Inspiring humanitarian receives Key to the City on International Women's Day

08 Mar 2023

An award-winning screenwriter and humanitarian has received a Key to the City of Newcastle after a compelling keynote speech at the annual Lord Mayor's International Women's Day Morning Tea at City Hall.

From her Newcastle home, Vanessa Alexander helped more than 100 Afghan women and their families at risk of retribution from the Taliban out of Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul in August 2021, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fifty-six of these refugees are now living in or around Newcastle, 32 are in Ireland with the support of Ms Alexander's sister, Elise, while others have resettled in Brazil and the US.

Some of the people pivotal to this mission joined Ms Alexander and Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes for a panel discussion, facilitated by Councillor Carol Duncan, including: Darwish Ahmadzai, who helped hundreds of women and children flee; Richelle Aiken, head of Friends of Refugees Newcastle; Megan Smith, Director at Prosperity Advisers, who helped find local jobs for women; and Tooba Azami, a female Afghan doctor who sought refuge in Newcastle on an emergency visa.

In addition to this, Ms Alexander is a writer and producer, best known for her work on Vikings: Valhalla (Netflix) and The Great (Hulu). For The Great, she was nominated for Best Comedy and Best New Series at the Writers Guild of America Awards in 2021. The same year, she went on to co-executive produce Valhalla from her bedroom in Newcastle during lockdown while home-schooling three children.

Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes said Ms Alexander exemplified the attributes of an ambassador for the city and embodied the spirit of the 2023 International Women's Day theme, Embrace Equity.

"After the fall of Kabul, Vanessa was inspired to organise a group of local women to coordinate urgent and meaningful assistance for vulnerable Afghans, linking a global network of contacts via WhatsApp," Cr Nelmes said.

"Hers is an incredible story of courage and hope, and I am proud to induct Ms Alexander as a City of Newcastle ambassador and give worthy recognition to her wonderful work with a Key to the City."

Captivating a packed Concert Hall, Ms Alexander said she was honoured to accept the award for and on behalf of those who had helped coordinate support.

"Some of those people join us today on the panel. Darwish helped over 300 women and children to safety, and it inspired me to set up a Dungog Refugee support group who helped me secure Darwish a job and housing there. Richelle established Friends of Refugees Newcastle and provided support to the first 25 refugees who arrived, including housing Tooba and her brothers. Erin Beard, a social worker, was the other half of this mighty effort. Megan, together with Richelle, Rosanna Fuller and Lisa Toohey, helped me relocate a young female accountant by giving her and funding her skilled visa," Ms Alexander said.

"While I was personally involved in helping close to 100 Afghan women and their families, the ripple effect was manyfold as hundreds more received crisis support through the network Darwish and I established with the Canberra based woman's activist, Susan Hutchison."

The morning tea raised $3,200 through a raffle and online donations for Ms Alexander's chosen beneficiary, refugee support service Talent Beyond Boundaries, adding to the $1,800 raised in 2022 for suicide prevention charity R U OK? and $3,100 for domestic violence organisation Got Your Back Sista in 2021.