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Winner of Multicultural Award overcomes racism and Islamophobia

Business student Naseema Mustapha has been recognised as 'Most Outstanding Volunteer' in the 2016 Queensland Multicultural Awards for her work among Brisbane’s refugee communities. Mustapha tells The Point Magazine about her work and about her personal journey as an Indian Muslim woman living between Australia and South Africa.

Naseema Mustapha moved with her family from apartheid South Africa to Brisbane in 1977. As a child, Mustapha struggled adapting to her new country and experienced racism and prejudice first-hand.

“At the time there were a lot of Vietnamese refugees coming in. But there were no black people here. There were no role models. If you had issues with parents or social issues, there were few places to turn. My strongest memory is I felt like (the) odd one out because of the colour of my skin. I tried as best (I) could. But if I could have rubbed the colour off my skin, I would have,” Mustafa said.

On returning to Nelson Mandela’s South Africa ten years later, Mustafa discovered a new sense of hope.

 “It was a very powerful time to be there (at a time of change in government). I felt a close sense of identity with South Africa because of that. I loved it.”

 In 1996, after almost a decade in South Africa, Mustafa’s parents decided to come back to Australia.

“Being Indian and Muslim, I didn’t have option of staying due to cultural discomfort. Women don’t live alone.”

“I found I could identify with refugees and people that came here not out of choice... I was looking for way to connect and volunteering was very empowering.”

Returning to Australia was difficult. Mustafa suffered deep depression and felt doubly displaced. However, she soon found that by helping and empathising with others, she could overcome her own sense of isolation.

“I found I could identify with refugees and people that came here not out of choice... I was looking for way to connect and volunteering was very empowering.”

Mustafa now runs volunteering projects in Africa with her partner, along with social workers and local organisations. She recently built a children’s home in Sierra Leone.

She also runs projects in Brisbane with African Muslim communities, refugees and asylum seekers and indigenous communities. She organises food for the homeless during Ramadan and Eid festival, as well as blanket and clothing drives. 

Naseema Mustapha

“One of the refugee community’s biggest issues is cultural adjustment to Australia. It is a five-year process. There are also cultural issues such as the challenge to authority between men and women. Traditionally in African communities the man is the main income earner. When they come here, Centrelink makes the payment to mother – and they become income earner. It shifts the power balance. Children also learn the language quickly and they are often used as interpreters with outside world which creates another power imbalance.”

Mustapha has also been photographed for Faces of Islam, a new project.by award-winning documentary photographer Matt Palmer that aims to dispels misconceptions about Islam and Muslims. Palmer interviewed and photographed members of Brisbane's Muslim community about their lives and ambitions.

"After the Paris attacks last year there was a lot of misinformation going out in the public about Muslims, I just got sick of trying to argue with people or give them the correct information so I thought 'what can I do as a photographer to help not just the Muslim community but the entire community and maybe show a different side to them that people may not have expected?", Palmer writes on his project website.

Mustapha said both she and the refugees she works with have faced Islamophobia. 

 “A lot of the refugee community are Muslim. The Islamophobia and racism and anti-refugee sentiment come through. Constant racial remarks. Comments made to women in hijabs in streets and even in workplace. I know a woman who went for interview and (was) told in subtle way she would need to change her way of dress (to) be considered.”

Yet despite her experiences, Mustapha believes that multicultural Australia has come a long way since the time she was growing up. 

“It has changed in leaps and bounds since the 1970s. Yet, if I compare Brisbane to Melbourne it is still far behind with social integration…. But there is more cultural awareness. More diversity awareness. And more tolerance.”

The Point

Naseema Mustapha has been recognised as 'Most Outstanding Volunteer' in the 2016 Queensland Multicultural Awards for her work among Brisbane’s refugee communities.

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