Afghan women learn to swim and drive as they adjust to Australian life

Ten months after arriving in Australia from Afghanistan, Rabia Johini has taken on a new challenge  — learning to swim.

The 32-year-old, who left Afghanistan after the Taliban took over, had never stepped foot in a pool until last month, when she decided to join a program that offers free swimming lessons to newly-arrived Afghan women in Sydney’s west.

“When I came here, I was very interested to learn,” she said.

“One of my wishes was to become a good swimmer.

“The few lessons that I’ve taken part in were very good and I’m learning very quickly.”

More than 40 women have participated in the program, which is run by non-profit community organisation Afghan Women on the Move (AWOTM).

Weekly classes are held in a private indoor pool in Auburn with female swimming instructors.

The women wear matching colourful burkinis and tie-dye swimming caps, given to them as part of the program.

AWOTM founder and director, Maryam Zahid, said it provided a culturally safe space for the group.

“It’s an only-women approach to their needs,” she said.

“It helps them trust the program, feel comfortable and safe.”

A woman stands in front of a swimming pool
AWOTM Move Founder Maryam Zahid says her organisation aims to empower Afghan women.(ABC News: Housnia Shams)

Ms Zahid said in landlocked Afghanistan, learning to swim is not viewed as a priority, pools are scarce, and women often face cultural barriers when trying to participate.

“We had women who [experienced] their first time in the water, so for them it was a life-changing experience,” she said.

An average of 288 people drown in Australia every year, with about a quarter of them born overseas.

Royal Life Saving Australia said research has shown tailored, culturally appropriate swimming and water safety programs can help engage multicultural communities.

“There are communities who, for cultural and religious reasons may not have been able to access swimming and water safety education programs,” Stacy Pidgeon, Royal Life Saving research and policy national manager said.

“So it’s really important that we make our aquatic facilities and our programs welcoming … but also that they meet the cultural and religious needs of all of our communities.

“We want everyone to be able to enjoy the water safely with their family and friends.”

Getting behind the wheel

A woman holds an L-plate next to another woman in front of a car
Zohra Farzam (left) is confident she’ll get her driver’s licence after taking part in lessons with her instructor. (ABC News: Housnia Shams)

The organisation also offers free driving lessons for 20 newly-arrived Afghan women.

Mother-of-two Zohra Farzam fled Afghanistan nine months ago and has completed her tenth lesson.

Ms Farzam said getting her driver’s licence would allow her to be more independent.

“Driving here is so important,” she said.

“You can’t go to a doctor’s appointment or to work, study, you can’t get anywhere.”

Her driving instructor, Tooba Lasu, said there had been overwhelming demand for the program since it began.

“They [the women] are happy with me teaching them because we speak the same language,” she said.

“It’s not easy for them to get their L’s … they just arrived a few months ago with no English.

“But they know how important it is [to get a licence] as they don’t want to rely on anyone [to get around].”

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