Mariam Veiszadeh was seven when she arrived in Australia in 1991 and she didn’t speak a word of English.
Three years earlier, in 1988, when Mariam was just four, her family had fled Afghanistan, their home country, because of the Soviet War. Her mum was the principal of a prominent school and her father was a successful businessman but they were a persecuted minority so their safety became the only concern. They left everything behind.
After fleeing Kabul they went to India, the Czech Republic and Germany before they were granted asylum in Australia in 1991 under the Refugee and Special Humanitarian program.
Mariam had started in schools in both India and Germany, each time learning a completely new language, before settling in English as Second Language classes in Sydney.
That was not without challenges but reflecting back now she says the experience for her parents was much tougher.
“I was quite young so a bit oblivious but for my parents it was extremely difficult,” Veiszadeh says. “Think of your life right this second, think of everything you have done and achieved up until this point – your job, your home, your business, your education – and then imagine what would happen tomorrow if you had to drop all of that and leave it permanently and establish yourself again in another country?”
Not knowing the language compounded all of the challenges associated with migrating, as did the knowledge that they would not be going home anytime soon. Possibly ever.
“Mum got a job in a factory folding clothes which was demoralising because she had been in a respected profession and role at Kabul. I can’t imagine how difficult that would have been, just doing any odd jobs to earn money.”
An indisputable hero during the early days of their transition came in the form of a teacher called Mrs Brown.
“I remember her so fondly and so do my family,” Veiszadeh says. “She was one of the first contacts we had when we arrived in Sydney and her generosity extended beyond the classroom which is why we all remember her. She made us feel welcome.”
A massive shout out & thank you to my ESL teacher Mrs Brown from Penrith South Public School for ensuring that I didn't remain #Soilliterate
— Mariam Veiszadeh (@MariamVeiszadeh) May 18, 2016
Two years ago during a discussion about the importance of teachers on an episode of the ABC’s Q & A, Mariam sent out a tweet acknowledging the marvellous Mrs Patricia Brown.
“It’s quite a beautiful story because the son of a friend of Mrs Brown saw the tweet and got it to her and she then reached out to me,” she says. “We are now back in touch and are friends on Facebook.”
Shortly after they had arrived in Sydney Mariam’s dad returned to Afghanistan temporarily in a bid to finalise the sale of some property. During his short stay, men in a van turned up late one night, demanded money and aimed a gun at her dad. The gunman missed and ended up shooting one of her father’s relatives in the leg.
“That was a really traumatic event,” she says. “They couldn’t defend themselves and it was the realisation that it’s just not safe, even to return temporarily. There is no order.”
She says the reality of that violence and danger is what makes it unfathomable when people tell her to “go back to where you came from”.
“When horrific instances of racism occur and I’m told to go back where I came from – as I am told often – it’s very ironic because I can’t,” she says. “Privilege operates in a way that means some people will never come close to understanding the sacrifices other people make for the sake of their livelihood. How easy it is to utter those words “go back where you came from” when you have no understanding that you are effectively asking them to risk their lives.”
Mariam feels keenly a dilemma that is likely familiar to refugees like her around the world. “Even if I could go back, I wouldn’t be considered Afghan anymore but here I don’t feel entirely Australian because that is constantly being questioned,” she says.
After finishing high school Mariam had a very clear goal.
“I really wanted to study law and I had wanted to do that from a young age,” she says. “Partly it’s the migrant experience of recognising the importance of education and making the most of those opportunities but I was passionate about studying law because I associated the legal profession with social justice and being able to fight for those who couldn’t defend themselves.”
She did a combined economics and law degree that took five years, which she supported herself throughout by working.
“I was conscious that I needed to have work experience and the degree on my resume. I wanted to be able to compete with everyone else and I worked very hard to get that,” she says.
It helped her secure employment in corporate law and corporate finance, the space she has worked in for almost a decade including most recently at Westpac.
But outside her day job Mariam has been working doggedly towards making Australia more inclusive. She holds positions on the board of Our Watch and as an ambassador for both Welcome to Australia and Participate Australia.
As a Fairfax columnist, television commentator and prolific user of social media she has developed a national profile for calling out racism and sexism, which has placed her squarely in the firing line. The abuse she has faced on social media – and continues to – is truly vile in volume and substance.
— SBS News (@SBSNews) March 11, 2015
“The jury’s still out on how I manage it,” Veiszadeh says. “The irony is that it’s become a normal part of my life which is terrible to admit. I have come to terms with the fact that if I want to engage online – there is an ugly underbelly of the internet that I’ll be exposed to.”
She goes to extreme length to protect her privacy and identity but is unwilling to switch off.
“I didn’t want the end result to be that I disengage,” she says. “It’s something I have accepted as part of my journey.”
She believes her law degree has helped propel her professional work and her passion as an advocate for the Muslim community, diversity and inclusion.
“Inclusion is a principle I believe in so I’ve been conscious of it at all times but mostly the advocacy and activism I have done has always been squeezed around my day jobs,” she says.
From January next year she will join the Diversity Council of Australia as the Members and Advisory Director.
“This is what I’m passionate about and it is where I can add value so the writing was on the wall for me that I needed to find more time for it,” she says. “Moving to the DCA feels like a natural progression because I have admired their work for years. To be able to do this work as my day job feels like a blessing.”
She says the good news is that diversity and inclusion are no longer merely footnotes or afterthoughts for corporate Australia which is a significant change.
“But we have a long way to go to ensure inclusion is actually embedded in corporations.”
It’s difficult to imagine anyone as well placed to help drive that change than Mariam Veiszadeh.