By Madeleine King
Production by Saber Baluch and Elise Potaka
Photography by Jessica Clark
Video by Dave May
At the entrance to Blamey Barracks, Kapooka – the Australian Army’s recruit training centre – large gold letters fastened to a boulder read: ‘Soldiering begins here’.
The barracks is 12 minutes from Wagga Wagga in central NSW, on Wiradjuri land, about 15km south of the Murrumbidgee River that trickles through the checkerboard pastures of the state's Riverina.
The rivers that flow through Afghanistan’s Gahzni province and into Jaghori, the region where Kbora Ali was born, similarly drag lines of greenery through a landscape that resembles crumpled paper from above. Rich oases and land that has traditionally borne plums, apricots, wild almonds and walnuts spread away from them.
That beauty belies violence, mostly directed towards the province’s large Hazara population, an ethnic and sectarian minority persecuted by the Taliban. The area shares a border with Uruzgan province, where Australian Army troops were based for 12 years until 2013.
Kbora doesn’t remember much of her time there. Her most vivid memories are of Pakistan, and then suburban Adelaide where she has lived since she was nine.
In the last two years, she’s left the security of her family home and travelled east, to pursue a career some have worried does not befit an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) of 97.5.
She is 153cm tall – just 1cm above the absolute minimum height requirement set by the Australian army.
She weighs just 50kg; her pack and gear weigh 25kg. Kbora is the youngest in a family of eight, and has never lived away from them.
How did this young woman, barely out of her teens, decide her future lay not among the textbooks and classrooms that had comforted her since she was small, but in camouflage and combat?
She is the first female Afghan refugee to do so.
Australia, 2000: a celebratory fever from the Sydney Olympics washed over a country deep in drought, one year out from a federal election and at the doorstep of a decade that would see Australia’s international position and domestic character shift significantly. In that year, a then record-setting number of asylum seekers reached Australian shores by boat.
Among those 2,939 voyagers was Sultan Ali, Kbora’s father.
It took him three months to reach Australia from Afghanistan; his land, his family, his work as a farmer.
“The situation was getting worse in Afghanistan – I had no choice but to leave,” Sultan says. “There was no school for my children to go to… it was during the Taliban.”
The family, ethnic Hazaras from Afghanistan’s eastern provinces, had run into barriers many before them had faced: persecution, economic strife, instability and lack of opportunity.
Hazaras make up approximately 15 to 20 per cent of the country’s population. Legend holds they are descendants of Genghis Khan and his soldiers, following their invasion of Afghanistan in the 13th Century, and certainly they share the distinctive Central Asian and Mongolian physical features.
Their animosity with the Taliban goes back centuries, stemming largely from following different sects of Islam: Shiite and Sunni respectively.
“The combination of being a sectarian as well as an ethnic minority has put [Hazaras] in real risk historically in the country, where they tend to be marginalised and where they tend to be the first people victimised when the situation gets rough,” Professor William Maley, Director of the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at ANU, told SBS in 2013.
“The cultural differences are not enormous, but extremist groups like the Taliban movement, which is made up of Sunni Muslims, tend to regard Shiite Muslims as heretics on doctrinal grounds. And while Hazaras tend to be a fairly harmless group in the community in which they're based, to extremists their very existence can be an affront.”
A 1998 massacre of an estimated 2000 Hazara men and boys by Taliban militia forces, in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, saw many Hazaras flee the country. For those who remained, persecution continued, with numerous instances of torture and murder in the following years. In July this year, two Islamic State suicide bombers attacked a Hazara demonstration in Kabul, killing more than 80 people.
With the fall of the Taliban in 2001, there was a reprieve in repression. But Jaghori, the Ali family’s home province, still bore the effects of their influence and the US-led war: 20 per cent of homes were partially damaged, there was poor sanitation and access to water, and literacy rates among women were as low as 10 per cent, according to a 2002 UNHCR report.
In the next few years, the Ali family followed its patriarch across the border and into Pakistan, seeking refuge in the safest and closest place to which they could migrate.
“She was really quiet,” sister Razia, 25, remembers of Kbora, then just 3 or 4 years old. “She was mostly playing with herself. She didn’t have much to talk to the others about.”
The family lived in Pakistan for three or four years before being granted asylum. In 2007, they boarded a plane to Australia.
“Kbora was very ill on the flight when we came here,” says Razia. “We were really scared they might send us back; Kbora didn’t even say she was in pain. We were scared.”
