04 Jun 2024

Long road back to school

The Southern Cross | June 2024

The Bakhtiari family made headlines around the world in 2004 when they were deported in the early hours of the morning by Australian immigration officials after fleeing Afghanistan four years earlier. Two decades later, one of the Bakhtiari children, Nagina Zahra, is back living in Adelaide and recently began teaching at the school she attended while the family was under the care of Centacare Catholic Family Services. In an exclusive interview with KATIE SPAIN, Nagina recalls those traumatic times and her journey back to St Aloysius College where she is now helping students settle into their new home.

Nagina Zahra will never forget the moment she donned her St Aloysius College school uniform for the first time. It was 2004 and as a newly arrived asylum seeker from Afghanistan, everything felt alien.

“For most children, wearing a school uniform is like wearing any other clothes but for a child who has never experienced that, the opportunity to wear a school uniform was overwhelming,” Nagina said. “As much as I was happy, I also didn’t know how to react to my emotions at the time. Wearing my uniform, grabbing my school bag, sitting in a car, and being dropped at school…everything was so new.

Nagina was 12 at the time. Her younger sisters Samina and Amina also attended the all-girls college and her brothers were at St Ignatius’ College. The family lived under the care of welfare agency Centacare Catholic Family Services and the children were placed under the guardianship of its former director Dale West by the Family Court.

They didn’t know it then, but by the end of the year, the family of nine, including parents Ali and Roqia Bakhtiari, would be moved from their home into detention and deported to Pakistan by immigration officials.

Their highly publicised ordeal and four-year attempt to find asylum in Australia made headlines across the world.

Two decades later, Nagina is back in Australia and employed at St Aloysius College in Adelaide’s CBD where she teaches Year 11 English as an Additional Language/Dialect and Year 7 English. She also helps new arrivals from faraway lands settle into their new school surroundings. Like Year 7 student Zuhal who recently arrived from Afghanistan and like Nagina, started at St Aloysius four months ago.

Nagina teaches with the kind of empathy lived experience brings.

“No educational institution can teach you a lived experience,” Nagina said.

“It provides an understanding of how a student’s mind works and the things they’re going through.”

After returning to Afghanistan via Pakistan, village life was challenging.

“I never imagined that I would come back to Australia, let alone be a teacher here,” Nagina said. “When we first arrived in Australia, we were identified as a number. I still remember my number. Even now, that still happens to refugees. It’s triggering and it’s traumatising. How can we treat people like that?”

Being removed broke her family mentally, emotionally and physically.

“It stays with you for the rest of your life but those journeys and those turning points make you who you are,” she said. “It was one of the hardest times of my life, but it made me the resilient person I am today.”

Nagina couldn’t have done it without the support of loved ones. “Dad was my biggest supporter and aways believed in me and Mum is one of the strongest, most independent and resilient women I’ve ever known. I also relied on my brothers, my sisters, and most importantly my husband.”

Click here to read more.

< back