Johnson Partners Diversity Series – Zahra

Zahra is The Under 25 Rising Star winner of the 2021 40 Under 40 Under 40: Most Influential Asian-Australian Awards – a new category introduced to the award program in response to an abundance of submissions from high achievers under the age of 25.

Yet to graduate from university in Western Australia, Zahra is already an international advocate for gender equality, refugee rights and youth leadership within politics. As a first generation Muslim Australian of Palestinian-Iraqi heritage, she has worked within international policy, contributing to multiple United Nations reports including the Global Youth Manifesto and the Beijing+25 Youth Report, amongst others. Harnessing numerous platforms to communicate her ideals and enforce change, she is also a writer and poet (with work published by organisations including SBS Australia, Al Jazeera International and Gucci America). Speaking to Johnson Partners (JP), Zahra discussed her short and long-term agenda, revealing her ‘realistic idealistic’ goals.


JP Whilst currently completing a double law and journalism degree at Murdoch University in Perth, you have been remarkably pro-active instigating changes in policy making (both locally and globally). Given that you are passionate about empowering refugees, migrants and asylum seekers – specifically females and those identifying as non-binary – what key policies you wish to improve/change?


It is fundamental to highlight the discrepancies in opportunities afforded to young people from diverse and intersectional backgrounds. These opportunities are often the golden key to igniting careers that aren’t necessarily imposed upon certain communities such as media or government. As a key policy, I would like to adopt necessary long-term training that provides young people with the skills and support to influence the trajectory of young people recognising the power and validity of their voices. I think it is especially important to highlight that resources including financial support are absolutely essential to achieve this goal.


JP You prefer to not be referred to as a ‘youth ambassador,’ once saying, “I hope that by working together with a team I can show young people that we don’t need these big and fancy words to verify that we are leaders within the wider society. Leadership isn’t the position you hold, instead it is what actions you take.” Do you see yourself working within a governmental position, as a solo professional entity advising governmental and private enterprise groups, or in a uniquely hybrid role that straddles both once your studies are completed?


The current trajectory of leadership is already transforming into a concept that is inclusive and representative of every constituent. I think Gen Z plays a major role in navigating this transformation. However, my individual role in amplifying diverse voices is to create avenues for young people to feel safe and heard. This is the first viral step. As I grow older, I hope to continue my line of work to up-skill young people to realise their potential and to speak of themselves. We cannot speak on top of each other, but rather, must make sure that we are providing opportunities that amplify the voiceless. As for where I see myself post-degree, I’d love to work in public policy and take on my own side-profession to achieve my goals.

JP You believe it is imperative for young people across all intersectional diversities to be actively involved in state and national decision-making processes, and worked with MYAN Australia and Australian politicians to deliver a conference in Melbourne last December to further train 60 young leaders from migrant and refugee backgrounds. In 2021, you also delivered the inaugural Christmas Island Youth Leadership Summit alongside the Christmas Island Islamic Council, training over 100 young leaders on the island with skills and frameworks to execute tangible changes within their community. As a result, the summit established the first Christmas Island Youth Association and the Christmas Island Youth Policy Paper was delivered to the Western Australia government to ensure more funding and opportunities are provided to young Australian’s living on Christmas Island. Will you pursue similar initiatives in other remote communities across Australia to help ensure young, diverse voices constructively contribute to local decision-making?


Absolutely! The second Christmas Island Youth Summit is currently in the works. I hope to also venture out to rural Australia and Cocos Island. Unfortunately, the lack of opportunities and especially resources provided are almost close to nil. One of my goals is to leave towns and cities with long-term goals and resources to continue their work, beyond my training and support. I’d also like to establish one-on-one mentorship with the young people across these cities to continue the momentum. When working with young people, it is vital to recognise that short-term solutions do not lead to long term change.


“ I think it’s super important to create safe spaces for communities to come together and to simply talk. Dialogue will change the world. Our stories will change the world. ”

JP Currently the global youth representative on the UN Women Generation Equality Core Group, you liaised with the Department of Foreign Affairs in France and Mexico last year to deliver the Generation Equality Forum. In this role you worked with member states, civil society organisations and the private sector, pushing the necessity for their respective practices to achieve gender equality within the next five years. What were the key positive outcomes from the forum?


