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Nagina Zahra with student Zuhal at St Aloysius College, Adelaide (The Southern Cross/Ben Macmahon)

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

“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,” Ms Zahra 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.”

Ms Zahra 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 South Australian 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, Ms Zahra 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, year 7 English and helps new arrivals from faraway lands settle into their new school surroundings.

Ms Zahra teaches with the kind of empathy lived experience brings.

“No educational institution can teach you a lived experience,” she said. “It provides an understanding of how a student’s mind works and the things they’re going through.”

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.”


Long road back to school (By Katie Spain, The Southern Cross)