Noor sits on a table cross legged, talking to four other people in the room.

How a former refugee is changing lives one classroom at a time

29 May 2023
Empowering the voiceless through education and advocacy
While other children went to school, Noor Azizah trekked through the Southeast Asian jungle to escape a life of discrimination. Now she gives young people like her a chance to receive an education.

Noor Azizah (BEd(Primary) '19, MPACS '22) is a proud Rohingya woman from the Rakhine state of Myanmar, one of the largest stateless communities. 

“We are survivors of genocide and ongoing genocide that is still happening today. And I am so proud of my culture, a culture the military has been trying to erase, but it's still alive because of the strong women from my community," says Noor.

Noor fled with her family from Maungdaw as neighbouring villages were being burnt down. Together, they found their way by foot to Malaysia.

“We couldn't go to school; my parents weren't able to feed us. They were burning the villages down. So my parents and their five children left Myanmar, and we walked across the jungles of Southeast Asia. We took every bus possible. We were essentially stateless, meaning we had absolutely nothing. We didn't have citizenship. We had hiding spots to hide from the officials. And this was something any child shouldn't really experience at that point of life.”

Noor Azizah in her graduation gown outside The Quadrangle building

Noor and her family were granted asylum by the time she was eight and a half and arrived in Australia in 2003. After stepping off the plane they were greeted by sun, sand, and the opportunity to explore their own culture.

“I could feel the sense of freedom when we came here. I could feel it sort of in our bones, and I could feel my parents looking at us and thinking, ‘we're not living in fear anymore’,” she recalls. “We were able to practise our language and our culture. We never really got to cook our own food; we never had a kitchen. So that's been how my mum has taught us; through food, through language, through clothing."

In those days the family lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Western Sydney. Noor says she thought she was living in a mansion. “But now when you think about it, it was very small. It was for seven people,” she laughs.

Noor loved going to school in Australia, despite how different it was to the life she knew. “I had zero English and I got pulled out to special classes,” Noor says. “But I was lucky because my school was very multicultural, so there were lots of people that had the same experiences as me and to have that support was really impactful towards my resettlement.”

And that’s why I decided I wanted to be a teacher, because I want to bring girls and boys to school. And for young girls to look up to me and say ‘if she can do it, so can I.’
Noor Azizah

A passion for helping people around her led Noor to pursue an education degree at the University of Sydney. She fondly remembers Welcome Week tents, her supportive tutors, building relationships during classes, and meeting people from “all walks of life”.

Although she enjoyed studying, Noor worried her parents did not have the financial stability to keep her afloat.

“Being from a refugee background, financial stability is often very difficult,” Noor says. “There were times when my parents couldn't afford to pay for my textbooks and travel costs, and it was very difficult for me to also work because I needed to study.” 

Noor Azizah at a conference

When she isn't teaching, Noor advocates for Rohingya issues by visiting refugee camps. She recently travelled to a camp in Bangladesh, where close to two million Rohingya refugees share tents and struggle to stay above the poverty line. Noor describes their “thirst for education” as she talked with them about the gender-based violence and human trafficking issues rampant in their community.

“They knew education was going to help them end their poverty,” Noor says. “Schooling is a big gap for Rohingya refugees. There is no formal education, not in Myanmar, not in the refugee camps, not in Malaysia.

“And that’s why I decided I wanted to be a teacher, because I want to bring girls and boys to school, I want them to get an education. And for young girls to look up to me and say ‘if she can do it, so can I.’”

By supporting education for all, you can help students from disadvantaged backgrounds to access university through life-changing scholarships, ensure they feel supported throughout their studies and enable them to achieve their full potential. 

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