It’s a story she has told hundreds of times before, a memory she has relived over and over again, but it’s also a powerful moment that completely altered the course of her life.
Mahboba Rawi and her family had finally settled in Australia after a traumatic escape from Afghanistan and an unsettling five years spent as homeless refugees.
The Kabul native believed she was safe now, that her family would be healthy and out of harm’s way, and she could chase the Australian dream of a house, a car and a simple life.
But all that changed in 1992 when her six year-old son drowned during a family holiday on the coast.
‘He had shiny black eyes and was so smart at the age of six – he was very special to me,’ Mahboba says. ‘When you’re living through war, you experience death often, you see people dying all the time, so I’d never thought I’d experience that again in Australia.
‘My son dying was my worst nightmare, but in a way it was the best thing that happened to me because I wouldn’t be the same person I am now if my son was still alive.’
The tragedy hit Mahboba so fiercely that she was in a state of shock for a long time.
‘Losing a child feels like there is whole fire in your body and you can’t ease that fire,’ she says. ‘I started to say to myself, there’s two choices I have: continue with this anxiety and pain or use it to pave a better way forward.
‘I thought, I can use this to help children from Afghanistan not to lose themselves in poverty, because poverty is one of the biggest killers of children.
‘And this was my promise.’
The organisation she then founded, Mahboba’s Promise, has grown substantially over the years. It provides education, shelter, food and medical care to thousands of people in Afghanistan.
Since 2001, the organisation has built schools and hospitals and provides training and employment for women. It also seeks to better their situations in life.
Mahboba herself, who has a strong passion for children and women, has intervened herself in cases of child marriage, domestic violence and other human rights abuses.
Mahboba has also fostered newly arrived orphans in Australia, most recently taking it upon herself to take in 10 Afghani girls.
She has helped them adapt to their new lives in Australia while helping them preserve their culture and language.
‘My own background has helped me understand the girls. When I was 11, Russia invaded Afghanistan and I was forced to leave my country.
‘So I know very well how these girls are feeling. I know the pain they’ve been through, the grief and loss, so I relate to them a lot.’
Mahboba says that in the past year, the girls have grown in confidence and have taken up arts and sport. She is encouraging them to become leaders.
‘We’re like a big family and it is my dream that girls will go to school and become somebody,’ she says. ‘I would love for them to become leaders not only in Australia but also for Afghanistan and the world.’
Mahboba’s bravery and commitment to her people have not gone unnoticed.
She has received numerous awards and honours, including the Order of Australia and the Australian Human Rights Medal.
But for Mahboba, the real reward is seeing the smile on a child’s face, hearing the laughter of a woman who has found her voice and the love and gratitude shown by those she has helped.
Her dream for the future is to not only continue her good work, but to ultimately see peace in Afghanistan.
‘I want to see Afghanistan happy. I want to see Afghan women going back to school, I want them to have a normal life, freedom and a government that provides for society.’
Mahboba Rawi founded Mahboba’s Promise in 2001 and works to foster newly arrived Afghani orphans in Australia. She is the recipient of the 2023 Settlement Services International NSW Human Rights Medal, an award that recognises an individual who has made a lasting and meaningful contribution to advancing human rights in NSW.