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Afghan refugee crisis a case of deja vu

28 October 20210 comments

Afghan community leader and restauranteur Homaira Mershedi has marshalled friends and community members to support recently arrived Afghan refugees with donations of food and clothing.

They have also been raising money to support vulnerable people still in Afghanistan.

Thousands of hot and culturally familiar meals as well as bread have been delivered from her Afghan Gallery Restaurant in Fitzroy to the newly arrived Afghans currently in short-term accommodation.

And Homaira and her group have also collected bags of donated clothing and other necessities for the new arrivals.

Having fled Afghanistan herself during the Russian war in the 1980s, Homaira has first-hand knowledge of the refugee journey.

“The ability to help people has been really great for us and the whole community. During the first couple of days after the Taliban takeover a lot of us were extremely devastated,” Homaira said.

“We have been catching up with each other on zoom every couple of days and supporting one another. For me it was deja vu, everything that had been achieved over the last 20 years went back to zero,” she said.

“But it was pleasing and ray of hope that the Australian Government was able to rescue so many refugees. So, being able to support the people who arrived has kept us occupied and given us some hope.

“But it is still very, very sad about the situation on the ground in Afghanistan and into the future that will be the focus of our efforts – the people on the ground in Afghanistan. We have to concentrate on those still there.

“We have already begun fundraising. We are open for takeaway on Saturdays and all the profits are going to Afghanistan. A lot of our customers have come and supported us, some have just come in and donated money. It’s been fantastic,” Homaira said.

Homaira came to Australia with her parents and two brothers in 1984 at the age of 12 following the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

“Kabul under the Russians was very different for us, there were huge changes. I was very young but I remember being taught ballet by Russian teachers from five years of age,” she said.

Homaira said that at the time the children of elite Afghan families were forcibly taken to Russia to be educated and indoctrinated with communism – under the orders of at the Afghanistan’s Amin regime.

It was her brush with this policy that led to her family leaving the country,” Homaira said.

“I remember one day at school being put in bus and told we were going on an excursion to the zoo,” she said.

“I knew my way around Kabul and I knew the way to the zoo and we were not going that way. We realised we were going to an airbase on the outskirts of the city.

“At that time a lot of kids were being effectively kidnapped and sent to Russia for education that was really a kind of brainwashing.

“But as we were going to the airport the bus we were in rolled down a small hill. Another truck pulled up, rescued us and took us back to school.

“At the time I was living with my grandparents. Both my parents had careers and were very committed to Afghanistan and its people. My father worked in the transport ministry and my mother was a midwife.

“My grandparents wanted to get us out of the country but my parents were committed to staying.

“But my grandparents took me to Pakistan without telling my parents and my brothers walked across the mountains to get out. They paid 40,000 in Afghan currency to bribe their way out.

“When we got to Peshawar the contacted my parents and said “we are in Pakistan, it’s up to you what you do’.

“A month later my parents came and joined us in Pakistan,” she said.

Homaira and her family were there for 18 months before being sponsored by her aunt and uncle to come to Australia.

Homaira’s uncle Aziz Salehi had established an Afghan art gallery in Fitzroy in 1978. In 1982 her aunt Nauria turned it into a restaurant in to be able to sponsor and employ refugees from Afghanistan.

Art, antiques and tapestries embodying Afghan culture and history still decorate the two-storey venue, which hosts 200 people when fully booked.

The restaurant donates 80 per cent of its profits to Afghanistan, primarily through the Afghan Australian Development Organisation (AADO) projects focused on sustainable education and development of local communities.

After a career in medical science and also as an aid worker with the UN and IOM in Indonesia – working with Afghani refugees and asylum seekers – Homaira returned to Melbourne to run the restaurant.

“In 2019 I decided to come back to Melbourne to continue running the restaurant because of its great history and contribution. My aunt was getting tired and I did not want to see it close,” Homaira said.

The restaurant, which provide sanctuary to Afghan refugees in the 1970s has again been pressed into service.

“It’s been very fulfilling to be able to help.  When the Taliban took over we were all in shock; all of my friends and family were affected badly,” Homaira said.

“For us, we had two options – to stand up and do something or just give up. So we decided we would help in any way we could. And it was beneficial for us to be able to do something.

“Since then we have received so many offers of support. It’s been overwhelming, in a good way. I’m very happy to have been able to help and we plan to do more.

“It’s kept us busy and it’s been great to see the faces of the refugees and children we’ve been able to help.

“Since arriving, I have been active in the community. Australia is home now but I still care about Afghanistan and I believe there was a reason I was rescued from Afghanistan and that was to help other people.

“It’s pleasing to see how this group of refugees is being looked after and we are very grateful. Twenty years ago when we had asylum seekers arriving with little support – we didn’t have the programs in place that exist now with AMES,” Homaira said.