Scholarship recognises refugee’s passion for justice
An Afghan refugee brought up in a society that denied education to women has won a prestigious scholarship to Oxford University.
Sitarah Mohammadi was eight years old when she first learnt to read and write. As a child, she was told that girls and women didn’t need an education.
It was only when she arrived in Australia in 2007 that she given the chance to go to school.
Now, Sitarah is one of just two exceptional Australian students awarded the Provost’s Scholarship to Worcester College, Oxford.
The scholarship, which is worth around $90,000, includes university fees, accommodation at Worcester College, return airfares, a generous stipend and access to all University of Oxford facilities.
“I’m truly humbled and delighted to have been awarded this scholarship,” Sitarah said.
“Only two months ago I was writing my application, and not even once did it cross my mind what would happen if I got this,” she said.
Sitarah, 19, said the scholarship offers a unique opportunity for recent graduates to have the experience of college life in one of the world’s greatest universities.
“My experiences as a child in Afghanistan, growing up as a female and coming to Australia, where I was finally able to pursue education, really ingrained in me the curiosity of wanting to learn more, to explore issues of interest in more depth, to think critically and understand more about how the world works from various perspectives,” she said.
“I now have the very opportunity to just study for the sheer joy of learning and explore my interests at the University of Oxford, and to fully develop myself intellectually, culturally and socially,” she said.
Sitarah was a Student Ambassador at Monash University and a mentor to young people.
She has demonstrated a deep commitment to effecting positive social change in her community through her volunteer work with AMES Australia, the Red Cross and the City of Casey.
She is currently interning with Julian Burnside, QC, one of Australia’s most prominent barristers in the fields of human rights and refugee advocacy.
Sitarah is a member of the Hazara minority group which, as mostly Shiite Muslims, have been targets for violence by extremist Sunni Muslim groups such as the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.
In Pakistan, more than 1500 Hazara have been killed over the past decade, according to UN reports. It is not known how many more have been killed by the Taliban inside Afghanistan.
Hazaras are the third largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, at about 2.8 million, and the majority are Shiite Muslims. They also have a population approaching 500,000 in neighbouring Pakistan.
Sitarah says her background as a refugee has fueled her interest in social justice and the fight for the rights of persecuted minorities; and also the role education can play when effecting positive change.
Sitarah’s hopes are that she will work with governments and international organisations to unlock more opportunities for women and girls.
“I believe the impacts of education on women as primary caregivers of future generations are tremendous. Women hold up half the sky, and they need to be bolstered to take their place in the world,” she said.
In Melbourne, an Hazara community has grown up around Dandenong, in the city’s south east, over the past 15-or-so years with an estimated 12,000 now living in the area.
The first Hazaras arrived in the late 1990s as attacks on them increased, both in Afghanistan and in the Pakistani city of Quetta, to which many had fled from the Taliban.
AMES Australia Senior Journalist