Arif's story of love and hate in Wollongong

Afghan refugee Arif Khan struggled with resettlement and racism growing up in Wollongong. Pictures: KIRK GILMOUR

Afghan refugee Arif Khan struggled with resettlement and racism growing up in Wollongong. Pictures: KIRK GILMOUR

Arif Khan received the national Cultural Understanding Award this month for  community work. He spoke to GEMMA KHAICY about how his past helped him understand the troubles many youth, especially refugees, face in Wollongong.

Afghan refugee Arif Khan grew up in Wollongong dodging stones hurled at his home and verbal taunts at school.

He slept with either a baseball bat or knife because he never felt safe. His street was often targeted by robbers and his belongings were stolen on many occasions. 

The break-ins sparked a recurring nightmare: "It was pitch black and there was someone banging at the door. They smashed into the house, kidnapped me and my family. I wasn't big or strong enough to defend us."

It was a difficult childhood, marked by his family's struggle to resettle and a desire to find his place in Australian society. Khan's experiences, though, have helped him empathise with other Illawarra youth.

He graduated on April 8 with a Masters in Social Work at the University of Wollongong and now works with Wollongong City Council as a youth worker. He received the national Cultural Understanding Award this month for his work with council and support of young refugees.

Arif Khan has turned his childhood trials into motivation to help refugees and the disadvantaged in the community.

Arif Khan has turned his childhood trials into motivation to help refugees and the disadvantaged in the community.

As a Shia Muslim refugee, the 25-year-old has struggled with his identity and watched many migrants either lose their faith trying to assimilate or struggle to find a place in Australia at all.

"I can fully appreciate and understand the resettlement needs of Afghan Shia refugees," he says.

"Recently, I've been trying to connect them with a Shia mosque in Cringila.

"A lot of the Shia Muslims had to escape because of religious persecution from other so-called Muslims. I don't like to call them Muslims, because they don't represent any of the fundamental values of Islam: freedom of expression, gender equality, no racism."

Many migrants also had to deal with past traumas.

Although Khan was not yet born when his family fled Afghanistan, he knows the story well.

After Russia invaded the country, his family escaped in the mid-1980s to Pakistan, but not before his two older sisters were killed.

"One of them was on a bus with my mother and the Russians fired upon the bus - my sister was killed," he says.

"My other sister was killed later on during the war."

The family was a target because his father was a Hazara Afghan, part of a group that had endured years of systematic discrimination and ethnic cleansing. The religious and ethnic tensions followed them to Pakistan.

"My father had gone from being a successful structural engineer to just trying to survive," Khan says.

"He bought his own rickshaw and became a taxi driver.

"They wanted to wait for an Afghanistan that would become hospitable for an average family to raise their children. But that never came."

The family was granted refugee status in 1989, just after Khan was born.

"We struggled with resettlement," he says.

"That's what motivated me a lot to help refugees in Wollongong."

At high school, he endured racist taunts and discrimination from teachers and students alike. The September 11 terrorist attacks took place when he was in year 7, creating another level of suspicion against him.

The boys' toilets were covered with graffiti: "Die Afghans", "Kill the Goat F- - -ers", "F- - - Muslims". Although he asked to have it removed, it would reappear and eventually the school gave up dealing with it, he says.

"I remember having to turn my back to that wall every time I got changed in the bathroom," he says.

Then there were the teachers. While some defended Khan, there was an antagonistic teacher who called him the "Osama bin Laden of the high school," he says.

"It was hell."

Khan believes he was not always the best student, but he never did anything to warrant the persistent attacks.

"One time there was a fight and the teacher tried to blame it on me," he says.

"The teacher said there were witnesses.

"I was at the doctor's and the teacher ended up finding out, but just told me to leave the office.

"No apology."

Khan claims the same teacher unjustifiably banned him from going on excursions, picked on him in the playground and told him he would be lucky to pass the year 10 School Certificate.

Instead of telling his parents, Khan tried to hide the bullying from his father, who was going through his own resettlement problems.

By the end of year 10, he had enough and left. He moved to Keira High School for years 11 and 12, before studying journalism at the University of Wollongong.

"I wanted to give a voice and represent the oppressed, the disadvantaged and the minority," he says.

"I report on a lot of terrorist groups through my Facebook page Arif Khan Media to give a different perspective, a different angle on what's happening in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Syria.

"I consider anybody who oppresses or kills innocent people to be a terrorist; I don't care what religion you're from."

But who he defines as a terrorist group differs from mainstream media and the West, he says.

"I'm really careful talking about something like Hezbollah," he says hesitantly.

"You do see beautiful photos in Syria of Hezbollah fighters protecting churches."

Hezbollah, he says, are in favour of justice and peace, unlike many other groups that claim to be Islamic but contradict the faith.

"How can these people say that the prophet, peace be on him, who was the most peaceful, beautiful, perfect, infallible human being that's ever been on this Earth, according to Islam, how can you say that this great prophet of God would encourage people to kill innocent people?"

Khan says his faith promotes peace, and was the reason he studied for a masters of social work.

The Australian Association of Social Workers' Code of Conduct aligns so closely with his values, he felt compelled to become a part of the welfare services sector.

At Wollongong City Council, he organises short courses to engage youth, keep them out of trouble and foster a sense of community. These include hip-hop, graffiti art, boxing and cooking classes. Running for eight to 12 weeks, the programs are frequented by migrants and indigenous youth.

"As an imam once said, 'People are either brothers in your faith or your equals in humanity'," he says.

"That's how I try to live my life.

"Everybody makes mistakes, we are not infallible, but if the core of your hearts and values is, from my own perspective, based on what God teaches you to be, things like community and social work come naturally."

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