Shahira Mohseni knows about overcoming obstacles. As a young girl growing up in Kabul, the Taliban told her she was not allowed to go to school.
She secretly pored over books and would graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in Literature from Kabul University.
When she helped other young girls become literate, she was threatened with death. Shahira fled Afghanistan and found new freedoms, first in Dubai and now in Australia.
Seeing the obstacles other female refugees face upon arrival in Australia, Shahira is again drawing on her experience, teaching them how to get a foothold in their new life.
“Education has always been very important for me,’’ she says. “My parents always taught and showed me that it's through education that we can get women to be in power and to change, to make a difference in the society.”
I first met Shahira at ANZ’s Sydney headquarters in Pitt Street, not far from the Martin Place branch where she works as a banking consultant. She came to ANZ as a part of the Given the Chance Program but found a full-time job at the bank after 10 months.
Shahira is one of the incredible people to complete the program ANZ has jointly run with the Brotherhood of St Laurence for 15 years. It offers six-to-12-month traineeships across various divisions of the bank and last year a record 55 participants went through the program.
Given the Chance aims to overcome the obstacles talented refugees and asylum seekers face in finding a fulfilling foothold in the Australian workforce.
Both of Shahira’s parents were bankers and served as her inspiration. She is following their footsteps and hopes to share her knowledge and even set up an ANZ branch in Afghanistan.
Listening to Shahira reminds me of the persistence and courage some are asked to find due to their circumstances. But it also reminds of the contribution refuges make to the broader community. Shahira’s appreciation of education comes from first-hand experience of being denied it. And seeing the terrible toll that took on her community.
“I was born during the Mujahideen and during the Taliban regime, that education was forbidden, and women and girls didn't have any rights or freedom. We weren't allowed to go to a school, university or even to work outside of the house.”
“Women had to wear a burqa, which unfortunately is the same situation right now for women. I was very fortunate that I had literate parents, they taught me how to read and write. So, I was learning from my parents at home.”
“After the fall of the Taliban regime, I went to school, finished my school and went into Kabul University, which is the biggest university in Afghanistan. And I did my bachelor's in literature.”
“It's been my passion all my life to help those women and girls that they never had the opportunity to have education. I started as a volunteer in an organisation called Afghanistan Youth House to help those women, those little boys and girls.”
It was after receiving death threats that she left Afghanistan.
After living for a time in Dubai, she arrived in Australia in 2019 as a student to finish her master's degree at the University of Wollongong, where she graduated with distinction.
She says a whole new world of language and bureaucratic barriers can prevent a refugee flourishing in their new life in Australia.
“Immigration here (can be) a little bit difficult … there was not a lot of opportunities for me. For example, when I wanted to apply for ANZ directly, I didn't have that opportunity because I was an asylum seeker.”
“I was very lucky because I knew how to read and write in English. But for most of the immigrants, especially women, when they come from a different country, it's very challenging for them starting from language barriers to cultural shock to get to used to all this stuff. It takes a long lifetime.”
During her time in Wollongong, Shahira joined SCARF, a community organisation which helps refugees assimilate into Australian life. It also educates mainstream Australia on the challenges faced by refugees and asylum seekers, particularly women.
Her work was recently recognised in 2022 with the Rotary New South Wales’ Young Inspirational Women’s Award. She was one of four nominated for the Young Inspirational Women’s category and not only won that award but was declared Rotary NSW’s overall winner on the evening.
“I have more to do. If all women stand up for each other and work together … We will be able to change even one girl's or one woman's life,” she says. “It means together we can change your life and you will be able to achieve anything.”
Aside from her professional and humanitarian goals Shahira is also finding some time to recapture some of the fun she was restricted from having under the Taliban.
“I've got like a bucket list of things I have to do in Australia,” she says
At the top of the list is to learn how to ride a bike and swim – activities she was forbidden from during her childhood in Kabul.
Richard Yetsenga is Chief Economist at ANZ.