Nouria Salehi excelled at the International Baccalaureate in Afghanistan and dearly wanted to become a doctor. Afghanistan then had only 200 medical practitioners for its 12 million citizens.
She completed an undergraduate degree at the University of Kabul before moving to France on a scholarship to complete her PhD in nuclear medicine. She then spent some years lecturing at a French university, working on cutting edge nuclear medicine, before returning home to Kabul in 1972.
However, like many graduates coming back to Afghanistan, she found the country backward and disintegrating into political factions and her job as an instructor in the faculty of Science in Kabul was way below her level expertise. She returned to Lyon to work and to improve her qualifications whilst supporting family members studying in France.
Supporting Afghans would become a life-long practice for Nouria, shaped by her deep compassion and belief that, with education and determination, anything is possible.
Australians are indeed fortunate that Nouria’s next move in 1981 was to Australia to join her eldest brother Aziz who came to Melbourne on a Colombo Plan Scholarship and settled as a refugee. That same year the Russians came marching in, destroying everything she held dear. The Taliban then denied millions of children an education and women’s lives were heavily restricted.
Looking for a job, she knocked on the door of the Nuclear Medicine Department at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. Impressed by her CV she was invited to take on the difficult task of developing a method of platelet labelling using iridium oxine for the detection of myocardial infarction – a visible method for tracing clot formation in blood. But there was a catch – there was no money to pay her. Nonetheless she agreed and for two years she lived on her savings and the $54/week she received from the government for being a new arrival. She had brought expertise in nuclear medical pharmacy to the department and the result was a method for tracking the development of strokes.
Nouria continued her career with the Royal Melbourne as a highly respected nuclear physicist and biophysicist, retiring in 2018 after almost 40 years with the hospital.
In 1983 Nouria and her brothers set up the Afghan Restaurant in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy in order to sponsor and provide a first job in Australia to Afghan refugees. Her day often began with a trip to the market for the restaurant. The Afghan Restaurant is still going strong serving delicious, authentic Afghan food.
Nouria took on so many leadership roles in supporting Afghan and other refugees. After many years spent privately assisting Afghans to settle in Australia and raising funds to help individuals and families in Afghanistan, she established the Afghan Settlement Support Group, auspiced by the Ecumenical Migration Centre in Melbourne. Here she helped co-ordinate the settlement of refugee women at risk and worked as part of the EMC emergency response to Afghan refugees released from remote detention centres on a Temporary Protection Visa without the usual refugee settlement services.
It was not unusual for Nouria to collect Afghan refugees from the airport, to settle them in Melbourne and take care of their initial accommodation. Her capacity to mobilise Afghan and Australian networks into action has been astounding and none more so than in 1999 when thousands of boat people were released from detention with little by way of support.
Soon after the defeat of the Taliban, in 2002, Nouria moved to formally establish the diaspora international development group, the Afghan Australian Development Organisation. Under her leadership, AADO provides education and training in Afghanistan for those with minimal opportunities, in particular women and their families, to foster sustainable livelihoods and develop professional skills. Her Executive Director role for AADO is unpaid.
AADO has developed a proven track record of high outcome, low cost programs which are delivered by local project staff, informed by Afghans and it has deep community networks and trusted relationships, thanks to her guidance.
Nouria travels to Afghanistan twice a year to work with the local team and monitor these projects, and to maintain and build her relationships with political and civil society leaders in Afghanistan.
In Australia, Nouria continues to support the Afghan community and is a trusted adviser to Governments on matters relating to the settlement and inclusion of Afghan-Australians.
1997 Life Member, the Order of Australia Association
1996-2000 Victorian Committee Member, Amnesty International
1989-1999 Committee Member, Ecumenical Migration Centre, Treasurer 1994-9
1993-2002 Coordinator of Afghan Support Group auspiced by EMC, Melbourne
1992-present Committee Member, International Society of Human Rights, Australia
1995-2006 Executive Committee Member, Refugee Council of Australia
1991-2003 Committee Member, AustCare Refugee Week
1995-2000 Committee Member, Victorian Anti-Landmine Campaign
1999-2005 Committee Member, Justice for Asylum Seekers Coalition
2000-present Charter Member, Brotherhood of St Laurence
2002-2006 Founder and President of Afghan Australian Volunteers Association
2006-present Founder & Executive Director of Afghan Australian Development Organisation
2006-present Victorian Member, Universal Peace Federation
1997 Order of Australia Medal (OAM)
2003 Centenary Medal, Australian Federal Government Award
2005 Leadership Award, Australian Davos Connection\
2006 Ambassador for Peace, Universal Peace Federation
2006 Bringing Communities Together, Australian Federal Government Award
2009 Award of Excellence, Afghan Ministry of Education, Afghanistan
2010 Merit Medal, Victorian Multicultural Commission, Australia
2011 Award of Excellence, Afghan Ministry of Education, Afghanistan
2012 Senior Victorian of the Year
2019 Member of the Order of Australia AM