My Story: Ali Zafar Mohammadi
We first met Ali Zafar Mohammadi, Executive Director of Perth Multicultural Organisation (PMO), at the 2013 Equity Practitioners in Higher Education Australasia conference held at UWA. Ali sat on a panel of expert speakers, discussing community partnerships and the importance of education. Interested to learn more, we spoke with Ali about his work with PMO and his personal journey into higher education.
NCSEHE: Please tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up? When did you come to Australia? At what age did you first go to school? What schools did you go to, and what challenges did you face (if any) while there?
Ali: I was born in the remote village of Tamqol, south of the province Ghazni and the capital – Kabul, Afghanistan. I am a member of the Hazara minority ethnic group. My people experienced persecution, ethnic cleansing and enforced slavery by the ruling regime and groups like the Taliban. In most provinces, such discrimination and systematic cleansing still exists, resulting in forced migration. Throughout my time in Afghanistan, there existed a nationwide discrimination against schooling in Hazara populated regions. Pre-revolution (2001), the literacy rate was as low as 15% (Australia: 96%). Under threat by the various regimes and extremist groups, my family made the voyage to Australia, just before the tragic events of September 11.
Arriving in Australia in the later months of 2000, I was “processed” at Darwin Immigration Detention Centre (DIDC). I was seven years old. The voyage to Australia had its challenges, but the alternative – well, let’s just say I am glad to be speaking with you today.
The day I was released from DIDC was the day I was given a second chance – to be educated, to be free of discrimination and fear. I will always remember the first day I was introduced to the system of learning and development we call “school.” At seven and a half, I remember walking into a classroom for the first time (St Joseph’s College, Albany). I had never seen so many children collectively holding a stick in their hand and what looked like they intended to scratch on a white parchment in front of them. In my short life thus far, this was my first introduction to education (pen & paper) and school. It was here I was given a pencil to write with and not a weapon to point. I was given the opportunity to write my name for the first time – without fear. I was given the right to express who I was.
Graduating primary school was a milestone and a turning point for me. In a short time, I had learned to read, write and speak English. I was fascinated and intrigued with the world around me – both the known and the unknown. We moved to Perth because I wanted to pursue higher education. I attended Clarkson Community High School, and like everyone else I faced challenges throughout high school, but my challenges were (relatively speaking) a gift. I graduated high school and was then offered the opportunity to pursue my interests in mathematics and science at the University of Western Australia.
NCSEHE: What was it about UWA that appealed to you? What are you currently studying?
Ali: I was grateful to be the first of three generations to be educated without discrimination. My motivation and aspiration to learn was not limited but rather influenced by the wider community’s generosity and understanding. At this point in my life, in early 2010, I had decided to pursue a career in Engineering. The University of Western Australia offered me my next pass to undertaking further study in the field of Mechanical Engineering with Material Engineering (major). For me, UWA was introduced as a university that gave students the right amount of principle learning and application/industry-based learning. UWA is recognised internationally as one of the top universities; the offer of a university place there was too good to refuse.
My time at UWA has been very enjoyable! I have met the first Australian astronaut, Dr Andy Thomas (on the ground – not in space of course), former Prime Minister John Howard, WA Minister for Education Hon. Peter Collier – the list goes on. All of these leaders had the aspiration, motivation and vision to improve the standard and accessibility of education on a national and international scale. They have all worked to make a difference.
I have also made a number of lifelong friends who were right beside me during lectures, workshops and examinations.
At present, I am undertaking industry-based research project on corrosion protection of subsea pipelines. I am very lucky to be supported and mentored by various academics at UWA, but particularly Winthrop Professor Yinong Liu and Professor Hong Yang, who are both leaders and innovators in their field.
NCSEHE: You are the Executive Director of Perth Multicultural Organisation. What does PMO do, and what inspired your involvement with the organisation?