Following the culmination of the Paris Generation Equality Forum, we were able to pledge a total of $4.1 billion dollars towards achieving gender equality in the next 5 years. This is a major win for every sector as it illustrates how we can all collectively do our part to achieve our mission. With no country in the world reaching gender equality, it’s a step closer towards achieving gender equality – even if in just one country.


JP You also currently represent Australia on the UN Women Youth Task force and sit on the YWCA Australia Young Women’s Council. How do you manage to juggle all these responsibilities with studies and what advice do you have for students with equally pro-active ambitions who are constrained by academic commitments?


My first rule is to put your studies first. I often reflect upon my parents’ sacrifices, having to move to a new country and give up everything for their safety – including their education. This motivates me to continue prioritising mine. My degree isn’t just for me, but for the entire community. However, in terms of juggling multiple different responsibilities, just remember that you can only stretch yourself so thin. I am big on putting effort in a cause and organisation that resonates with me. Your time is an investment into changing the world. It’s okay to take breaks and to look after yourself, however, I’d look at what really speaks to you, and where you really want to create change.


JP With parents both refugees and migrants from Palestine and Iraq, you have witnessed the disempowering side effects of diaspora. In the case of Australia and its growing Asian minority, adaptation and cultural integration has been alarmingly slow. You have developed the National Youth Settlement Framework that provides organisations a settlement guideline based upon the marginalised experiences of migrants and refugees. What changes do you believe are essential to successfully integrate migrants and refugees within society and how would you implement this change if given the funding/resources to do so?


There is no rule book when integrating the diaspora into the community. This is a major misconception that unfortunately provides the opposite response. The glamorisation of ‘creating harmony’ in a community that is facing challenges of trauma, PTSD and exclusion due to the challenges of migration and seeking asylum must be addressed. Community work is vital towards creating change, however, healing comes first. We must heal within our own communities and this can solely be done by removing the barricades of stigma that limit our dialogue. We simply cannot integrate the diaspora if they are still battling the challenges that their home brought them. I think it’s super important to create safe spaces for communities to come together and to simply talk. Dialogue will change the world. Our stories will change the world.


JP Focusing on the Afghan refugee crisis, Australia’s humanitarian policy regarding the acceptance of refugees in the country fares poorly in comparison to countries like Canada, for example. Many here have been granted temporary visas, but not permanent protection (and residency). How confident are you that Australia will review its permanent residency policies more favourably over the coming years given the growing number of global refugees?


Unfortunately, I think we still have a long way to go towards growing the intake of refugees, and more specifically, granting permanent residency. We inherently live within a country that was built on the imperialism and colonisation of our First Nation’s people. Sovereignty was never ceded. If our First Nation’s people cannot seek the justice that they must be afforded, we cannot speak of justice for migrants and refugees. It is simply, yet tragically, not in arms reach. With COVID-19 and the Afghanistan crisis surging the number of refugees, there has been limited compassion in granting protection. The current government continues to silence the cries and pleas of the most vulnerable voices. Unfortunately, these attitudes will continue to manifest, beyond a global crisis.


JP Ten years from now, where do you see yourself based and what do you envisage to be the key hurdles you will be actively addressing and seeking to change?


Beyond my growth as a human being, I see myself continually transforming the lives of diverse people. I hope to have the necessary skills and resources to continue my mission of up-skilling young people so that they realise they can continue to change the world. In ten-years, I hope to see inclusivity of diversity at the core of every sector. I don’t doubt that discrimination and racism will continue. However, I believe we will have the strength to call it out. Further, I hope to pursue a career in peace and security, working with government entities to explore solutions that address the difficulties that grassroots communities are facing. As a Palestinian, I’d love to go back to my roots and work with community to mitigate the adverse challenges that they are facing. On a more personal note, I’d love to be traveling the world and swimming in the depths of the ocean.


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