Excellence in Community Engagement awarded to Syed Muhammad Fazal-e-Hasan

ACU lecturer Syed Muhammad Fazal-e-Hasan has been awarded the Vice-Chancellor’s Staff Excellence Award for Community Engagement for his work with asylum seekers and migrants.

When Syed came to Australia in 2009 as a PhD student with an interest in positive emotions, little did he know that a dramatic change in life circumstances would render him unable to return to his homeland of Pakistan. 

Syed’s brother – a well-respected university professor – was tragically killed by the Taliban in 2012.

As it was no longer safe for Syed’s family to remain in Pakistan, he applied for asylum to bring them to Australia. These few short and devastating years taught Syed how crucial positive emotions are to resilience and recovery from traumatic experiences.

Syed says the love and support he received from his PhD supervisor during this time inspired his giving to others: “Someone does good to you, you do good to someone else, and then they can go and do good to someone else.”

Building skills to adapt and thrive in a different culture

Drawing on his academic and personal experience, Syed designed a 10-day free workshop that helps marginalised and vulnerable people to apply the skills of positive emotions in their lives.

Most recently, he has run this workshop with migrants and refugees – many from a South-East Asian background – to help them find their place and thrive within Australian culture.

“Australia is multicultural, and many of them do not come from a multicultural context, so they have no way to know how to connect with others from a different culture,” Syed says.

“In their homeland, these people are deeply connected to community, and relationships are very important. Australia is a very individualistic society. They don’t see their traditions or their rituals, or know how to find like-minded community. So they can get into mental stress and develop anxiety or depression.

“Many of the women don’t want to leave the house. They have come from a culture where they are not used to having a job or weren’t allowed to go to certain places. I tell them, ‘You can come out of the home, you can go out and wear your hijab, no one is stopping you’.”

Sharing research and divine inspiration

Syed currently works as a Senior Lecturer (Management) in ACU’s Peter Faber Business School, and has been supported by ACU’s Community Engagement Time Release Policy to offer his workshops to around 200 migrants and refugees in Canberra.

The workshops combine research-backed advice with references to spiritual teaching to help people cope with a broad range of issues, such as making new friends, navigating public institutions and raising children. Participants focus on one practical exercise every day to apply the principles of positive emotions.

“People from South-East Asia are very religious, so you need to find a way through the language and the story of the divine words to connect with them,” Syed says.

“I use examples from the scriptures, from Jesus, Muhammed and other prophets, to help them reframe their beliefs about what they can do to connect with others in this society. I show them they can see religious values as global – not only confined to the culture of their homeland.

“Negative emotions can’t bring enduring change. This is where positive emotions like hope, gratitude and resilience are very important. I talk to them about the benefits of changing their mindset and behaviour, and we look at how these outweigh the costs of not changing.

“I show them that if you can return to using positive emotions, you will come to love people.”

Syed, who speaks both Urdu and Hindi, also teaches people how they can go to a library to improve their language skills, and how to ask for help. He encourages people to find their voice to address oppression and discrimination.

“In their homeland, some had been targeted by the Taliban, so they are already very fearful,” Syed says.

“I tell them that if you are being oppressed, you need to speak out, raise your voice. And I give examples of where the prophets have done so in the scriptures. We also cover information about their rights. Their rights when they go to Centrelink, their rights for their kids, when they go to a place of worship, when they go to the park.”

Syed says his community engagement informs his ongoing research: “When they share with me their stories of how they came to Australia on a broken boat, their struggle to survive, I learn about resilience from them.

“These workshops are the essence of my whole life. I feel so satisfied to know that these people are not just coming to a workshop, they are going somewhere.”

Syed Muhammad FazaleHasan

Syed Muhammad Fazal-e-Hasan

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