Young Kbora’s memories of this time are hazy, at best, but she remembers the confusion of arriving in Australia.
“My initial thought was, ‘we’re going to go back home, that’s all right’,” she says. “But then in conversation, I heard my mum saying, ‘How are we going to make a living here?’ They were concerned about money, ‘How are we going to buy a house?’ and I was like, ‘why does that matter? We’re going home anyway’.”
“It was quite a different environment; I was really homesick for the first five, six months.”
To assuage that homesickness came a reunion with her father, Sultan, who’d been granted a three-year protection visa on arrival, then permanent residency. He’d sustained a back injury on a mandarin farm just before their arrival, and was in hospital when the family flew into Adelaide.
“The doctor asked me why I was receiving so many calls while I was in hospital,” Sultan remembers. “I told the doctor that I was upset because my family was arriving and I was at the hospital. The doctor cancelled the appointment and told me to go to my family.”
With his injury, and the family being without English, cars, licences, knowledge of public transport and life in Australia, getting on their feet was tough.
“It was difficult to start from zero in a new country.”
Kbora began Year 3 at Pennington State Primary School, donning the red, navy and white uniform and traipsing to the tree-lined cluster of school buildings, nestled between soccer fields and a Buddhist temple. Later, she would change to a local Catholic primary school. Her father walked with her every day, giving impromptu life lessons.
“The language barrier was quite difficult,” she remembers of starting school. “That was the hardest thing I found. And finding friends who I could connect to, language-wise, was difficult as well because at the time there wasn’t many people from Afghanistan in my school.”
Kbora picked up diverse interests, but physical activities – soccer, martial arts – drew most of her attention. Each drew on the same trait: organisation.
“She would plan her days, her weeks and her months in her diaries,” says Razia. “She had boards, and, you know, little notes that she would do this during a certain time of the day and what will be her daily activities. She had set times of exercise in the morning and the evening, and she was doing part-time jobs, school, martial arts and soccer.”
“I think her going to the Army also connects to that order. She won’t have any difficulty doing that because it’s already in her.”
Just a year after starting school, Kbora picked up English, at which she excelled into high school.
In the heat of February, Kbora Ali is being inducted into the Army.
A pre-enlistment fitness test ensures her body mass index is within the acceptable range. She’s given the standard-issue Army Disruptive Pattern Camouflage Uniform (DPCU) and field equipment.
She’s learning to march, turn and salute; to circuit train and endurance march with gear twice her weight.
An F88 Austeyr rifle is the first weapon she will hold, and learn to use.
“The first day I will never forget,” she says. “At first, I thought it was the wrong decision. I doubted myself the whole week and it was very hard to accept the challenge ahead of me, and being with new people from all of Australia that I didn’t know, get used to them, accept them as part of my new family.”
“It was hard to transition to such a culture shock of waking up early, being told what to do.”
She is the smallest soldier some of her superiors have ever seen. Special boots have to be ordered in to fit her tiny feet; Halal food is set aside; she is given time to pray.
Kbora says the early days were tough. She found it difficult to physically keep up with her fellow recruits.
“Sometimes I hoped for a shoulder to cry on... the first week was hard,” she says. “I did cry, I admit, but everyone goes through that phase saying, ‘it’s hard, but we can all get through it’.”
As homesickness took its toll, Kbora felt trapped.
“She was telling me, ’I’m looking at the wire – how can I escape?’” says sister Razia. “It was like a prison for her during the first week.”
At the end of each week, new recruits are handed back their phones to use.
“When she called, that’s when I think it hit her really hard and badly,” Razia says. “Because emotionally, she was really upset. Physically, she said she could cope, but emotionally, it’s the hardest job she can do.”
“You’re being trained from a civilian to a soldier,” says Kbora. “So it’s definitely an intense three months to train, physically and mentally. It was definitely harder for me, just finishing Year 12 and moving out.”
On the phone to her family, she cried while they talked. But her father, who had begged her not to leave, now changed tact.
“When she started her training, she called me,” Sultan says. “She said she missed us and was crying. I told her, ‘Well now you’re there, don’t miss us. You didn’t listen to me, so you should stay there. It’s one issue [that] you went; it will be 1000 issues if you come back and quit. You have to be patient.’
“I told her this because I wanted her to achieve what she wanted. I didn’t want her to become defeated.”
The directness of his words speaks more to his matched experience of testing work and separation from family than disapproval of Kbora’s decision.
