Six years ago, simply speaking about his culture or picking up his instrument could have been enough for 34-year-old Hazara musician Taqi Khan to be killed.
“We were not allowed to sing songs, we were not allowed to study and we were not allowed to do anything which was good for the promotion of our culture,” says Mr Khan, seated in a slick broadcasting studio in inner Melbourne, a world away from the violence and trauma that continues to torment his homeland.
The Hazara ethnic group has been oppressed and persecuted in Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan for more than a century.
But earlier this week, Mr Khan and nine other people from refugee, asylum seeker and emerging communities threw off the shackles of their persecuted past to share their stories of struggle and triumph on community radio station PBS FM.
The broadcast, on the station’s ‘All Our Stories’ program marked a more recent journey in which the group, also drawn from Ethiopia, Ghana, Iran and Vietnam, spent two months in workshops held at the station’s Collingwood studios learning skills in recording, script-writing, editing and broadcasting.
The result of the so-called ‘Collaborative Project’, sponsored by Multicultural Arts Victoria and run with the help of professionals from PBS, as well as SYN FM and ABC Radio National, was a range of personal narratives and audio documentaries.
“It has given people the opportunity to represent their own story, in their own words and in their own voice,” said SYN FM radio presenter Josie Smart, who mentored Mr Khan throughout the project.
Mr Khan, whose family escaped from Afghanistan when he was three years old, spent the bulk of his life as a refugee in Quetta, Pakistan where his community continued to face persecution.
In 2009, he fled to Australia after the Taliban targeted the Hazara people in a mass killing, spending three months in Christmas Island’s detention centre.
As a famous musician within the Hazara community, he recalls being greeted with excitement at the centre by many of the Afghan refugees who instantly recognised him. He ended up performing for his fellow refugees at least twice a month during his time on Christmas Island.
Mr Khan said that starting a new life in Australia had meant he could pursue his music in ways that were not allowed in his home country and he has since appeared in several music festivals around Australia celebrating Hazara music.
Using the skills he has learnt from the training, he hopes to create a radio program showcasing Melbourne’s Hazara musicians, poets and writers.
“We have a very wonderful and beautiful culture . . . We have to work hard to promote it again and keep it alive everywhere in the world,” he said.
Many of the stories produced as a result of ‘The Collaborative Project’ were actually recorded outside the studio, some in obscure locations such as inside an igloo-shaped art installation made from milk crates, and inside one participant’s closet.
“We have a very wonderful and beautiful culture . . . We have to work hard to promote it again and keep it alive everywhere in the world.” — Taqi Khan, Melbourne-based Hazara musician
Some of the refugees told stories about daily life in the countries from which they had fled. The Ethiopian countryside was recreated in a soundscape that captured the sounds of animals and the voices of people singing as they worked in the fields; a Ghanian man described how his family could spend days without sleep when it was raining because water dripping from holes in the ceiling would flood the room.
The importance of music in people’s lives was a recurring theme in several pieces with many of the participants sharing a passion for the arts, one of whom was a successful Ethiopian musician trying to make it in Australia.
One participant, who learnt to play the guitar in the Melbourne-based Asylum Seeker Resource Centre music group, talked about how music had helped him overcome the feeling of being disconnected in a new country.
Mr Khan told the story of his friend, Ali, a Hazara refugee who is fighting depression and anxiety while struggling with the uncertainty of a bridging visa and who fears for his wife and children who remain in Pakistan.
“There are many people around the world that have very painful stories,” said Mr Khan. “It is our responsibility to share their stories.”
► The Collaborative Project: ‘All Our Stories’ on PBS-FM.