Shepparton’s Aleena Qazikhil knows all about the strength of women.
As a child, she saw it in her mother who single-handedly raised Aleena and her five siblings in Afghanistan while Aleena’s father was trapped in a detention centre.
She ignited that same strength in herself when she arrived in Australia at 16 and grappled with strange new customs and a foreign tongue.
“My greatest advice to other women is be strong, and support other women,” she said. “And know that if you have any problems, you can tell other women. “Don’t hide away by yourself.”
Born in Afghanistan, Aleena was just six when her father, a soldier in the army, fled the country for his own safety. For the next decade, he lived in a detention centre in Jakarta, fighting to carve a path for his family to make a new home in Australia. Left behind in Afghanistan with their six children, Aleena’s mother worked tirelessly as a teacher to supply food, clothes and shelter for the family.
“She brought in less than $400 per month and had to support us with that,” Aleena said. “It was hard on her, but she had to be strong.” Now a mother to two children, Kyhan, 3, and Haina, 2, Aleena is only beginning to realise how tough those years must have been for her mum.
“We were kids back then, so we didn’t understand,” she said. At last, in 2009, the family was reunited when Aleena’s father sponsored them to join him in Australia. “We hadn’t seen him for 10 years. He wasn’t really good, he had diabetes and depression, a lot of things,” Aleena said. “So we just decided to forget everything else and spend good time with him.”
After living a year in Lilydale, the family moved to Shepparton. Only speaking a few words of English when she arrived in Australia, Aleena threw herself into study and, in 2012, graduated from Shepparton High School. From there, she completed a Diploma of Business Management at Goulburn Ovens Institute of TAFE in Shepparton and, in 2014, started her dream job as a project officer at the Ethnic Council of Shepparton.
“I’ve never really encountered challenges as a woman in pursuing my dreams,” she said. “I had my mum and my dad supporting me and I have my husband Dawood encouraging me now.” Her current project is the Friendship Cafe, a monthly gathering that aims to provide a safe space for culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) young women to connect.
While sessions ran over Zoom last year during lockdown, they’re back to face-to-face. “Because of COVID-19, there has been the added pressure of kids, school and money and increased risk of family violence,” Aleena said. “So we want to spend a bit of time with the ladies and take them somewhere, so they can get out of the house.”
Aleena’s main aim is to help women in the community who are isolated. “So many of these women have small kids, they’re cooking from first thing in the morning to late at night, they aren’t studying at TAFE at all, and most of them don’t drive,” she said. “In addition to that, they’re dealing with the challenges of being in a new country, including the language barrier.”
In addition to building connections, Aleena hopes to help women learn to drive and attain citizenship. “It’s hard for women to do their citizenship tests when they can’t drive, so we decided to run a citizenship class during the school holidays,” she said. “We want to support women with driving tests as well, but we’re currently waiting to apply for funding for that.”
While Aleena admitted it was tough leaving the only home she had ever known, she was grateful for the life she and her family enjoyed in Australia today. “Life here is very easy for us,” she said. “I hope my kids can achieve higher education and work. “I’m working really hard to raise them well.”
Above all, Aleena hopes to guide and support other CALD women to achieve their dreams. “Being a mother makes me so aware of what my own mother went through,” she said. “Being a woman should do the same – we need to understand and support other women. “Women, you need to see yourself as strong, because you can achieve.”