Helping Shepparton’s Afghan community

By Ashlea Witoslawski

Arriving in Shepparton on December 11, 2014, Abdullah Naveed, 54, was determined to start a new life for his family and also help others find a welcoming home in Australia.

Mr Naveed has committed his life to helping others, spending 14 years with the International Committee of the Red Cross in Pakistan.

During the Soviet-Afghan war, which began in 1979, Mr Naveed worked as a social worker, transporting asylum seekers to colonies or hospital over the border to Pakistan.

Mr Naveed was born to Hazaras, an ethnic group native to the region of Hazarajat in central Afghanistan. Although he made the move to Pakistan, he felt a desire to help his people.

Speaking his mother tongue of Hazaragi, the Afghani asylum seekers quickly found solace with Mr Naveed, leaning on him for medical and social support, often contacting him at home for help due to language barriers and a lack of education.

‘‘For a very long time I had a very busy life in Pakistan,’’ Mr Naveed said.

In Pakistan Mr Naveed met his wife Shakilla and they raised four children, Ali Farhad, Batool Fizza, Ali Fayyaz and Zahra Manahil.

Determined to create a better life for his family, Mr Naveed migrated to Indonesia in 2012 with the hope of reaching Australia.

‘‘When I came through Indonesia, I wanted to take a boat but I was captured, and I was taken to a detention centre and they kept me for two years.’’

Mr Naveed worked as a translator during his years in detention, due to his ability to speak six languages.

‘‘I was the only translator for Iranians, Afghans and Indians,’’ he said.

In 2014, Mr Naveed was granted an Australian visa and arrived in 2014.

‘‘It was a great deal for me. When I got to Sydney, I thanked my god, for now I am safe, my children are safe and I’ve got a home country now.’’

Mr Naveed’s family arrived in Shepparton in 2017.

‘‘When I left my home, my kids was (sic) very small and not supported,’’ he said.

‘‘I was worrying too much about them, but when I got here in Australia I had the hope that now it will be my home, I will have my children.’’

When Mr Naveed arrived in Shepparton, he made friends and worked hard to become part of the Afghan community, waiting for his family to able to join him.

Mr Naveed took time to listen to other immigrants.

‘‘I found that a lot of people, especially the single ones who lived away from their families had a lot of anxieties, depression and serious stress,’’ he said.

Mr Naveed wanted to help, but didn’t feel he had the capacity.

‘‘I was just talking to them and they would tell me about sleeplessness and panic attacks.

‘‘I would say you can exercise, and tell them one day everything will be all right, but I was seeing too many problems within the community.’’

Mr Naveed said Sheppartonwas home to about 2000 Afghan immigrants with majority arriving by boat.

He said for many, their lives over several years had been tumultuous, due to the uncertainty of their future living in Australia.

‘‘These people were very unhappy and sad and they were suffering from many kinds of problems and also because of the stigma which made them feel ashamed to tell their story or the real problem.’’

Mr Naveed said people would come to him and say they had not slept in five or six days, suffering from headaches in which he would try and work out the real route of the problem.

‘‘I have seen people taking 2 grams of Panadol a day because of pain, using self-medication because they were suffering.’’

Mr Naveed was determined to help his community and decided to study a Certificate III in Community Services.

On completion, he began a work placement at the Ethnic Council of Shepparton and District at the beginning of the year.

After about a month and a half, he was offered a job as a Project Officer, and he began working on immigrant mental health issues.

Mr Naveed said living in Shepparton for the past four years had provided him with good communication skills and a great connection to the community, enabling him to understand ‘‘what is happening inside the community, especially with the singles that are living separate from their families’’.

‘‘I was very glad to have a chance to work and help the people.’’

Mr Naveed has hosted two Immigrants Mental Health Issues information sessions, inviting men to share their feelings and hear from others, including the Imam from one of the local mosques.

He said with each session, the attendees were becoming more open and sharing with the group.

Mr Naveed shares his own personal stories at the sessions, and tries to provide them with some perspective.

‘‘Most of the time I tell them, I’ve had worst days here than you,’’ he said.

‘‘For example, many have older boys that can take care of things and now the situation of your country is very good.

‘‘Over there, there is no killing, no targeting.’’

Mr Naveed said his scariest memory of Pakistan happened when his youngest son desperately wanted a shirt he had seen on a family friend’s son.

‘‘I decided I would go to the shop and buy it for him, but I had to think a lot about how I could reach the shops because of my distinct facial features, I would be a very easy target.’’

Mr Naveed said it was not uncommon for people to be shot for simply belonging to a specific community.

‘‘Where he (the taxi driver) dropped me, the supermarket was still about 100metres away and I had to go on foot.

‘‘When I got out of the taxi I was scared and worried about someone shooting me but I finally got inside the shop.

‘‘It was the most scary day for me because you were not able to go outside and walk on the street.

‘‘When I left Pakistan I remembered that situation and everyday I would call my family when I had access to the phone and say please don’t go outside, please be inside the home.

‘‘Now I tell people this story, tell them the situation is very good over there and one day their family will be here.’’

Mr Naveed is positive that mental health outcomes can be improved for the Afghani community with more sessions.

‘‘I wish one day we will be able to cover the whole Afghan community and then move out to help other communities,’’ he said.

‘‘I feel very happy and it is just the beginning but at least I am on track.’’

Mr Naveed continues to take on similar roles as those during his Pakistan days, helping the Afghan community in Shepparton with any issues arising from language barriers such as GP visits.

‘‘I want to keep doing this because I enjoy it. I feel it is my duty, my responsibility, I owe it to my community.’’