues for the Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Issues Committee of the General Assembly at the Australian Permanent Mission to the United Nations. I finished my Juris Doctor in December 2019 with first-class honours in legal research. I then got the Kay Smith scholarship to do my PLT at the College of Law. 

I have four languages: Hazaragi, Urdu, Dari and English, so I have been working for the past few years as a professional interpreter. I also worked as a project officer for the South Eastern Primary Health Network. And for the past couple of years I've worked at Refugee Legal, recently on a fellowship. Next year, I will be commencing a trainee lawyer role at Fitzroy Legal Service. 

Finding work in the legal sector has been difficult. My family could not offer help. There were more rejections than I can remember. At one point I considered changing my name on my job application. I consistently applied, but the pandemic only made things worse. My parents have given us opportunities and supported me every step of the way.

Dad has been a community leader serving a large Hazara community in Dandenong. Australia has been home for him for 20 years now. His journey and that of others like him today who leave everything behind to seek a safe haven for their children is a challenge to our current world. Dad has not been able to work for 12 years now following an injury at a car parts factory. He was made redundant following the injury. We only realised years later this was an unfair dismissal because he had been disabled at work. I always wonder how many more people like him are taken advantage of everyday because they speak languages other than English and cannot defend themselves against precarious and exploitative situations. Had I had the skills that I have now, we would have been able to get damages for his injuries. As his daughter, I am proud to have been able to support my family here in Australia and overseas. ■

 


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