At 25, Akram Azimi’s philanthropic work has been extensive and inspiring. Yet thirteen years ago, circumstances were very different – but one vaccine changed it all. The 2013 Young Australian of the Year talks to ALSA Vice-President (Administration) Anthony Lieu.
When Akram Azimi arrived in Australia as an Afghan refugee in 1999, he could barely speak a word of English. He went on to become head boy at Warwick Senior High School in Perth, topping the tertiary entrance exam. Today, he studies a triple degree in law, science and anthropology at the University of Western Australia. He plans to graduate in 2014 with honours and to pursue further studies in anthropology.
We are at Parliament House in Canberra where Akram will be for the day before he takes the red-eye home to Perth to present a speech later tonight. “I've put my degree on hold,” Akram says, “but I hope everything can return back to normal in about year’s time.” When he is not studying for his triple degree, he oversees ‘I am the Other’, a student-run initiative raising awareness about Indigenous issues in universities, works with ‘True Blue Dreaming’ which helps disadvantaged remote Indigenous communities, and mentors a Special Olympics athlete.
“The work I am involved with comes together at a values level on three tiers,” Akram explains. “I believe every child should grow up healthy with the best possible education irrespective of where they are born. I believe every young person deserves to be mentored and develop self-esteem from community-esteem which comes from belonging irrespective of where they are at. And I believe every human being deserves to live a life worthy of human dignity irrespective of who they are.” Six years ago, Akram began his journey on giving back by undertaking social justice work in the Kimberley region. Today, he has immersed himself in work with Indigenous Australians. He flies out to Looma, near Broome, next month to continue his work with True Blue Dreaming.
We talk about his mentoring work and how important mentoring is to develop personal and professional skills for young adults. I mention ALSA’s progress in mental health and wellbeing awareness and our focus on developing a mentoring program for law student societies to adopt. Akram is intrigued: “Law schools are an unhealthy place. It is where ego at its worst form is rampant.” Why? He explains that law students feel that they never have control with how their ideas are received. “You are completely alone, there are things beyond your control that you cannot change and there is nagging doubt that maybe... you weren't cut out for law school.” The fact that law students cover up their personal issues and do not seek emotional support is something he immediately acknowledges. I ask him if he sees a difference in the student culture between his science and arts studies, compared with law school. “Definitely,” he replies, without hesitation.
Can mentoring programs at law schools help? “I think,” he answers, “mentoring could be the key between the different year groups.” Akram believes that mentoring programs need to be structured and that performance should be measured from the beginning and clearly marked with an end. “Mentoring is a cyclical process,” he says. “Once the organic process of mentoring takes over, the mentor will be happy to take over again and again.” On whether he thinks the legal profession should be involved, he acknowledges that, “Naturally, it should be a part of their community development work. The knowledge and age gap creates a space and comfort from the mentee to learn.” But mentoring is a long-term process. He believes that mentees do not often understand what they are getting until much later down the track. “That is when you truly value what your mentor has taught you.”
Akram’s philanthropic work has strong ties with creating a sense of community. He speaks of inspiring young people into action with a positive outlook ahead. His work with ‘The End of Polio’ has already been acknowledged in private members’ motions in Parliament and mustered support from MP Andrew Leigh and Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Before coming to Australia, Akram remembers receiving the polio vaccine as a child in Afghanistan. It was a program funded by Australian foreign aid. He hopes to see the Australian Government do more to fight polio through to the end.
“Politicians are the sailboats and we are the wind,” says Akram. “Sure they can steer, but it is what the community says that they will follow.” Akram’s deepest conviction is that the current generation of young Australians is experiencing a cultural shift of social conscience. The consumerist thought of ‘I want, I need’ is slowly coming to an end. We are now deeply unsatisfied with what we are buying. He jokingly adds “… Or perhaps it’s just the group of friends I’m socialising with.” It is now ‘I ought’, where more young Australians are asking themselves about their obligations and the service they can offer to the community. “Self-esteem does not come from one's individual achievement,” he says. “It comes from what one does for one’s community. Self-esteem is the direct by-product of community-esteem.” He speaks of The Roadtrip to End Poverty and Foundation for Young Australians. “You can either combat a negative or help a positive prosper. It is a very human thing to do to defend our position than to change it.” For Akram, the positive change driven by young Australians is gaining momentum. He mentions that not all law students need to be pressured into fitting the ‘corporate law firm’ mould. “Go work for an NGO,” he suggested. Following his own advice, Akram is using his legal skills to branch out into international development and justice work. He plans to undertake reconciliation work with different ethnic groups in Afghanistan as well as to become an educator to create a ‘strong culture of social sciences’ in the country.
For the year ahead, Akram has set himself a clear agenda. First, he hopes to see his university as a place where it makes a space for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to converse and meet. “I also want to open the newspaper and read that there are zero cases of polio around the world.” Today, the global infection rate of polio is only 0.1%.
“And lastly, I would love to know an organisation like Special Olympics is commercially viable for the next decade.” Akram hopes to see more mentoring programs similar to True Blue Dreaming evolve, emphasising the importance of cultural sensitivity. “We mentor not from a mainstream white Australia perspective which considers property to be the most upmost value, but we do it from an Indigenous perspective,” he says.
“We do it from a sense of family and country.”
Akram will be a guest speaker on poverty, disadvantage and the law at the ALSA Conference 2013, held in Perth from 9 – 16 July. General delegate registration closes on Wednesday 8 May.