As a young girl in Afghanistan, Zimra Hussain would watch the boys playing soccer and wish that she could get out there and amongst it.
But cultural protocols dictated that she could only watch from the sidelines; with those same protocols having dashed the dreams of her mother Sakina, who harboured ambitions of becoming an international footballer.
Zimra and her mother are Hazaras, a Persian speaking ethnic group from the mountainous region Afghanistan’s central highlands. The Hazaras are widely thought to be the countries most oppresed ethnic group, having suffered persecution since the late 1800’s.
Having fled the genocide of her people at the hands of the Taliban, Sakina took her two daughters to Pakistan in the hopes of finding safety. But Pakistan was no safe place for the single mother and her daughters.
“It was the same for the Hazara people in Pakistan – every day we were facing genocide in Pakistan. It was really dangerous for my daughters and myself to live there as we didn’t have those rights to live freely.
“I used to live like a security guard in taking care of my kids, it wasn’t a normal life. Our tribe was targeted, and if people were identified as Hazara they were at risk of being shot or worse.”
“When we landed in Australia, I stepped out of the plane and I felt like I could breathe again. I found the meaning of life here, my kids are safe now – life is valuable here.”
One of the first things the family had to adjust to in their new life in Australia was the role women played in society and the realisation that women could purse their ambitions and dreams. So it was no surprise that Zimra quickly found her way onto a football field, only this time it wasn’t a soccer field, it was an AFL field.
Zimra quickly found a passion for AFL footy through a program set up by her local pastor Ross Savill. It was here that she was dubbed the ‘Afghani Axe’, as she and dozens of other refugee children used footy as a vehicle to connect with the community.
“It was just so good finding that freedom, and knowing that I could pursue my dreams. In my first game I was just in my jeans and had no idea what I was doing but I fell in love with it.
“Everyone just gets around you and they don’t care what the colour of your skin is – everyone’s equal on the footy field.”
The fifteen year old mid-fielder has moved through the representative pathways and is now being touted as a future star of the AFLW. She’s already been encouraged and supported by some of the countries top female footballers.
“Having that contact, and being helped as a junior footballer will only help me even more when I get to their level.”
Connecting Through Sport
Christine Castley is the CEO of Multicultural Australia and said that involvement in a local sporting club provides new migrants and refugees the perfect way to connect with their new community.
“The initiative is targeting refugees, migrants, international students and women and the way it works is that we provide a four week training program in the sport that they might be interested in. We have currently signed up 27 sporting clubs who want to build their cultural capabilities so they can provide the most welcoming environment possible for new families. The program is available to all ages – it’s not just for kids.”
Currently the sports on offer in the Connecting Through Sport program are Football (Soccer), Australian Rules Football (AFL), Netball and Tennis, with more sports to be added in the future.
The Connecting Through Sports program is really about building bridges in the community, a sentiment that is echoed by Sakina.
“When Zimra started playing footy it really helped us and I found the community really supportive in every way. People in the footy club would help kids with homework and their studies and those people were such a blessing.”
And how does Sakina feel when she sees Zimra running out onto the footy field?
“It was a big deal for me to let my daughter play because when she started it was with boys, it’s a rough game and I thought she would be hurt. When she started tackling those big boys, and their parents would ask Zimi not to tackle their boys so hard I knew she could do it.
“She’s really sporty and she’s really good at footy – she can make my dreams come true.”