Monday P1: Refugee voices

Over recent years, the public discourse concerning refugees in Australia has all too often been distorted into rhetoric of fear and misinformation. Somewhat ironically, the March 2019 Christchurch right-wing terror attack on mosques, has served to further ignite the whole debate about the place of refugees in our society. This panel is seeking to redress this imbalance by exploring ways in which the refugee experience can best be given a positive and powerful voice with which to reach the ears of mainstream Australians. It recognises that stereotypes and generalisations fail to capture the reality of such experience. Moreover, it acknowledges that, as English educators, we are only too well aware of the power and lasting impact of storytelling as a mechanism of bringing such experiences, so different from so many, into sharper focus. Interestingly, some firsthand accounts of such refugee experience, in print form have been included in mainstream Victorian senior VCE English curriculum, including First, They Killed My Father (Loung Ung) and The Rug Maker of Mazar-e-Sharif (Najaf Mazari/ Robert Hillman).

The three speakers seek to explore the power, possibilities and impact of such storytelling about the refugee experience in modern Australia. They include a refugee who has written of her story and worked in different locales promoting the rights of other refugees and asylum seekers, a senior lawyer with the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Humans Rights’ Commission, who perceives storytelling as a means of promoting social change and an experienced English teacher who has supported and worked firsthand with refugees since the 1980s in Melbourne schools.      


Ross Huggard

Ross Huggard has been a secondary English and Literature teacher for over 40 years, and an active member of VATE throughout this time. For most of the last 30 years, he has led the Senior School in different Victorian government schools, with a strong focus on supporting Year 11 and 12 students from different ethnic backgrounds. Over that time, he has sought to support refugees from East Timor, Vietnam, Cambodia, Serbia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan and Kenya. He has seen first-hand the power of education to overcome adversity and storytelling to aid the healing process.        



Shabnam Safa

Shabnam Safa grew up as an Afghan refugee in Pakistan before she called Australia home at the age of 15. Since then she has persistently worked to positively shift the way our communities see and talk about a young, former refugee, woman of colour. She is passionate about empowering and motivating young women to realise their potential, follow their aspirations and keep challenging traditional stereotypes and the status quo.

Having worked in Australia, India, and Europe to promote education and global citizenship, she has co-founded two not for profit organisations helping refugees and asylum seekers with their settlement in Australia and abroad. Shabnam has previously represented Australia at the United Nations and other international summits and also holds several national and international titles in Sports Karate. She is currently finishing her studies in Neuroscience and Politics and works as a Project Officer at the Centre for Multicultural Youth.

Tal Shmerling

Tal Shmerling is a senior lawyer at the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, where he intervenes in cases raising important human rights and equality issues.  Tal has 6 years of legal and policy experience across government, legal and community sectors and has collaborated on a number of law reform and social change projects. Tal is passionate about refugee issues and the use of storytelling to create meaningful social change. A lawyer by trade, he is an educator at heart.