Plans to persist.
These powerful young women are working hard for their future, and to make change. We chat to Kupa, Varsha and Talar about their experience, and their plans.
Born in Zimbabwe, Kupakwashe Matangira moved to Australia when she was five. Now she is finishing high school, preparing for a law degree, and working on initiatives with Save the Children.
Kupa wears dress by Auguste; top by Cotton On
Kupa, can you tell us about your childhood?
I grew up and lived in Zimbabwe until I was five. In Zimbabwe, everyone looked like me, we all sounded the same, spoke the same languages, everything was familiar and I took comfort in that. Coming to Australia was like landing on the moon. Here I was, plunged into a place where people sounded different, looked different and spoke different languages. It’s fair to say Zimbabwe and Australia are on opposite ends of the cultural spectrum so I felt incredibly out of place.
I wanted to have straight blonde hair instead of a bushy Afro! I just wanted to fit in. I soon learnt that I couldn’t fit in and nor should I.
Differences should be celebrated and not despised. After all, what’s important is who we are on the inside. It’s not a culture, religion or way of life that defines who we are, but rather our shared humanity. That’s the greatest lesson my childhood taught me.
How were you treated here in Australia?
It differed. Most people embraced my family and me; we were welcomed with open arms. But here and there, I would be reminded of my differences and experience racism. One time when I was at primary school, my hair was braided in traditional African twists. There was nothing unique about this hair-style because I’ve had it a million times over. But one day a boy next to me pointed to my hair and said it looks like I’ve got worms on my head! The next day he said my skin colour makes me look like poo. I felt so hurt by these words. But even in the midst of hurt, it is important to stand against racism — by telling people that it is simply not ok.
I don’t experience racism amongst my peers because they’ve had exposure and know that there’s more that brings us together than separates us. The racism I experience now is mostly from complete strangers who pass judgments based solely on my appearance.
People should confront racism even when it does not concern them. Imagine if we, as a nation, could have a culture where we just do not tolerate racism.
Kupa wears dress by People Tree; Shoes by Veja
I am especially passionate about protecting the rights of others in conflict zones. I have always held true to the belief that no child asked for a war, therefore their rights must be protected. I am a young ambassador for Save The Children, who work incredibly hard in this area.
Do you ever get overwhelmed by these big issues?
It’s easy to lose hope, but you have to hold on to your ideals. I believe in the motto: you never give up until it’s done. I let that guide me because if we throw in the towel, the ones that need help most will never receive it.
Young people should never be shy to raise their voices and be advocates for change: age is not a barrier to creating change and change can be localised to your community or reach the entire world. Last November I lobbied the government to adopt the Safe Schools Declaration, the one that prohibits the bombing of education facilities and those containing children, and I spoke at the Kids off Nauru Rally.
What are you plans after school?
I am planning on studying law with international relations, and to work as a human rights lawyer (yes, I want to be Amal Clooney!) and then a diplomat. Michelle Obama inspires me for her passion, determination and resilience.
I hang out with friends, play board games and I’m learning to make cheese!
Varsha Krithivasan is an Indian-Australian student born and raised in Sydney. She is currently studying a BA in Politics, Philosophy and Economics at the University of NSW. She is a Youth Activist with Plan International.
Varsha wears top by Auguste; jeans by Levi’s
Varsha, can you tell us about a personal hurdle?
Surprisingly, one of the hardest things I have to constantly overcome is introducing myself to people. As a stutterer, something as simple as my name requires the same emotional strength needed for public speaking.
What events have inspired you?
I find some of the most inspiring events to be academic talks by authors such as Rebecca Traister on her text Good and Mad which I recently attended. The discourse surrounding women’s anger as a weapon to transform the way we perceive political discussion really opened my eyes to the nuances of the feminist movement, which make it far more complex than simply fixing the pay gap and ostensible equality.
Spaces and dialogues need to be created for third space cultures, and as a women of colour I am immensely passionate in opening conversations about balancing tradition with the normalcy of Australian society.
Who is someone that really inspires you?
The person I will be in 5…10… 20 years from now inspires me. The potential, the passion and the hope of my future self drives me to keep pushing for what’s important.
What do you do if you are feeling overwhelmed or defeated?
I take a break. I am an individual with valid feelings, valid hurt, valid pain and cannot be advocating for everyone else all the time. Spending time on myself can feel a little selfish sometimes, but time to work on my mental health and my hobbies, and to connect with people, puts me in a better state of mind to share my hope and optimism again.
Varsha wears denim jacket by Cotton On; top by Cotton On; pants by Faithfull
What can I do to create change?
