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Refugee to community leader: One woman’s remarkable journey

Mariam Issa and her family fled Somalia when civil war broke out in 1991, and spent the next seven years in Kenyan refugee camps. A family reunion visa brought them to Australia in 1998 when Issa was pregnant with her fifth child.

Early on, life in Melbourne was tough for the Somalian family of seven. Settling in Brighton, an affluent suburb south of Melbourne’s CBD, Issa initially found it difficult to integrate into the community.

After a number of years on the outer, Issa decided to take action. In 2012 the mother-of-five established the Resilient Aspiring Women (RAW) community garden in her Brighton backyard.

Issa wanted to bring women from many different cultures together to tend a garden – and each other. The RAW garden helps its members overcome the social isolation that often accompanies making a new home in a different country.

Today RAW is an important community hub. “We have a database of more than three hundred and a committee of six women,” says Issa. “We also have different women groups from refugee and migrant backgrounds who come with their service providers.”

In 2012 Issa self-published a book, A Resilient Life (Harsons Graphics), recounting her remarkable journey.

LEADERSHIP MATTERS: What was life like in your early days living in Melbourne?

MARIAM ISSA: Early days in Melbourne were hard and confusing. Adjusting to a new system that we knew nothing of wasn’t easy, but we tried as hard as we could to act and look normal in public while our home life was chaos. It took us more than six years to have a normal life again.

LM: What opportunities for education have you had in Africa and Australia?

MI: I had an equivalent of year 8 education in Africa and in Australia I’ve gained a diploma in accounting and quite a few business certificates and community development certificates.

LM: What is the story behind RAW Australia? And what does it do?

MI: RAW is a platform that celebrates the uniqueness and aspirations of multicultural women. Through gardening, storytelling, crafts and cooking, we nurture ourselves & our community.

We’ve just completed a project on building a world mosaic map.

Resettling refugees and integrating them into the system isn’t easy, and coming from a place of real understanding I feel very grateful as a refugee who has had a positive experience through the system.

LM: What have you learned in your role as a community leader?

MI: That we lack trust, in ourselves and in others. That we all need to be authentically curious about each other and support each other in our endeavours or roles. That each and every community member is a service provider, and that we need to encourage others to provide these services with respect and compassion for each other.

LM: While everyone’s story is different, what is one thing you would like people to know about the refugee experience?

MI: The refugee experience is a hard one for the refugee, it can also be hard for the host countries. When we understand this we can create spaces where we share our experiences and are respectful of each other’s story. Resettling refugees and integrating them into the system isn’t easy, and coming from a place of real understanding I feel very grateful as a refugee who has had a positive experience through the system. But I feel equally disturbed that the same system has let so many others down at their time of real need.

LM: What do you value most about your life in Australia?

MI: The freedom to speak my mind and the abundant opportunities.

LM: How do your children’s lives compare to yours when you were growing up?

MI: I feel that we have had a contrasting experience in many ways but also share some similarities. Mine was dictated [by others] and sheltered, where as theirs is a life where they can explore their options and make their own choices with many more opportunities than I’ve ever dreamed of myself.

LM: What plans and projects would you like to work on in the future?

MI: I am working on my second book and developing my speaking business at the moment. My intention is to transform people’s hearts through my personal stories. By bursting the myth around my narrative, I’ve transformed from a refugee who started with nothing to a person of influence and significance. I’ve accessed great tools along this path and I’ve been sharing it with many in Australia, and I feel the time has come for me to share it around the world, one presentation at a time.

I am also a pioneering leader and communicator for my African diaspora communities and I feel confident to share my expertise of integration and I am planning a tour in Europe with my book, A Resilient Life, next year.

Mariam Issa is an ambassador for Refugee Week, which runs from June 19 to 25, 2016. Find out more about it at


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