“[I listened] to my dad saying how he sacrificed everything from his life being away from his family,” remembers Kbora. “He said, ‘I came to Australia, I didn’t speak any English, I worked alone for seven years picking oranges. If I can do it, you can do it as well.’”
“That was definitely a boost in motivation. Every time I wanted to give up, I remembered him saying that and it really helped me to work harder.”
Kbora's initial distress did not go unnoticed by her superiors. They, and the local chaplain, wrote to the Ali family to express their concern – and support – for her. In spite of this, Razia worried about the impact of the experience, and knew that if Kbora decided to return home, she would blame herself. She’d be a failure.
Kbora pressed on.
At Our Lady of the Sacred Heart College, Kbora cultivated her love of learning without a clear sense of where she wanted to be after graduation. She entertained half a dozen possibilities: teacher, doctor, dentist, police officer, nurse, optometrist.
As Kbora entered Year 10, an alternative played on her mind. In 2011, Razia herself had expressed interest in joining the Army. A wave of protest from family and friends (“It’s a hard job”; “You can’t do it”; “You’re from a society that doesn’t accept that kind of situation… it’s too tough for you”) channelled Razia into a successful psychology degree instead.
“Unfortunately society’s view towards girls joining the Army, especially in our community, they weren’t very supportive about that,” says Kbora. “She felt a bit uncomfortable.”
Undeterred, Kbora listened, enamoured, to a presentation by Defence personnel at her school, detailing a career of order, opportunity and the physical activity she loved.
“It was something that attracted me," Kbora says. "Her uniform, the way she talked about her job, the passion in her eyes; it really inspired me to be a part of what she was… I wanted to be a part of [soldiers] serving Australia.”
Without telling her family, she signed up in Year 11.
She soon relinquished the secret to Razia, unable to go through the application process alone. Razia agreed to keep it quiet.
“I didn’t want those obstacles that stopped me from doing something that I loved, stop Kbora doing the same,” says Razia. “I think Kbora had the nature to do that kind of training and jobs. She needs order in her life; to have plans and, you know, lots of tough training. She is a person of challenge.”
So began a six month process of aptitude assessment: two psychological tests, two physical tests, and a final interview. Alongside this, reams of forms, including security clearance, needed to be filled out. Razia was production manager.
They told their parents they were going for coffee, to the movies, to soccer practice or martial arts.
“I was scared they wouldn’t accept my decision,” Kbora recalls. “I was the youngest child, the only daughter who made a very different decision. All my sisters, they’re going to uni … it’s a pathway that was very new, in our family especially.”
She also kept it from her teachers or friends, fearing their judgment and high expectations. Razia worried the stress would interfere with Kbora’s studies, as she was now in her final year of high school.
“I didn’t want her to lose this side of things too, while chasing her dreams,” she says.
By the end of 2015, Kbora Ali received three dux awards at her school, after achieving an ATAR of 97.5. She had a job offer to go into real estate; a placement at Flinders University to study optometry; and an offer to join the army.
Every night before bed, she took a tape measure to the wall and measured her height.
“What if I shrink?” she asked Razia.
But she remained 153cm, still a fraction above the minimum height that would allow her to join the defence force.
Three days before basic training was to start, she broke the news to her parents.
It’s late March and the days in Wagga Wagga carry the heat of summer into record-breaking autumn temperatures.
Before the heat settles, Kbora Ali is in her standard-issue physical training gear – simple brown t-shirt, black shorts - working through her daily routine. She’s been learning interval training, endurance marching, and survival strokes in the water.
Over the past few weeks, her training has progressed: shooting with the F88 Austeyr has moved from an indoor simulator to the outdoor range, using live ammunition; she’s been introduced to further weapons, including grenades and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs); fitness assessments continue and increase in difficulty; navigation is taught; local leave in Wagga Wagga is granted.
She’s survived Bayonet Fighting Day – an unscheduled exercise simulating a real-life threat scenario, where the recruits are assessed on their ability to respond with teamwork and training. They are trained in bayonet combat, and must complete numerous assessment obstacle courses.
“It’s very exhausting,” says Kbora. “A full day of shouting and using aggressive voices.”
Two months in, Razia travelled to Kapooka for an allotted two-hour family visit, one Sunday.
“I was surprised by how she changed,” says Razia. “Her personality completely changed when I first met her at Kapooka Army base. She was someone that stood tall and she was a bit taller than when she went into Army.”
