Queechy High student Maryam Ali wins Year 9/10 category of Whitlam Institute What Matters? competition

Writer: Maryam Ali was the Year 9/10 winner from Tasmania at the Whitlam Institute's What Matters? Essay competition. Picture: Paul Scambler
Writer: Maryam Ali was the Year 9/10 winner from Tasmania at the Whitlam Institute's What Matters? Essay competition. Picture: Paul Scambler

​An essay written from the heart has been recognised as a state winner in a prestigious essay competition hosted by the Whitlam Institute.

Queechy High School student Maryam Ali, 15, tackled the essay question of What Matters? with her own experiences of being discriminated against in daily life, asking people to consider the impacts of their actions and words.

Her powerful essay took out the Year 9/10 Tasmania category, against competition from across the state. 

Drawing from her own lived experiences facing discrimination in daily life, Maryam wrote about knowing that whenever she walks outside her own house, she will “experience some shape or form of discrimination”.

“​It is a fact to state that discrimination is one of my earliest memories,” Maryam wrote. Her essay struck a chord with the judges, and her winning entry saw her go to Sydney for a day’s writing workshop and an award ceremony hosted by Lisa Wilkinson.

Maryam’s father came from Afghanistan and met her mother, from Malaysia, and they lived for a time in the Northern Territory. The family moved to Tasmania when Maryam was a baby.

“When I saw the competition title – What Matters –  it brought out so many different things from my mind,” she said

“What matters to me, what I’ve been through … I don’t want another person to go through that.

“I wanted to get it out on paper to get my voice heard by other people.”

Whitlam Institute director Eric Sidoti said the competition “offered a window into the lives of young Australians” and was focused on giving young people a voice to speak on issues affecting them.

He said the competition highlighted how “deeply driven” young Australians are by a sense of social justice.

It was that sense of social justice that Maryam sought to convey in her essay, saying it was hard for her to feel at home anywhere as she grew up in Tasmania surrounded by people who did not necessarily understand her life and her culture.

In her essay, Maryam wrote about daily instances of racist and disciminatory behaviour targeting her – from being blamed for the Lindt Cafe terror attack to people trying to take her hijab off.

Questioning how it’s possible to maintain self-esteem and confidence, and a sense of identity belonging in Australia, she said it was important that people listened and stopped discriminating on the basis of race, gender or religion.

“I just wanted to raise awareness on it, because in Tasmania it’s not as diverse as the mainland – I’m the only Australian-born Muslim in Tasmania who I’ve met who can speak English,” she said.

“Some people say I don’t belong here, where do I belong?

“I don’t belong in Afghanistan, or Malaysia, or Australia really.

“But lately I’ve been feeling like I belong here.”