Be engaged! Be educated! Be VOCAL! Change comes from the feeling of discomfort — challenging those around you and expressing your passion loudly is an important first step in creating tangible change.
How to connect with other passionate individuals?
We exist in a world with information at our fingertips. Use the Internet to find opportunities, to participate in local projects and organisations you’re interested in. Share ideas in Facebook groups with like-minded people. This can turn collective passion into real outcomes.
Plan International Youth Activist Series (YAS) is a leadership development opportunity for young people.
I write poetry and express myself through art in my spare time and as nerdy as it sounds, a creative outlet helps with processing real emotions and brings a lot of light to a world which can otherwise feel a little dark.
Talar Hagob, 24, fled the war in Syria with her family, and now lives in Sydney. She’s studying architecture at the University of Western Sydney, and works at Australia for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
Talar wears dress by Auguste
Can you tell us a little about your background?
Before the war, I had a normal life — a complete life. I went to school, hung out with friends, and lived in a big house with my parents and two younger sisters. Then the fighting got really bad, and it became a stressful life. I can remember horrible stories of things that happened every day over the five years we lived through the war.
Every day you’d hear someone screaming or dying. There was danger outside: it’s as simple as that. We never knew if we would make it back home safe. Every time we did something — go to school, go to work, visit a friend — I would be calling my Mum, “Mum, it’s ok, I’m alive. I made it alive.” Constantly checking in on each other, constantly worried and scared. But we had to try and have some kind of normal life. We had to still live, even though we didn’t know if our school or friends would be there the next day.
Friends had been bombed and teachers crushed under collapsing buildings — all while I was trying to study for my last year of school. I was in my final year at university where I was teaching graphic design and Photoshop while studying economics and then we had to flee.
In 2017, we left Aleppo to escape the war and moved to Australia. I live in Sydney now. We lost the life we had there, along with many friends and family who were killed or relocated to other parts of the world. My best friend now lives in Sweden, and I don’t know when I’ll see her again.
People who have been forced to flee are just as human as everyone else, but have had really bad luck in their country. They have been forced to resettle somewhere; they are not ‘going shopping’ for a new country. If Aleppo was safe, of course I would still want to be there. That’s where my home, school, friends and family were. It’s where my father had his business were. We lost everything. We had it all; we had a good life and then we lost everything.
What was the hardest thing about arriving in Australia?
Being separated from my friends, family, cousins, my life — everything that I had known. We didn’t know anything about how rules and systems worked here. We had to learn a totally new way of thinking and communicating. Dealing with Centrelink! Lots of rules that I still don’t really understand.
Moving from another country, we didn’t have any rental history the Australian system could understand, so even finding a place to live was hard. We moved from our big house in Aleppo that had a beautiful garden and our own bedrooms to a very small space in Sydney. My sisters and I all share a room. We miss having our own space, but it’s all we can afford right now. It’s hard going from a life working and making money that you can spend on enjoyment, to working and only just getting by.
The language barrier was really hard. When we first arrived in Sydney, I was shocked by how fast everyone spoke! I couldn’t understand anything. I avoided opening conversations with people, but after a few months of learning and practising the language, I felt more comfortable.
Talar wears shirt by Assembly Label; skirt by Nobody Denim
If I’m feeling overwhelmed or defeated, I just remember that tomorrow is a new day. I really understand what it means to appreciate every moment you are living. If one day is bad, you have to believe the next day will be better.
What are you most passionate about, right now?
Australia is a good country to start a new life. Right now I am passionate about becoming an architect, and applying for internships and scholarships.
I’m also passionate about helping other refugees. Settlement Services International (SSI) helped me get a job in Australia for UNHCR, the national partner of the UN Refugee Agency. For the past two years I’ve been supporting the team to raise awareness and funds for refugees under UNHCR’s care around the world. UNHCR helped my family, and it’s a good feeling to help other refugee families.
What are you proud of?
Myself. I’m proud of what I’m doing here, and all that I’ve accomplished. Life is full of opportunity, and I feel like I can do anything I want. I’ve gone through the hard times, and survived. Every second that passes is important and a gift, and I’m trying to make the most of it. When I came here, I had no idea what I was supposed to do or how to build a new life. No one helped me make any decisions, I realised everything myself.
I spend time with my friends and the community I’ve built here — people I’ve met at university, or Scouts, or even some people I knew from Aleppo — I worked hard to make that happen. I always try to keep in touch over the phone or on Skype with my friends and family who are scattered around the world now. Basketball is a big love and I spend time exploring Sydney: bushwalks, sightseeing, road trips, and I love the beaches here. I’m actually pretty busy just with my studies but I enjoy it!