She also noticed Kbora’s habitual shyness had dimmed and in its place, confidence and communication had come to the surface.
“That was a big change for Kbora.”
Kbora describes her parents’ reaction to the news she’d joined the army as “devastated”. Razia says they were, “Shocked… surprised.”
“I was concerned because she was young,” admits Sultan Ali, her father. “I told her it was going to be hard.”
Razia remembers their mother, Shereengul, saying, “No way is she going. She is the little one of the family… she is really small – I can’t send her.”
“In our society, the girl doesn’t go out,” Shereengul later adds. “I was concerned about what people will say.”
“But we don’t live our lives according to [other] people. We live on our merit.”
Kbora says her parents were initially concerned she’d be heading off straight to war. She soothed their concerns, explaining the gap year program; she wouldn’t be deployed.
“They [also] had the view that you just finish high school and go to uni and in my mind, that wasn’t what I wanted to do,” Kbora says. “I wanted to get out. I knew there was something bigger that now serves a greater purpose in my life.”
“I guess being out of your comfort zone is where you actually grow and become stronger as a person and develop as an individual.”
Concerns abated. They all accepted it was Kbora’s decision. On the day of her departure from Adelaide, Sultan took her aside.
“Are you making the right decision?” he asked.
“You know, I’ll give it a go,” she replied.
22 April, 2016: A sunny Friday in Wagga Wagga sees Kbora Ali standing at attention on the Blamey Barracks parade ground.
Her rifle is slung over her left soldier, its barrel hanging down by her right side. A slouch hat shields her from the day, the Rising Sun Badge pinned to its upturned side. Khaki pants and short-sleeved shirt are immaculately pressed.
Family have watched the newly-minted recruits march to drum beats across the ground from the shade of basic shelters.
Over the past few weeks, Kbora has completed her 80 days of soldier training, passing through skills assessments, advanced field training and the final ‘Challenge’.
At the hour-long march-out parade, Private Ali is welcomed into the Australian Army.
“Being a girl in the Afghan community, I didn’t want to share my story of becoming a soldier because it’s a unique story and I didn’t want to be judged in our society,” says Kbora.
Razia had other plans, posting photos of her march-out to Facebook. The announcement had almost 1000 likes, to Kbora’s delight.
“I just think, especially being a girl, pursuing a career that not many can achieve because of the language barriers, it’s just something new that my community has been opened up to,” she says. “Like, wow, Afghan girls can join the Army.”
Razia agrees that Kbora’s achievement has opened the doors for women and girls in the Afghan community.
“People from the community have congratulated me and my family,” confirms Sultan Ali. “They have been very supportive. They are very happy, I’m very happy, my family is very happy.”
“This country has helped us so much. It has done a lot for me and my family. We should give back to this country as much as we can.”
Back in the Adelaide suburbs on leave, Kbora shows off her Army medal. An inscription on the lid of its case reads:
I’m proud to share the traditions built on the foundation of the Anzac legend.
I’m proud to build on the heritage of service, mateship and sacrifice of previous generations.
I’m proud to serve the Australian people by securing their future.
I’m proud to secure peace and safety for the people of other countries when they need help.
In the steam of tropical North Queensland, Kbora is, unsurprisingly, up at 6 am: the waking hour she loves most. She’ll work out for an hour – 100 sit-ups, 40 push-ups and a 2.4km run – then she'll shower, eat and be ready for work by 9:30am sharp.
Where three months ago Kbora struggled to keep up, both physically and emotionally, she’s steady. “Now it’s a breeze, I guess.”
Her superior, Captain Tom McAnulty, saw a little of her inexperience in the initial days of her first placement after basic training, in Townsville.
“When she first marched in, she was pretty nervous, a pretty deer-in-the-headlights kind of person, but she’s settled down,” he says. “You can see her sense of humour, and it’s good to see.”
The unit she’s based in provides medical support to the Army’s 3rd Brigade, stationed at Lavarack Barracks. Kbora is currently an administrative clerk.
“Hate to say it, but she’s probably one of the backbones of the company,” says her superior, Captain McAnulty. “So all our administration work… will come through her orderly room, so she has to process it and try and get people through, so if it falls down at her, it falls down completely. She’s got a pretty important role.”
The medical component is appealing to Kbora. Her mother, Shereengul, was a nurse in Afghanistan before they came to Australia, and Kbora says she’s looking into a future with the medical corps while moving up the ranks. That could involve further officer training at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA).
