Mariam Issa arrived in Melbourne as a refugee from her Somali homeland in 1998 with her husband, four children, a fifth on the way, and virtually no knowledge of the Australian way of life.
Once her feet touched ground here, the story kind of tells itself. (I'd encourage you to read it - we have so much ground to advance around authentic accepted narrative of the refugee experience, and opportunity for amplification of marginalised voices in this country).
What does strike me is that in the face of being forced to flee the violent Somalian Civil war in 1991, Issa is a survivor first and foremost.
(Note that this is not her biggest story to tell.)
Issa has since stepped up to become an exceptional, inspirational and transformational refugee advocate and business role model to those who have come before and after her, and continues to pave the way for female entrepreneurs and purpose-driven enterprise across Australia. (Issa will join us at the girledworld Summit on Sunday June 25 to share her story with hundreds of secondary school girls and their Mums, Mentors and Teachers).
This is a woman who was born in the equator town of Kismayo, 500 kilometres south of the Somalian Capital, and who grew up in the shadow of entrenched patriarchy with brothers and men given open opportunity for advancement and education, and women and girls shut down, hidden away and denied access to schooling or work.
In Issa's words: “I think the toughest time was when I was a young girl, growing up in a very supressed culture. From the age of five I wanted an education and I learned English myself. But the village that I lived in was very small, and the school that I went to was just under a mango tree – a community member thought children could benefit from just coming together and learning a few things. But it wasn’t the sort of education that was backed by a government, which they put resources into."
"I saw my older brother with books, and I wanted to read - I was so interested in cultures, in languages. When it was my younger brother’s time to go to school, Mum didn’t want me to go and I felt: Why was I missing out?
"Really, I got the little education I had through my own persistence. I think reading started to expand my imagination, my mind, and in the end I felt like I wasn’t part of the community that I lived in. I read The Famous Five by Enid Blyton and I could see the young children having adventures and all that. So, I suppose I improvised…"
That extraordinary 'improvisation' clearly paid off.
Jump to today and Issa has established herself in Australia as an inspirational public speaker, author, storyteller, intercultural facilitator, dedicated community builder, social cohesion champion and social entrepreneur (I was lucky enough to work and learn alongside her and see this amazing leadership play out in the real in the early days of her launching social enterprise Space2b with Janine Lawrie).
Since finding her stride, her voice, and harnessing her talents for community building, social entrepreneurship and galvanising public sentiment for seismic social change, Issa has gone from strength to strength in her personal and professional rebuild in a new country.
In 2012 Issa launched her autobiography A Resilient Life which shares her refugee experience and story of determination to persevere despite the immense hardships she faced growing up in a culture and nation dominated by clans, tribalism, patriarchy and superstition, to then overcome the vast cultural differences and challenges of inclusion in Australian life.
In that same year she co-founded and incorporated the not-for-profit organisation and community garden RAW (Resilient Aspiring Women) in the backyard of her own home in Brighton, where the Australian government initially settled her and her family. Forged from Issa’s inspirational trust and determination to serve and build community, RAW aims to support women’s resilience through intercultural dialogue and exchange facilitated by activities of storytelling, cooking and gardening.
Issa continues to share her experience and commitment to improving refugee’s lives by sitting on the board of Asylum Seekers Resource Centre, serving as an ambassador for Refugee Council of Australia and a Director at Family Peace. She is also an International Women's Forum member and co-founder of Space2b, an art and design based social enterprise established to support asylum seekers, refugees and newly arrived migrants.
Issa was also recently awarded the Ambassador of Peace award from the Universal Peace Federation in recognition of her on-going work promoting social cohesion amongst Melbourne’s culturally diverse population. Additionally, she is regularly invited to speak to different community groups and features regularly in national Australian TV, radio and press.
This is a story of enlightenment, education and empowerment that needs to be told. And it will be, to hundreds of secondary school girls and their Mums/Mentors/Teachers and young women at the girledworld Big Ideas Leadership Summit 2017.
We are honoured to have Mariam Issa join us in Melbourne on Sunday June 25 for the girledworld Summit 2017, to unpack her story, ignite conversation about diversity and bust open cultural gender biases alongside Sheree Rubinstein of One Roof Women Co-work, where Issa spends her days changing the world.