Art from the Margins was originally devised to support homeless artists living in Brisbane when launched in 2008. This year’s theme focused on people from a refugee background who have made an impact since moving to Brisbane, inspiring individuals who were the artists’ subjects.
Among them was Griffith University student Shabnam Ahmadzada. This is her story.
The young life of Shabnam Ahmadzada is already engraved with a cluster of personal moments marking her remarkable journey from Afghan refugee to Brisbane ambassador.
There is the moment when she watched her brother dance to the staccato sounds of bullets pinging about the streets outside their apartment block home in war-torn Kabul. She was four-years-old, her foolhardy sibling less than two years of age. They had sought sanctuary from the dangers of gunfire in a corridor dividing the apartments that faced onto the deadly rage.
“It makes me laugh and breaks my heart at the same time,” Shabnam says. Today, nearly a generation later, Shabnam is a forensic science student at Griffith University; her brother works for the Australian government in Dubai.
There is the moment, aged 15, when Shabnam first returned to her native Afghanistan from where her family had fled in 1992 not long after the bullet dance. “I remember crossing the border from Pakistan to Afghanistan and feeling so proud.”
Life in Pakistan came with its challenges for Shabnam, her parents, two brothers and sister as they pursued official acknowledgement as legal refugees, a recognition that could be the springboard to a new life. Opportunities for education were limited but were seized by parents with a belief in what the future would bring, by children hungry for knowledge. In one classroom the teacher spoke Urdu and the students learned English. “I learned the grammar but not the communication skills for speaking English,” Shabnam says.
There is the moment, after seven years of relentless and often disheartening applications, when the family’s refugee status was recognised. “Once it happened, Australia offered us a visa. This was the miracle I had been waiting for. Coming to Australia was one of the biggest opportunities I could get to learn and to study.”
She enrolled with TAFE to put her strong theoretical knowledge of English to effective practical use, and once she was speaking fluently about four months later she went to the Queensland Institute of Business and Technology where she started a diploma in biomedical science. She excelled in the classroom and after two semesters was accelerated to second year of a biomedical science degree at Griffith University. She graduated at the end of 2012.
Stopped in her tracks
Now comes another moment, the moment when Kirsty Wright walked into her life. Shabnam had planned to study medicine next, and was preparing to sit the Graduate Medical Schools Admission Test when she attended a guest lecture presented by Kirsty Wright, a forensic scientist at Griffith’s School of Natural Sciences. Kirsty’s story about life as a crime scientist in a world of DNA, missing persons and disaster victim identification stopped Shabnam in her tracks.
“It made everything clear for me,” Shabnam relives this memory which leaned heavily on the army backgrounds of her father and uncle and a land she called home where all she had known was war.
Shabnam will complete her second degree this year and plans to apply to join the Queensland Police Service where she eventually hopes to pursue a career in the forensics department. She has already introduced herself to officers in the department through her participation in a university industry mentoring program. The confidence to build this professional network was fostered through her involvement with university initiatives like Griffith Mates and the Mentoring at Griffith Program.
“I only had three or four friends when I joined Griffith Mates. Now I can say I have friends from 30 to 40 countries,” Shabnam describes the group’s impact on her life. Through a range of social events, friendship ceremonies and ‘buddy’ connections Griffith Mates makes university life an inclusive, engaging, enjoyable experience for new students from all parts of the world.
Shabnam’s own Griffith Mates experience also prompted her to apply to be a Brisbane International Ambassador and to be a G20 volunteer in 2014. In April, another moment among many, she was one of 36 new ambassadors, including four from Griffith, announced by Mayor Graham Quirk.
“One of our key roles is promoting Brisbane to an international audience through social media and this year it is about giving the world a positive impression of Brisbane as the city prepares for the G20. Every one of us is a host. In many cases an ambassador’s face will be the first face someone sees when they arrive at Brisbane airport for the G20.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to represent Brisbane and Australia to the rest of the world, and to help make the G20 summit one of the best G20 summits.”
Far removed from the media spotlight in which the G20 dwells, a mudslide in provincial Afghanistan seized Shabnam’s attention last May. More than 300 homes were destroyed, and up to 14,000 lives affected. An uncertain death toll reached from 300 to 2,700.
A natural instinct to help her compatriots kicked in and Shabnam linked up with about 10 other young Afghans based at universities and schools around Brisbane to put together a fund-raising plan. In the space of 10 days they raised $8,000.
Shabnam hopes to further her work to improve life in her homeland by bringing her professional skills and qualifications back to Afghanistan in the future. “I would like to change a single girl’s life there,” she says. “I would also like to see a science department established. At the moment there are laws in Afghanistan but the laws are not effective. I hope for a time when a (legal) prosecution in Afghanistan uses evidence based on forensic science and not ethnicity or sexuality as it is now.”
Another moment to watch out for.