For the moment, she’s one of 10,000 women in the Australian Defence Force (ADF), which is almost 80,000 personnel strong; one of the female soldiers who make up 12 per cent of the Army.
Kbora speaks positively of her experience and treatment alongside male recruits, and notes the Army has recently improved after a number of incidents led former Chief of Army Lieutenant General David Morrison to call out inappropriate behaviour towards women in the Army.
Islam makes up an even smaller representative portion. Arrangements for dietary requirements (as of this year, two-thirds of Army combat rations are halal, kosher or vegetarian) and religious observances, such as Ramadan, have been made. In 2015, the Army employed its first Imam.
Still, acceptance of Islam within the ADF could be extremely low, according to a 2016 study supported by the Army Research Scheme.
Academic Dr Charles Miller found that among a sample of 182 personnel, “anti-Muslim sentiment is most likely widespread in the units surveyed. Moreover, in so far as it is possible to ascertain… [cultural sensitivity] training appears to be making little or no difference to this fact.”
If Kbora has encountered this, she makes no mention of it.
The significance of her achievement has not passed her by. “It puts a smile to my face being the first Afghan female – the hard work that I went through, all the planning, all the process, the patience I have,” Kbora says.
“For my family situation back, say, 10 years ago, we have come a long way. We have made our lives very joyful because of our hard work, because of being connected as a family. We have been here for each other through the thick and thin and we have made our lives in Australia great because of what we have done.”
It’s bittersweet for her father, whose memories of home are stronger. “No one wants to leave their home unless it is impossible to live there,” Sultan says. “[But] now, Australia is my country because my children are educated here; they will be useful members of the society in the future.”
There are currently about 270 Australian troops deployed in Afghanistan, carrying out reconstruction work and local training. Kbora thinks it would be good to go back one day, to help with interpreting, maybe female education.
“It’s absolutely amazing what she’s done,” says Captain McAnulty. “And listening to her story and what she’s achieved to get here, it’s pretty awe-inspiring.”
1859: The first Afghans arrive in Australia, sent into the heat of the Australian outback with imported camels to help ferry new British inhabitants across the scorching desert. By the 1871 census, there are 20 Afghans living in Australia.
1971: The first wave of Afghan refugees hits Australian shores, pushed out by the Soviet invasion. As the Soviets withdraw in 1989, civil war takes their place and the Taliban rise to power. Refugees continue their escape.
August, 1998: An estimated 2000 Hazara men and boys are executed by Taliban militia forces in the city of Mazar-i Sharif, north east of Kabul. Hazara women are also reportedly targeted for rape and abduction. The animosity between the Taliban and Hazaras grows, largely from their differing sects of Islam, with Hazaras following the minority Shiite branch. Large numbers of Afghanistan’s Hazara population flee the country.
24 August 2001: 438 passengers on a 20 metre wooden fishing boat are plucked from the sea off Australia’s north coast by Norwegian container ship MV Tampa. The majority of these passengers are Hazara refugees. They are refused entry to Australia, triggering a political controversy in the weeks before the 2001 Australian federal election.
Two and a half weeks later, the World Trade Centre buildings tumble down after concurrent terror attacks in the US. In the days that follow, then Prime Minister John Howard invokes the ANZUS Treaty, committing Australia to the United States’ ‘War on Terror’ in Afghanistan.
2011: The census reveals 28,597 Afghan-born people are living in Australia – a 70.7 per cent increase since 2006. Of those, 4903 are Hazara. The median age is 30, and the average median individual income per week is $272; around half the equivalent income of an Australian-born person.
2014-2016: Instances of violence against Hazara communities in Afghanistan increase. In 2014, a Hazara man and Australian citizen was tortured and killed by the Taliban while travelling from Jaghori to Ghazni, after visiting relatives. In late 2015, seven Hazaras – including, unusually, two women and a young girl – were similarly killed, sparking protests in Kabul.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade warns against travelling to Afghanistan, “because of the extremely dangerous security situation and the very high threat of terrorist attack.” There are currently around 270 Australian defence personnel deployed in the country.
2016: There are 10,000 women in the Australian Defence Force. They make up 12 per cent of the Army.
In the decade since the Taliban fell, the literacy rate of women in Afghanistan aged 15-24 has increased marginally, to around 20 per cent.
In 2016, 13 new female officers joined the ranks of the Afghan National Army – the third year in which they have been allowed to do so. Overall, there are just over 400 female soldiers.