Tears were shed as refugees shared their journey to Australia at the second Illawarra Refugee Challenge community night held at Woonona High School.

University of Wollongong student Azita fled Iran with her family in 2011 after her 14-year-old sister was kidnapped.

Azita, who asked that her name not be published, was brought to tears after describing the harsh treatment she and her family received in Iran because of their Afghani background.

“When my sister didn’t return I went to look for her and I panicked,” she said. “She went out to buy cake from our local store and was taken by our neighbour. I was so stressed.”

Her sister rang four hours later, after she had run away from her abductor.

The Illawarra has become a safe haven for Azita and her family. She is one of eight refugees who spoke at the event that was held earlier this month.

“It is weird, I have all the good memories in Iran but I feel like my home is here, in Wollongong,” said Azita, who is now studying nursing.

Teresa Tran, from Vietnam, also spoke at the community night.

“Coming to Australia was our second chance to survive, we could have died at sea at the hands of a pirate,” Ms Tran said.

Wollongong City Council Community Development Officer, Vimila Colless, was a key organiser of the event at Woonona High. The program was piloted last year in a joint effort between Wollongong High and Keira High.

“What is really important about this program is the personal contact with persons of a refugee background, hearing their voices and their experiences, because we don’t get enough of that, and that is really what builds the empathy,” Mrs Colless said.

Each year National Refugee Week hosts numerous events throughout Australia to encourage better understanding between different communities and to facilitate conversations.

The Illawarra is home to hundreds of refugees who have stories similar to Azita and Teresa. The not-for-profit, community-based incorporated association, Strategic Community Assistance to Refugee Families (SCARF) is a strong support system for refugees in Wollongong. To get involved, visit the SCARF website.

Photo: Justine McKenna