During Refugee Week, Navitas English’s Basim Shamaon received a prestigious NSW Humanitarian Award for his outstanding work with refugees. He spoke to Fiona West about his own journey as a young Iraqi refugee and how it helped him find his calling in a vocation devoted to helping others.
As a displaced teenager, Basim Shamaon’s faith got him through the toughest part of his life, while waiting desperately for refugee status after fleeing his war-torn homeland of Iraq.
His family was struggling as outsiders in Jordan, where they were ostracised and living on the edge, fearful for their future. A young but hopeful Basim sought personal refuge in the Catholic Church, attending every Mass and Bible studies class he could. “It was the only place I felt safe,” he said, reflecting on his mission at age 15 year to join the priesthood and devote his life to helping others.
But when his prayers were answered and his family was finally granted asylum in Australia in 2005, Basim decided he would pursue a different, yet equally fulfilling, path.
“When I came here, I changed my mind because I felt like I don’t need to be a priest to serve my community; I can be an ordinary person and still serve my community.”
However, anyone who knows Basim will attest to the fact he is anything but “ordinary”.
The recently promoted Navitas English Stakeholder Engagement Manager has three bulging manilla folders full of certificates, letters of recognition and awards as proof – not that he needs to get them out or put them on display. He has volunteered with more than 20 organisations and helped Navitas English students do the same.
“The amount of volunteering work I’ve done honestly I can’t remember it all, because I’ve done so many things,” he said.
Among that long list of “things” is establishing outreach English classes to assist refugees, especially single mothers and people with a disability, dedicating weekends to provide free interpreting and translating, form-filling and JP services, training refugees to run fundraising projects and advocating for refugees and migrants.
He is currently a member of Fairfield City Multicultural Advisory Committee, Fairfield Employment and Community Services Forum, Fairfield Emerging Communities Action Partnership, Fairfield Multicultural Interagency and Fairfield Police’s Community Safety Precinct Committee. A former youth advisor to Fairfield City Council for two terms, Basim was the council’s Young Citizen of the Year in 2014, referred to as “a young man who is literally everywhere”.
Even taking a short walk from Fairfield College to his favourite café (owned by a former student) takes Basim much longer than anticipated, with people bumping into him who “need to talk” about one matter or another.
Always busy, Basim has time for everyone. Fluent in Arabic, Assyrian, and Chaldean, if he can’t help someone with their problem, he will go out of his way to find someone who can.
“Left and right, people stop me,” Basim laughs. “I like that. I feel good when someone remembers me for something, I’ve done for them.”
Sitting in the café sipping on his second coffee for the day, Basim is generous in telling his life story. Smiling with his whole face, he offers a rare mix of humility and experience. But as he talks of his past his eyes give away a sadness that only fellow refugees can understand.
“I still remember the war, and how people were suffering,” he said, as he reels off the imagery etched in his mind from that time.
“Whenever there was a rocket or any explosion the whole building would shake at night so we were not able to sleep. I remember there was a hotel opposite our house we used to go to the basement there. It was so hard. The whole country was on lockdown so there were no shops. And I remember we used to have bread that is 12 days, 15 days old.
“I don’t feel like I lived my childhood … I didn’t get to enjoy being a child.”
The oldest sibling of two brothers and a sister, Basim said his family “suffered a lot” in a Muslim-dominated society because of their Christian faith.
His mother, a three-times-a-day rosary praying Catholic, could not leave the house without covering the precious cross she wore around her neck, Basim was devastatingly denied entry into his former high school, and his father, who owned a small grocery store, was delivered a bullet in an envelope at the shop’s front door – a pointed warning never to re-open.
“That was the final straw,” Basim said. “We had no choice but to pack our bags and run away … to Jordan.”
There were many other “struggles” during the 12 months in Jordan but the day Basim and his family left for Australia was one of his happiest.
“I had suffered a lot, mentally, socially, physically, in all aspects,” Basim said.
“But that day I was very, very excited and I could see my future. I left my past behind. My mum always used to say, ‘Forgive, forget’. These are the two words that I live by.”
True to his word, Basim has gone on in Fairfield to work with, and serve, all members of the community, regardless of their background, religious or cultural beliefs.
“Although I faced discrimination in Iraq and Jordan, I see everyone as my brothers and sisters. Honestly. I do as many projects with the Lebanese Muslim Association as I do with the Assyrian Resource Centre.”
Helping refugees has been his life’s work. After graduating from Fairfield High School, Basim completed a Bachelor of International Studies and a Master of Arts in TESOL, as well as an Advanced Diploma of Leadership and Management, a Diploma in Community Services, and an Advanced Diploma in Community Management Sector.
At Navitas English, Basim started as a casual teacher in 2015: “When I joined, I thought, ‘With my community involvement, and with my background and my passion, I am sure I can add another flavour to Navitas’.”
Basim introduced external projects for his students, from fundraising to specialised training and volunteering, opening up opportunities to give back, engage with others, and improve their skills, such as cooking and barista courses.
“I taught all the programs, AMEP, SPP, SEE, citizenship courses, and I came to a point where I said, ‘Instead of working with a class of say 15 students, how about I see what else I could do in the company for a bigger group, so instead of doing something where 15 people benefit, 100 or more people could benefit’.”
Basim became the SEE Project Support in January 2019, which organically led to Community Liaison Officer in January 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Australia. Recognising the need to maintain a vital connection to vulnerable clients, Basim initiated several projects to offer more support to the refugee community, including more than 20 “Ask the Expert” online forums with targeted practical information from agencies including STARTTS, NSW Health Service, Police NSW, Legal Aid, Services NSW, Centrelink and CORE CS; developing bespoke courses, including all-female Everyday English and Digital Skills course for almost 40 refugee women to improve language/conversational skills and confidence with essential smartphone applications and government services; and sharing his personal story to reach out to refugee men as part of a male suicide-prevention campaign.
From July 1, Basim is now Stakeholder Engagement Manager for the SEE program, across all South West Sydney campuses at Fairfield, Cabramatta, Liverpool, Bankstown, Parramatta, Auburn, Campbelltown and Miller.
“I’m so proud to work for Navitas English and I’m so lucky to have such great managers where every time I propose a project, it has been accepted. This is what makes me want to bring more to the colleges because they trust their staff,” he said.
“I feel myself very blessed because I believe in this company. I know first-hand that this company has changed a lot of lives. For me it is not a job, it is a vocation.”
Fairfield is a long way from Iraq, and the confident, successful Basim of today is a million miles from the frightened teenage boy who fled his home and everything he knew more than 15 years ago with only the hope of a better life.
“Australia is not only a country, it’s home,” Basim said.
“I love Australia – it is like I was born here. And I will protect it. If we are in a war and they want soldiers I will be the first one putting my name down defending this country. Because this country saved me, saved my family, gave me a future, gave me an education. What else could I want?”