Struck by the wanderlust bug when still aged in her 20s, Alycia Watson is now giving back to needy citizens of a country which has long held her fascination – Afghanistan – by raising funds to help Afghan refugees gain a scholarship to study at Monash University.
by Judy Fredriksen
Alycia’s kindness is evident as I arrive at her home and am invited to sit in a restful enclosed patio, cooled with copious leafy ferns and hanging baskets. I feel quite special as she sets a bunch of yellow roses on the side table picked especially from her garden for my visit.
Chatting away before I begin the formal interview, it’s apparent Alycia has a passion for two things – education and travel – hobbies that still sustain her, belying her status as an octogenarian.
As a young couple in 1969, Alycia and her husband Ron decided to go travelling – their first stop was Singapore, followed by Nepal. They then headed overland through India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, continuing west and reaching London just before Christmas in 1969.
The entire journey was an eye-opener for the young woman from suburban Melbourne, though it was Afghanistan that she found to be the most mesmerising. To say it was a culture shock would be an understatement.
“Everyone I ever meet is fascinated by Afghanistan. I’d never had pomegranate juice before, I was amazed at the way the people were dressed – big turbans – the men would have layers of clothing. And they all carried enormous rifles, and they’d all load onto the back of some sort of a Toyota ute.
“And of course you’ve got the Hindu Kush, which is an enormous mountain range – that’s always in the background.”
But coming from middle class Australian suburbia, there were bigger surprises for Alycia, like how the people lived and went about their daily shopping.
“To see houses made of mud, hotels made of mud, to see meat hanging in the market square … covered with flies! And the head of a sheep … and just unusual food. It was amazing.”
This was at a time when few westerners ventured into Afghanistan, making Alycia and her husband something of a tourist attraction to the locals.
“The Afghans were amazed because a lot of them had only ever seen a few foreigners.
“It was really an exploration for us. And of course, a culture shock, I knew nothing about Islam really, except of course, I knew that some people wore head coverings.”
Alycia claims that it’s in her DNA to travel and since that first overseas adventure, Alycia and Ron have travelled overseas regularly, always picking up interesting pieces of art, clothing, books and craftwork at markets or out-of-the-way galleries on their journeys.
So after more than 50 years of travelling, the couple seriously considered downsizing. However, there was a problem – what to do with their huge collection of carefully selected mementos they had accumulated from all their overseas travels.
The thought of everything ending up in an op shop was distasteful to Alycia, so it was fortuitous when a unique opportunity appeared, thanks to her former days as a mature-age student at Monash University.
“Because I’d been at Monash, they send you newsletters. As soon as Afghanistan’s mentioned, I will latch onto that.
“It turns out that Monash had brought 11 refugees – young students – they were activists and youth leaders, so they would have been in real trouble. They (Monash University) were working with the army and a few other groups of people, so they decided to fundraise.”
Because these young people had been youth leaders and activists, they risked severe punishments, even execution, if they stayed in Afghanistan. According to the Refugee Council of Australia, around 23,000 Afghans have come to Australia since 2013 to escape the Taliban’s insurgency and ultimate takeover of the country.
Traditionally, Taliban rules dictate that women wear head-to-toe coverings, aren’t allowed to study or work and are forbidden from traveling alone. TV, music and non-Islamic holidays are also banned.
With such restrictive living conditions, the opportunity to start a new life in Australia would be heaven sent for these young people, though receiving a university-level education would be an expensive business. There’s also the cost of living on campus which can be about $14,000 per person, says Alycia.
So it made sense for Alycia to sell her collectables at a market to raise money for the refugees – an exercise she considers to be gratifying and purposeful.
Since Alycia has been taking her wares to the Maleny Markets, held at the Maleny RSL Hall every Sunday from 8am–2pm, she has raised around $10,000 for the Afghan refugees, though she admits she regularly receives donations and boosts her coffers by running raffles, recycling 10 cent containers, and selling more expensive items on line.
She also takes her collection to Collectorama, held at the Nambour showgrounds four times a year with the next event being held in March 2023.
Habitual travellers, Alycia and Ron head overseas again in December, returning to the Maleny Markets for January 2023. So if you want to spoil yourself or find an exquisite piece for someone special, pop in and see Alycia and her eclectic range of collectables in January.
As our interview concluded, I was delighted to be presented with Alycia’s bunch of yellow roses to take home. What a treat – thank you Alycia!