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Media Release: Asylum seeker wins national poetry prize

29 August 20142 comments

A 12-year-old school girl who arrived in Australia just a year ago as an asylum seeker and first encountered the English language just two years ago has won a major national poetry prize.

Maryam Sathat Sobhani, originally from Iran and who now attends Footscray North primary School, has won the Upper Primary category in the Dorothea Mackellar Poetry Awards, the oldest and largest poetry competition for school-aged children in Australia.

Maryam’s winning poem “Me” alludes to the uncertainties of life and a sense of self for people who are displaced from their traditional homes.

She and her family travelled to Gunnedah, in NSW, this week for the awards ceremony this week.

“I like to write, I like to talk about my feelings,” said Maryam, who is in Grade Six and a client of migrant and refugee settlement agency AMES.

Her teacher at North Footscray Primary School, in Melbourne’s west, Thomas Hortop says Maryam is a bright child who drives herself to try new things.

“She’s a smart kid and she’s very competitive. She throws herself into all of the sports we have in our PE program and she is very keen learn,” Mr Hortop said.

“Her English has come on very well in such a short time and she works hard to improve it,” he said.

Mr Hortop said children at the school had been encouraged to write a few poems to enter in the awards.

“Maryam wrote 38 poems,” he said, “it shows how driven she is to try her very best”.

AMES CEO Cath Scarth said: “Maryam’s story is emblematic of the talents and skills that refugees and asylum seekers can bring to Australian society”.

“We see many clients who have amazing skills and are keen to contribute,” she said.

Maryam and her family hail from Shiraz, in western Iran, which is known as a city of poets and literature and was the home of the famous Persian poets Hafiz, Saadi and Rumi – whose work Mathnawi is one of the literary glories of the Middle-East.

But, despite her success with words, Maryam says maths is her favourite subject.

Maryam and her family fled Iran about two years ago. Her father ran a pizza restaurant and ice cream shop but the Iranian authorities closed it because of its associations with the West and its function as a gathering place for young people.

“The police came and sprayed everyone with pepper spray. They made us close the shop and warned us that we would go to jail,” Mr Sobhani said.

The family left Iran and came by boat to Australia from Indonesia. They spent time on Manus Island, on Christmas Island and in detention in Darwin before being released in Melbourne.

“Life in Iran became very hard for us with the government. But here things are much better and Maryam can go to a good school. She was not treated well at school in Iran. Now we hope she will have opportunities,” Mr Sobhani said.

The awards celebrate the work of Australian poet and writer Dorothea Mackellar, the author of the iconic Australian poem ‘My Country’.

Maryam’s winning poem:

‘I wonder who I am?
Or where I am meant to be?
Or where I could be?
Or how to leave?
Or how to be a true person?
I wonder!
I wonder how I can fit in this world
Or how to be right?
But no one can answer my questions’

For images, interviews and more information please contact AMES Media Advisor, Laurie Nowell at or 9938 46031 or 0498 196 500.

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