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Meet Australia’s first all-Afghan, all-female life saving team urging others to learn swimming

Source: Life Saving Victoria/Rob Gunstone

When members of Australia’s first all-Afghan surf life saving team first set foot in their new country a few years back, they were all afraid of the water. In March 2021, however, they took home a silver medal at the Victorian championships.

Members of Australia’s first all-Afghan lifesaving team say that when they arrived in their new country, none of them could swim and all were afraid of the water.

“When we came to Australia, I couldn’t swim at all and was very scared of water,” says team member Setara Rezaei, 18. 

They were all studying English when Life Saving Victoria’s multicultural project officer and a fellow Afghan Ramzi Hussaini held a session at their school.

Sahar Ehsani, Sana Mosawi, Sabira Jafari, Mahtia Rezaei and Setara Rezaei after their competition at the state championship at Lorne.
Sahar Ehsani, Sana Mosawi, Sabira Jafari, Mahtia Rezaei and Setara Rezaei after their competition at the state championship at Lorne.
Life Saving Victoria/Rob Gunstone

From that initial lesson, they were hooked and decided to continue attending classes to better their swimming skills.

A year later, they joined the Bonbeach Surf Life Saving Club.

“When we slowly moved forward, week after week I got more interested in swimming and learned that anyone who lives in Australia should know how to swim, and when you know how to swim, you don’t only help yourself, you save another person’s life and it’s very useful,” Ms Rezaei says.

Silver medal

The team was initially preparing for the 2020 Victorian State Championships, but that competition was cancelled as a result of the pandemic.

They continued to practice and finally competed at the 2021 Surf Life Saving Championships at Lorne on March 14, 2021.

Their efforts paid off when they secured a silver medal in an under-19 competition at the event.

They were one of the two senior Rescue and Resuscitation teams made up of culturally and linguistically diverse people from the Bonbeach club.

Sana Mosawi, 19, felt “uneasy” walking in the water when she came to Australia.
Sana Mosawi, 19, felt "uneasy" walking into the water when she came to Australia.
Supplied/Sana Mosawi

“It was a very proud moment for us. We’ve been working on it since last year,” team member Sana Mosawi says.

Mr Hussaini feels proud that the team overcame a number of challenges to reach this moment.

“They worked very hard, they worked significantly hard… they impressed everyone. I was totally shocked,” he says.

“When they got there, they were a bit nervous because it’s a competition and for the first time they’d gone to a beach that had big waves, and when they started, they looked very interested, they were very impressed and it was a proud moment for them, they were very happy."

Meet the team

Setara and her 16-year-old sister Mahdia Rezaei were both born and raised in an Afghan refugee family living in Iran.

Their father came to Australia as a refugee in 2008 and the family was reunited in 2018.

Three months into their settlement, the sisters enrolled in Life Saving Victoria’s swimming program.

Sisters Setara and Mahdia Rezaei were both scared of water when they arrived in Australia.
Sisters Setara and Mahdia Rezaei were both scared of water when they arrived in Australia.
Supplied/Setara Rezaei

Tamana Ahmadi, 15, was born in Afghanistan and raised in Pakistan before moving to Australia in 2018.

The year-10 student says she joined the swimming program "straight away" after arriving.

Sana Mosawi, 19, was born and raised in an Afghan family in Pakistan before arriving in Australia in 2017.

Feeling “uneasy” walking into the water at first, she joined the program a year later.

Tamana Ahmadi said in the Quetta city of Pakistan, where she grew up, swimming wasn’t a normal activity for girls and women.
Tamana Ahmadi said in the Quetta city of Pakistan, where she grew up, swimming wasn’t a normal activity for girls and women.
Supplied/Tamana Ahmadi

Sahar Ehsani, 17, was born in Afghanistan and grew up in the Pakistani city of Quetta.

Cautious not to “compromise” her Hijab, the year-12 student says she made a “difficult decision” to join the swimming program.

Sabira Jafari, 19, was reunited with her brother in Australia in mid-2018.

Understanding the need to be "safe and keep others safe”, she felt motivated to become a surf life saver.

‘Didn’t want to compromise my Hijab’

The team members all agree that initially, they had concerns relating to cultural sensitivities around being clothed and wearing headscarves while swimming.

But those issues were resolved by Life Saving Victoria, who ordered special burqinis for the team.

It was a difficult decision for Sahar Ehsani to become a lifesaver because she didn’t want to “compromise” her hijab.
It was a difficult decision for Sahar Ehsani to become a lifesaver because she didn’t want to "compromise" her hijab.
Supplied/Sahar Ehsani

“I couldn’t swim. When I got here, I wasn’t thinking about swimming at all. After Life Saving Victoria came and introduced us to its program, I got very excited and I didn’t want to compromise my Hijab, so it was a difficult decision for me,” Ms Ehsani says.

It was a similarly difficult decision for Ms Mosawi to make.

“At first, when we just started our swimming lessons, I didn’t want to go, because at the time I had this mindset that, for example, girls don’t swim, or for example, if we did, what would happen to our Hijab?”

The issue of hijab was solved by Life Saving Victoria’s multicultural program, ordering special Burqinis for them.
The issue of the Hijab was solved by Life Saving Victoria’s multicultural program, ordering special burqinis for the team.
Life Saving Victoria/Rob Gunstone

“But my father supported me and said, ‘you’re living in a place like Australia, you must know how to swim’.”

She now encourages other women from CALD backgrounds to learn swimming.

“They should learn how to swim because in a place like Australia swimming is very necessary as there is water all around us … this something that could save their lives,” she adds.

‘Overrepresented in drowning statistics

Hoping to inspire CLAD communities to learn about water safety, Life Saving Victoria says people who weren’t born in Australia are overrepresented in the country’s drowning statistics.

Mr Hussaini, 26, joined Life Saving Victoria’s swimming program seven years ago and went on to become a volunteer lifesaver and swimming pool lifeguard.

He says people who were born overseas are five times more likely to drown compared to those born in Australia.

“Because many of them are coming from countries where they haven’t seen water, haven’t seen the sea, they don’t know the risks of the sea.

Ramzi Hussaini
Ramzi Hussaini started off as a volunteer lifesaver and is now working for Life Saving Victoria’s multicultural program.
Supplied/Ramzi Hussaini

“Some people don’t know the season; they don’t know how the weather is.

“Those people sometimes come and think, ‘I’ve swum in a swimming pool, it’s good, I can swim in the sea too’ … that’s why our people are drowning faster.”

He calls on all members of society to abide by the following water safety recommendations:

  • Don’t go swimming alone: always take someone with you so they can help in case of an emergency.
  • Always swim between the two red and yellow flags: lifesavers always observe this area.
  • Check the weather: check the weather of the beach where you want to swim. Use beachsafe.org.au or the BeachSafe app.
  • Don’t swim when you’ve consumed alcohol or drug: always check with your doctor if your prescription drug is going to affect your swimming ability.

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