Sara Saleh is used to juggling multiple projects at the same time.
Since graduating with a Bachelor of Social Science - Government (Class I Honours) just over a decade ago, Saleh has worked as a human rights activist, refugee campaigner and GetUp! Board member; she’s also an award-winning poet and a proud Bankstown ‘Slambassador’, whose work has been published in English and Arabic in both Australian and international anthologies, winning numerous awards.
Her writing has also been published by The Guardian, Fairfax and SBS, she’s the co-editor of 2019 anthology, Arab, Australian, Other: Stories on Race and Identity, and is working on her debut poetry collection and a novel - not to mention picking up a master’s degree in human rights law and policy, and Juris Doctor at UNSW along the way.
“It probably sounds like a lot,” Sara laughs, “but I just want to preface this with saying that there is not a time that I can remember where I haven't been juggling two or three big projects or big roles, whether officially or unofficially.”
Saleh first started coming to the University of Sydney as a three-year-old. Her father, recently arrived from Egypt, was studying his PhD in Engineering, and would drop her at the University’s kindergarten.
“My dad was juggling multiple jobs, as working class, newly arrived migrants do, as was my mum - plus he was doing a PhD on top of it. Then on weekends, he would be doing experiments in the lab, and I would be there, just chilling in the lab with him, although I don’t remember anything, I was too little.”
“I think because of my dad having done his PhD at the University of Sydney, the first in his family to do so, I always knew I wanted to go to USYD, as a way to honour him and his hard work and my parents love of education. My siblings also all went to Sydney Uni – it's kind of like a family tradition now, I suppose.”
Saleh, the daughter of Palestinan, Egyptian and Lebanese migrants, attended primary school in Australia, then high school in the Middle East, before returning to Australia to go to university.
“For me, a highlight of campus life was connecting with like-minded students, critical thinkers who shared similar values - as well as the opportunity to hear from lecturers with real-world experience.”
As a young person, I think it really made a difference, understanding that these people are real, and this is achievable.
“We were lucky to have guest speakers who had done all sorts of wonderful, weird and good things around the world, and they were able to bring that knowledge straight to us into the classroom,” Saleh says. “As a young person, I think it really made a difference, understanding that these people are real, and this is achievable.”
Growing up, Saleh had wanted to be a writer or a journalist, but felt that it had its limitations.
“I realised that it has its limits in a place like Australia, where back then, 10 or 15 years ago, the landscape was very different in terms of representation. There were few people who looked like me in pop culture, no one who was visibly Muslim, Palestinian or Arab. Even if I were to push boundaries and be that person, I think it would be very difficult. I found a lot more joy and caring in other roles - taking it a step further from journalism to advocacy, which felt a little bit more hands-on.”
After graduating, Saleh worked in research roles, including in the University’s Arabic and Islamic studies department, as well as in grassroots activism, working with several community organisations in Western Sydney. Although she loved academia, she also enjoyed being involved being on the ground, in the heart of the action, putting theory into practice.
She then spent a decade working with international aid and development organisations, including Amnesty International and CARE International, travelling to refugee camps throughout the Middle East, working in media advocacy, law and policy roles.
However, she never really stopped writing - it continued hand-in-hand with her advocacy work, and in 2012, she participated in her first poetry slam event in Bankstown Arts Centre.
At the very least we’re able to shape language and thought. When you find that relatable meaning, that purpose that's what moves you to action and that's how you create change.
“I met a whole bunch of people through the community who were poets, writers and artists and were just really a bit over having to go to the city for poetry and arts events. Even the subject matter at those events would not be as relatable to us and to our experiences, because they weren't very diverse,” Saleh says. “The kinds of poems that we were performing were about issues that were important to us, like refugee rights, Islamophobia or the fact that we're on Stolen land.”
“I know that my poems aren't necessarily going to shut down the detention centre at the end of the road, it's not going to end indefinite detention it's not going to bring about policy change tomorrow, but at the very least we’re able to shape language and thought. When you find that relatable meaning, that purpose that's what moves you to action and that's how you create change.”
Her poems have won two of Australia’s most prestigious poetry honours – the Australian Book Review's 2021 Peter Porter Poetry Prize and the Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize 2020 – she's the first Australian poet to win both.
Saleh currently works in legal aid part-time, as she writes her debut poet collection, The Flirtation of Girls /Ghazl el-Banat. She is also writing her debut novel, an intergenerational story following the life of a Palestinian family that ends up in Western Sydney – after she was awarded the inaugural Affirm Press Mentorship for Sweatshop Western Sydney.
My goal is to have a society where people are thriving and more equitably treated and fair and where we're all appreciated and can be who we are.
Saleh says she couldn’t have done it all without a lot of support around her.
“I’ve had a lot of opportunities, you know, we don't get far ahead without support. I've been very lucky to have people help to elevate and make space for me and share opportunities, and I really hope to be able to do that for others as well.”
“Ultimately, my goal is to have a society where people are thriving and more equitably treated and fair, and where we're all appreciated and can be who we are.”
Image credit: Liza Moscatelli.