Initiatives of Change Article | The Afghan Australian Initiative | Promoting Peace Education and Social Cohesion

Some of the participants at the 27 February women’s workshop on “a positive response to negativity.”

Some of the participants at the 27 February women’s workshop on “a positive response to negativity.”

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Afghan refugee Nazer Nazir had been in Australia for less than a year when a friend from IofC, Rob Wood, invited him to a Life Matters workshop in Melbourne. One thought that stayed with him, from that weekend, was a quote from one of the speakers. “Each wave is born and dies, but the ocean itself never dies,” said Nazer, recalling that day. “He meant that humanity is like an ocean and we are here to play our part.”

Nazer, 36, had worked for five years as assistant to three successive Australian ambassadors in Kabul, Afghanistan. While familiar with some aspects of Australian culture, his move to the outer suburb of Dandenong in Victoria in 2014 brought him face-to-face with a deeply individualistic society. “Everyone is busy on their iPhone, while newcomers may become isolated, and may lack the courage to talk with others,” he observed. On the other hand, he found that government representatives and officials “are all interested to make the community a better place for everyone.”

The Life Matters course, which aims to help individuals develop the skills and character strengths to contribute to positive change in the world, challenged Nazer to take forward an idea he had pondered for some time. “I thought, if I don’t do it today, then when?”

With three friends, he launched the Afghan Australian Initiative (AAI), a community-based effort that seeks to create common ground among the many communities in Victoria. Within weeks, they were meeting with their local MPs and council, and sketching out plans.

Afghans in Australia are largely from three main ethnicities – Hazara, Tajik and Pashtun. The AAI’s community work sought to engage with as many people from these groups as possible. Nazer and his friends hoped that their approach would help to counter the risks of isolation and negativity – difficulties that in some countries have created a fertile breeding ground for the radicalization of Islamic youth.

While the AAI was taking shape, Margaret Hepworth, a secondary school teacher of 30 years, was beginning to organize student conferences in peace building skills in Melbourne. She met Nazer at an IofC monthly meeting, and he invited her to speak at the launch of the AAI.  “After that, we came up with the thought, let’s do some work together,” she said. Together, they decided to run a conference with a specific focus on Afghan youth.

Margaret’s peace building work – “The Gandhi Experiment” – leads students from exploring global issues to understanding themselves, anger management and forgiveness. “It takes them to a place where they’re ready to step up and articulate their personal vision for a better future,” she said. “In a nutshell, the approach is to recognize that, ‘Change begins with me.’”

This approach, she noted, was not foreign to Nazer, whose own father had been assassinated in Afghanistan. She commented, “How does a man who has gone through this, make the choice to do peace building, instead of taking revenge? You find yourself in conflict situations all your life and in every situation you have a choice as to how to respond.”

Of his own experience, Nazer added, “There are people like those in ISIS, and there are people like me. I chose Australia to be my home. Through the AAI, we are working for mutual respect and dignity for all.”

Initially, AAI and The Gandhi Experiment had planned for the conference to focus on bringing together Afghan youth to mix with others from high schools in the Dandenong area. “In taking these conferences to schools, sometimes it’s about the one teacher who says ‘yes’,” said Margaret. This time around, that teacher came from Scotch College, Hawthorn, whose students were studying conflict zones as part of their humanities curriculum. Afghanistan was one of those zones.

“From this point, it all came together,” Margaret recalled. The Southern Migrant and Refugee Centre in Dandenong provided a room for free, and more than 60 students attended, from diverse educational institutions. They included young people from Scotch College – whose alumni have received more Order of Australia honours than any other school – alongside those from schools including Doveton College, Narre Warren P-12 and Minaret College, a high school for Muslim students incorporating Islamic studies with the Australian education system.

In a series of exercises, the students moved through role plays, “provocations” and discussions. One student’s speech about the root causes of war met with loud applause from all. At the end of the workshop, a participating teacher commented, “It was fantastic to hear from another educator…regarding the future of our children and especially my role as their mentor. My students and I spent Thursday sharing our experience with those who did not get to attend.”

Reflecting on the conference, Nazer said, “Radicalization can be caused by many factors. When people lose hope, when they feel useless, when they have lost a part of their lives, they can turn against society, even against their own father and mother.” To counter this, the conference placed a strong emphasis on teaching positivity and belonging. Additionally - putting thoughts into action – three men in their 20s, who had completed the IofC Life Matters workshop with Nazer, came along to provide additional support at the conference.

Besides the student conference, the AAI has organized workshops for others in the community, with 20 to 25 participants attending each time: one for Afghan women on how to respond to negative behavior from others, another for civil society activists, and a third, conducted in the Dari language, for elders in the Afghan community. The workshops addressed communication and cultural issues, and provide opportunities for meaningful conversations.

 “I have worked with teenagers all my adult life: I’ve seen them be the most altruistic people on earth, and I’ve seen the opposite,” said Margaret. “As a teacher, I know I have the skill set to shift kids from apathy to action.”

“It’s pleasant and wonderful to live in a multicultural society,” said Nazer. “Given that the Afghan community is very new, we need to do some work to bring people together – to talk to each other and go out of our comfort zones, rather than staying in our own small circles.” In his day job at the City of Casey as a community worker with the Afghan community, he noted there are still some language barriers. “Some people are not able to communicate in the market, or while out shopping,” he said. “But when they’re together in the room with someone, they feel more relaxed, there’s someone there they want to talk to, they’re trying to learn something from each other.” By creating the opportunities for people to get together in the same room, he hopes the AAI will help bridge the “culture gap” and promote social cohesion.

Others in IofC have walked alongside Nazer, playing informal support and mentoring roles. When AAI sought a meeting with Greens MP Janet Rice, Rob Wood, who now serves as an advisor to AAI, accompanied the group. Others supported the workshop with Afghan women in February 2016, including community worker Pari Sanyü, who welcomed the conversations about what we can do in our families and communities to address radicalization. Also attending were State Member for Dandenong Gabrielle Williams, and senior community engagement officer Yvette Shaw from the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services. At the end of the meeting, Shaw pledged to take the feedback from the Afghan community back to the department, noting that, “It’s important that we work together with the community.”

– Delia Paul

  • The Gandhi Experiment is a social enterprise, and relies on gifts and conference registrations to cover costs and generate a modest income for facilitators. The AAI is a community organization depends on grants and volunteers; see more about the organization on the AAI Facebook page.

  • You can contribute to the student peace conferences through

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