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Long road back to school


The Bakhtiari family made headlines around the world in 2004 when they were deported in the early hours of the morning by Australian immigration officials after fleeing Afghanistan four years earlier. Two decades later, one of the Bakhtiari children, Nagina Zahra, is back living in Adelaide and recently began teaching at the school she attended while the family was under the care of Centacare Catholic Family Services. In an exclusive interview with KATIE SPAIN, Nagina recalls those traumatic times and her journey back to St Aloysius College where she is now helping students settle into their new home.

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Nagina and her sisters pictured at St Aloysius College in 2004.

Nagina Zahra will never forget the moment she donned her St Aloysius College school uniform for the first time. It was 2004 and as a newly arrived asylum seeker from Afghanistan, everything felt alien.

Clipping from The Southern Cross, February 2005.

“For most children, wearing a school uniform is like wearing any other clothes but for a child who has never experienced that, the opportunity to wear a school uniform was overwhelming,” Nagina said. “As much as I was happy, I also didn’t know how to react to my emotions at the time. Wearing my uniform, grabbing my school bag, sitting in a car, and being dropped at school…everything was so new.”

Nagina was 12 at the time. Her younger sisters Samina and Amina also attended the all-girls college and her brothers were at St Ignatius’ College. The family lived under the care of welfare agency Centacare Catholic Family Services and the children were placed under the guardianship of its former director Dale West by the Family Court.

They didn’t know it then, but by the end of the year, the family of nine, including parents Ali and Roqia Bakhtiari, would be moved from their home into detention and deported to Pakistan by immigration officials.

Their highly publicised ordeal and four-year attempt to find asylum in Australia made headlines across the world.

Two decades later, Nagina is back in Australia and employed at St Aloysius College in Adelaide’s CBD where she teaches Year 11 English as an Additional Language/Dialect and Year 7 English. She also helps new arrivals from faraway lands settle into their new school surroundings. Like Year 7 student Zuhal who recently arrived from Afghanistan and like Nagina, started at St Aloysius four months ago.

Nagina teaches with the kind of empathy lived experience brings.

“No educational institution can teach you a lived experience,” Nagina said.

“It provides an understanding of how a student’s mind works and the things they’re going through.”

After returning to Afghanistan via Pakistan, village life was challenging.

“I never imagined that I would come back to Australia, let alone be a teacher here,” Nagina said. “When we first arrived in Australia, we were identified as a number. I still remember my number. Even now, that still happens to refugees. It’s triggering and it’s traumatising. How can we treat people like that?”

Being removed broke her family mentally, emotionally and physically.

“It stays with you for the rest of your life but those journeys and those turning points make you who you are,” she said. “It was one of the hardest times of my life, but it made me the resilient person I am today.”

Nagina couldn’t have done it without the support of loved ones. “Dad was my biggest supporter and aways believed in me and Mum is one of the strongest, most independent and resilient women I’ve ever known. I also relied on my brothers, my sisters, and most importantly my husband.”

Nagina met Muzafar in Afghanistan where he worked as a political analyst with the United Nations.

“He had to travel into small villages in remote areas,” Nagina said.

“He knew Dad through work and noticed me collecting water from a well when he visited our area.”

The pair married in Pakistan then were forced to move to Indonesia after Muzafar received threats due to the nature of his role.

“He is one of the biggest activists I know,” Nagina said.

“He is a walking angel on this earth. He’s such a beautiful soul. If he can help someone, he’ll do it.”

Nagina’s love of teaching blossomed in Indonesia where she and Australian friends founded Cisarua Refugee Learning Centre in 2014 and started the first female soccer team in the country.

“We started the learning centre for refugee kids in our neighbourhood who didn’t have anything else to do other than just sleeping all day and wandering around,” she said. “Teaching them made me realise you don’t necessarily always have to have a university degree to contribute to a community. You don’t need qualifications or certificates, so long as you have passion and commitment.”

In the classroom, she channeled lessons learnt during her short time as a student at St Aloysius.

“I went back to those memories of how I learned, what my teachers did, how I interacted with the students and the events we participated in; school carnival, swimming, and sports days.”

She also drew upon valuable lessons passed on by her father. “When we went back to Afghanistan, my dad home schooled us. He taught us how to read the Quran. I was so frustrated at the time, thinking, ‘What is that going to do for us?’ We didn’t realise it at the time, but he was teaching us about phonics and how to write. He taught us how to learn.”

When the couple moved to Australia in 2015, Nagina experienced a flurry of emotions. They were triggered by the little things; the smell of “Australia” as she left the airport, walking down Wakefield Street where she and her siblings were once dropped off at school, and spotting the hospital where their mother birthed her sixth child, Mazhar.

“As much as I wanted to come back to Australia, I felt sad that I had to come by myself and not with my family,” Nagina said. “I was at a point in my life where all my feelings were numb. I didn’t know whether I should smile, cry or be happy. I needed to find ways to make the most out of this second opportunity to live in Australia.”

A preparatory program at the University of Adelaide followed.

“On my first day of university I was so excited,” she said.

“I couldn’t wait to get home and call my dad. He’d been so happy and proud. He kept telling his friends his daughter was going to start her university studies.”

Nagina never got to make that phone call.

“I had just finished lunch when my brother called to tell me Dad had passed away suddenly in Afghanistan. I didn’t believe it; I’d spoken to him just the day before.”

Nagina was heartbroken.

“I looked up to my father. That year was the hardest year of my life. At least when we were sent back to Afghanistan, we were together and faced everything as a family.

“Without them, I don’t think I’d be sitting here and having this conversation. I’d be somewhere in a dark room feeling depressed about the things we had to go through.”

Today, Nagina’s mother lives in Pakistan and some of her siblings live in Melbourne.

She and Muzafar are the proud parents of two daughters, aged 13 and five.

“I’m grateful for having two beautiful children who I’m learning so much from, especially my oldest daughter who has hearing loss,” she said.

“She has connected me to a world I never imagined. A world beyond Australia and Hazara. She connected me to a small, beautiful deaf community that I love.”

There’s not a day when Nagina doesn’t pinch herself, especially when guiding students like 13-year-old Zuhal and her four younger sisters through their first few months of school.

“I am learning English here so speaking with new friends is hard,” Zuhal said.

“People here are kind and good and there are many beautiful things, but I miss my grandparents in Afghanistan a lot.”

Zuhal has big dreams for her future.

“My favourite subject is Maths and I want to be a doctor when I grow up,” she said.

“When I’m a doctor I want to go back to my country to help my people. They need a lot of help.”

Nagina will do her utmost to help make that happen.

“I know how hard it can be, especially for newly arrived migrants,’ she said.

“I always tell them about the word ‘perseverance’. It’s not your destination, it’s the journey and the process that matters and each day is a learning process.

“I am so lucky to be back at this school. I love what I’m doing, and I don’t think I would fit into any other profession. Teaching was meant to be.”

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