Ali: As a former refugee and now a citizen of this great nation, I know the influence of education first hand. My time in the community and school has given me further insight into understanding and reluctantly accepting the often unacknowledged gap between CaLD students (Culturally and Linguistically Diverse communities) and those not sharing this background. Unfortunately, it is my understanding that there is little or no action taken in bridging this gap. The differential gap between the ability of CaLD students to access higher education compared to their peers of similar ability is a real issue for equity in higher education, even if it has yet to be seriously addressed by peak bodies. I think this is because we have no real way of knowing the aspirations of CaLD students and if these are being met by the present system. The above view drives the installation of Perth Multicultural Organisation and its many programs; to remove the limits and barriers that otherwise resist the development and engagement of CaLD communities. PMO is now a developing organisation that is working on both the macro and micro level, to increase higher education (HE) participation within the developing CaLD communities. Our view is that we can make a greater impact in increasing HE participation by working with marginalised and disadvantaged CaLD communities.
One key program that is growing in demand and is now re-located to a more central region (the City of Stirling) is the Pen & Paper Program (P&PP). The P&PP encompasses various other programs, such as the Pen & Paper Tutoring Program for secondary school students and the Pen & Paper ESL Program for refugees and asylum seekers who are on bridging visas. These and many other programs have been successful in the micro scale at present and are growing in demand as the programs address the challenges, inequities and disadvantages that many CaLD students and refugees face.
There are two sides to motivation: personal and developmental. The personal side to motivation is to perform to the best of your ability today – to prevent feeling regret in the future. The developmental side to motivation is brought about by the environment in which you practice your skills and knowledge. I guess the inspiration and motivation for me to have learnt so much thus far and to establish PMO – through which I and many others could make a difference – all started when I first walked out of DIDC and into that classroom in Albany. You all then called it pen and paper; I called it stick and paper. With accessibility, opportunity and freedom, the stick transformed into pen and now to “mouse and keyboard.” Can you guess what the paper became? I’ll give you a hint – it’s glaring into your face.
NCSEHE: We first met you at last year’s EPHEA conference, held at UWA. You were part of a partnerships panel discussing barriers to higher education. What do you think are the most significant barriers facing prospective tertiary students today?
Ali: The EPHEA conference was a great experience for me because I got the opportunity to hear the universities‘ views to equity and diversity in higher education through their respective transition and access programs.
In many cases, CaLD students face the challenge of low literacy levels compared to the national average in addition to the environmental, historical, cultural and social factors that limit their access to HE. In most cases, CaLD and refugee students face an additional challenge – low intra-CaLD group literacy, relative to the national average. An example is the Afghan people who have resided in Australia post 1999. The driving force is for these students to pursue HE and the support provided by their parents is much more if not equal to the norm. The difference here is the level of experience and support from parents and carers within the CaLD community and the lack of the provision of CaLD-specific HE information.
Tertiary engagement programs that focus on communities and schools are not effective enough to deal with the various factors that limit CaLD students‘ access to higher education. As a result, specialised service providers like PMO have tapped into this area of widening intra-CaLD community participation in HE.
NCSEHE: What do you think are the possible solutions to these barriers?
Ali: Given the success thus far, I would love to say that the solution to barriers to HE is PMO-based programs, but I believe the effectiveness is far greater if it is done collectively, with the tertiary institutions, schools and CaLD communities. Of course, no one process can be devised to work for all CaLD communities, but rather specialised engagement programs must be put to action, in line with the socioeconomic status, historical and cultural aspects of the CaLD communities.
For those CaLD communities with higher literacy rate in languages other than English, a recommendation would be to improve the accessibility of information provided to CaLD parents, families, refugees and to the general community.
Transition and access programs offered by universities can and do make a huge impact in recognising and improving higher education participation and success, especially if research is put into practice. As an ambassador to Fairway UWA for the past 3 years now, I have seen first-hand how successful this can be.
Improving equity understanding, research development and determining target–specific HE practice is, in my view, both the catalyst and keystone to a better local community, state and nation. NCSEHE is at the forefront of improving educational opportunity in higher education in Australia.
NCSEHE: What’s next for you? What are your ambitions for your post-study and research life?
Ali: My curiosity into the known and unknown of innovation and education seems never-ending – I guess that means further research. A life of research in and of itself is not my ambition, though, but rather to engage in the application of such. I hope to one day return to Afghanistan and do my part in (re)building its ever outdated infrastructure (education, resource, health care…).