Whenever Zoe Ghani catches a glimpse of refugee camps on the news or reads about families fleeing from war, she is struck by one thought: “that could have been me.”

Today, Zoe is one of Australia’s top technology executives, having worked as Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of fashion e-tailer The ICONIC before taking up her current senior role at software giant Atlassian. However, she arrived in Australia 33 years ago as a refugee from Afghanistan.

Motivated by a desire to help other refugees, Zoe joined the board of Australia for UNHCR and is a key advisor to – and herself a Founding 50 member of –the Leading Women Fund. With her extensive experience in tech, she has also been instrumental in the development of the UNHCR global’s ground–breaking Connecting Worlds app, which enables donors to connect directly with Syrian refugee women in Jordan.

“I had the amazing experience of being on the initial pilot and texting a woman in Syria and developing a relationship,” she says. “We bonded over food, because I love eating and cooking, and she liked to cook!” 

Zoe will work with the Founding 50 members of the Fund to “facilitate a process where we take their ideas and improvements to help shape the next phase of the app”. Through UX workshops, donors will have the chance to give feedback on their experience before it’s rolled out to women in other countries.

Zoe was just five years old when she left Afghanistan, but still recalls the “violence and death” that erupted after the Soviet Invasion.

Technology executive and former refugee, Zoe Ghani.
© Image supplied

Her father was a public prosecutor and quickly came under pressure to join the Communist Party. Fear, suspicion and distrust grew until “you couldn’t trust your friends and neighbours anymore”, she explains.

In 1982, her father managed to secure a one-year scholarship to New Delhi, taking his young family with him. From there, the family applied for refugee status, and resettled in Australia in 1987. 

Today, she feels “an immense sense of gratitude” for her new life in Australia. “Really, there isn’t a reason why I got to leave on a plane… to have this life of peace and comfort to pursue my passions, to eat amazing food and meet amazing people.”  

 

Zoe Ghani and her family in 1987, after recently arriving to Australia. © Image supplied

Having said that, Zoe admits that the prospect of networking often makes her nervous. “If you send me to a room full of people, with drinks in their hand where the music is really loud, I could barely manage small talk,” she laughs. “But [with the Fund], here are 50 women trying to learn from each other and discuss a topic that we all care about deeply… so it’s purpose-driven communication, and I’m totally fine in that scenario.” 

Zoe, who initially struggled to adjust to her new life in Australia, is now passionate about the power of connection. 

“If we can facilitate a connection between women in Australia and refugee women, where they get to know one another as people – and they share learnings and insights and life lessons and have meaningful conversations – it will demystify what Australian women see on TV. Hopefully it will build a human-to-human connection.”

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