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Barbara Ramjan’s extraordinary life of advocacy

Inner West local and community advocate Barbara Ramjan in front of her Lennox Street mural. Photo: Mark Dixon

By BRIANNAH DEVLIN

Meet Barbara Ramjan. Change-maker. Advocate. She has lived in the inner west her whole life. 

She’s a woman who has seen the world change in many ways and evolve into a different world than the one she was born in. Ramjan was nominated as part of Inner West Council’s International Women’s Day Honour Roll of 2019.

On the 8th of March, it will be International Women’s Day—a day for celebrating the diversity of women across the globe regardless of their background, economic status, sexuality, age, ability and religion. 

It is about championing their achievements for their local communities and support networks, as well as for the wider communities. This has been particularly felt over the last year, with women being amongst those who have been hit the hardest by the pandemic, and have been helping society function. 

The day is about appreciating the value they bring to our lives, but more importantly recognising that they’re a valued member of society, and need to be upheld with equal rights. 

Ramjan was “surprised and humbled” to be nominated for the award with a diverse group of women. She also could not believe the size of the mural that was painted of her and other nominees, all everyday women who have done extraordinary things in their community, on Lennox Street in Newtown (pictured). 

From diverse roots

Barbara is one of eight, and grew up in the 50s, with a very “strong mother”, and a jazz musician for a father. The white Australian policy was something that she experienced first hand. Her father is from Fiji, with his family coming from India.

“So it was not unusual to have my family facing discrimination and facing things that needed changing and things that needed addressing,” she said. 

“When he used to do his country tours, he always had to have the piece of paper signed by the undersecretary for that purpose, and for that moment, allowed him to enter the places he was playing.”

These experiences growing up have helped shape her today, and her passion for helping others from marginalised groups regardless of their race, ability or sexuality. 

Taking on the system

She has many accolades and values that are all in need of a mention. Barbara is a 78er, being there in the very thick of when homosexuality was deemed a criminal act. She is also a Children’s Court Advisory Committee Member, Legal Aid Board Member, Guardian ad Litem Courts and Tribunals of NSW, Member of the Guardianship Tribunal and Immigration Review Tribunal. 

She is also a rowing instructor for people with disabilities. More about that one a little later.

One of the things that was mentioned among many things on Barbara’s honour roll profile was that she is “a tireless, fearless advocate, dedicated to assisting the most vulnerable and marginalised people in our community.”

As we began to chat, it became clear that it was something that was ingrained in her. 

One of Barbara’s highlights was marching in 2018, in the 40th anniversary commemorative march in Mardi Gras that she walked with a friend. It was more significant for her as it was shortly after same-sex marriage was legalised in late 2017. 

“When we walked down Oxford Street and I think both of us were close to tears.”

“And we kept saying, ‘Who would believe that in 1978, 40 years for that this would be the reception and this is amazing, that people calling out thank you.’”

“And it was just overwhelming. Because you don’t do it for you, you’re doing because change has to happen.” 

Ramjan also went into the impact her ad litem work has had on her, but also those who she is serving. 

“It’s terrific because you get appointed for people who lack legal capacity, or children under 12. It’s fabulous work, it can be really challenging because of the nature of the work,” she said.

“But it’s really also fulfilling because if you do it properly, then the person you’re standing in the shoes of has to get a better outcome than if you’re not there.”

Rowing to victory

Now back to rowing. For over a decade, Barbara has been teaching people with physical and intellectual disabilities how to row. She first got involved when her son needed to strengthen his lungs, so she took him to rowing lessons, needing to drive him back and forth. 

“Being young, he needed driving there and back. And as most parents, you suddenly find that you volunteer and then all of a sudden you will be more than a volunteer,” she explained.

“He taught me to row.” 

It was not until she met some of the people who were learning to row that she decided to step in and help coach others. 

“One of them had a disability and had a brain injury from a very bad car accident.”

“It’s great seeing them in a boat, growing, and adults with different disabilities doing amazing stuff.”

Talking to Barbara the pride she has in helping others is evident, especially when a team of her rowers flew over to compete in America in 2013. They were the first para-crew from Australia to compete overseas. 

“We beat the Americans by two minutes. It was amazing,” she said.

While ecstatic about winning gold, seeing the impact competing overseas had on her rowers was priceless and more than its weight in gold. 

For Barbara, her mother’s values have stuck with her. 

“[She] always taught us never to step back from the line, maybe push your toe over the line. So never take a backward step.”

The nominees of the Inner West Council’s 2021 International Women’s Day honours will be announced on the 8th of March.

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