Human Rights Activist Tops the List of Sector’s Most Impactful
8 December 2016 at 10:44 am
Afghan migrant and human rights activist Romal Baluchzada has topped the list of Pro Bono Australia’s 2016 Impact 25.
More than 18,500 votes were cast and a list of nearly 300 names narrowed down to establish the social sector’s most influential figures of 2016.
Baluchzada told Pro Bono Australia News it was “unbelievable” to be recognised in this way.
“I’m quite surprised to be honest,” Baluchzada said.
“There are a lot of great people in the list… it is very hard to think that I am one of those great and influential people and it is possible for [me] to come at the top.”
Impact 25 is the only national accolade recognising the most influential people in the Australian social sector. This year Pro Bono Australia partnered with the Macquarie Group Foundation and Redback Conferencing for the awards to further highlight the sector’s achievements and encourage collaboration.
Baluchzada was joined on the honour roll by last year’s winner Rosie Batty and 2014 winner Tim Costello, as well as by some of Australia’s best-known CEOs, politicians, advocates and innovators including 2017 Australian youth representative to the United Nations Paige Burton, barrister, human rights and refugee advocate Julian Burnside AO QC and Labor Senator for South Australia Penny Wong.
The national manager of Westpac’s Davidson Institute and Social Sector segment, Lali Wiratunga, who was also included in this year’s top 25, said it was a privilege.
“Being recognised for creating a positive impact in the social sector brings me a huge sense of gratitude – to the people in the social sector who roll up their sleeves every day and let me work alongside them to get the job done; and to our team at Westpac who seek to deliver positive social impact to all Australians,” Wiratunga said.
“It is a true privilege to be able to connect the social sector with the business sector and drive social change through innovation and entrepreneurship.”
Autism West co-founder and chairperson Silvana Gaglia said: “I am honoured to have made it to the final 25, amongst an amazing list of great people.”
Baluchzada, who also made the top 25 list last year, was chosen by the sector as the overall winner for his contribution as an “energetic and active human rights activist”.
The father-of-two immigrated to Australia from Afghanistan just six years ago. But in a short time has had a powerful impact on those around him, working in the community, becoming a team leader at Settlement Services International and founding his own radio show on 2SER, Khurasaan Zamin, where he talks about Australian law and human rights.
Baluchzada said he wanted to use the accolade as an opportunity to show that Muslims, now more than ever, can have a positive impact on the community.
“I want to convey a message to the community, as a Muslim I am very happy to be recognised as an impact maker, I came out top, which means Muslims can make an impact on the community as well,” he said.
“It has really disappointed me always that for any attack or any terrorist activity that happens in the world, as a [member of the] Muslim community I have to explain myself to every single person that is not Muslim.
“The other thing is that these terrorist attacks and these society attacks have a history of only 15 or 16 years, it started on 9 September 2001 from Afghanistan, which targeted Ahmad Shah Massoud, one of the Afghan leaders, two days after that, the attack happened in New York… we should not judge the Muslim community starting from 16 years [ago], Muslims have thousands of years of history.
“I want to respect the Australian community and I have always raised this issue with the Afghan and Muslim communities that it is not the fault of the Australian community to link Islam with terrorists, because from the other side, it is the Muslim leaders that they kept quiet, they are not putting enough energy to differentiate between terrorists and Islam… I promise that getting this title, this year, this will be one of my comebacks against the leaders, I will force them to differentiate between Muslims and terrorists.”
Baluchzada, who migrated to Australia in 2010 after he married his wife Khadija Jhaish, said he faced a lot of challenges when he first arrived.
“I faced a lot of challenges, because my qualifications, my experience, none of them were recognised here so I really struggled,” he said.
“I tried to navigate myself and start working, first of all for myself, then initially I worked very hard jobs, for example I started working as a traffic controller, which was unacceptable for me, but what I did, I decided to not give up and just work and make the same Romal that I was back home.
“So I started thinking about changing my career, and I found community work as it was my passion.
“I studied a number of diplomas in the community sector then I completed my degree in human services. At the same time I started working with Settlement Services International, it is a beautiful organisation and we are working with refugees and with communities, and I found it very good.
“At the same time I established my community radio, which was amazing and I had a very good experience with that on 2SER FM. On the community radio I used to talk about human rights, how to educate the community to understand the law, especially new arrivals, and assisting [those] who would be new clients when they are arriving.
“Because of the experience I had and the frustration I faced, I wanted to pass on my experience and courage and inspire others, that if they want, they can achieve whatever they want.”
Baluchzada, who previously worked as a civil engineer in Afghanistan and was a project manager of key works in charge of a budget of $400 million, said it was the right decision for him to change career and enter the social sector.
“I decided to change my career because I wanted to put aside resolving mathematical issues and come to resolving social issues,” he said.
“I found social issues more important, that’s why I want to put my energy into solving these social and community issues.
“It is my passion, working with the people.
“I had enough experience and I had a very good job in civil engineering in my project, but when I came to Australia, as I said, I was faced with a lot of challenges, with a lot of frustrations. I found that I would be more useful to put all my energy into solving community issues so that’s why I decided that this was the right place and the right decision and I am very happy with it.”
Baluchzada said he was optimistic for 2017.
“I would love to see the world, especially Australia as my home now, to be safe. That people can live together and enjoy the beauty of the diversity.
“As a multicultural [society] we are enjoying each other’s culture, we laugh and we work together. I want a safe Australia and a safe world, that’s my main hope.”
Pro Bono Australia CEO Matt Betts congratulated Baluchzada and the other 24 members of this year’s Impact 25 on being recognised.
“The social sector plays a vital role in our society and Pro Bono Australia’s Impact 25 is a fantastic opportunity to recognise the hard work that the men and women in the sector are doing day in and day out,” Betts said.
“We congratulate everyone who made the 2016 Impact 25 list in what was a record year in terms of nominees and votes.”
For the full 2016 Impact 25 and the stories behind the people who made the list, see here.