I'm reading
Mariam Issa teaches resilience
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Mariam Issa teaches resilience
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Mariam Issa teaches resilience
Pass it on
Pass it on
“Every adversity has this sea of amazing potential within it.”
9 June 2018

Mariam Issa teaches resilience

Interview by Livia Albeck-Ripka
Photography by Lauren Bamford

Livia Albeck-Ripka on Mariam Issa

Born on a still day, in the equator town of Kismayo, 500 kilometres south of the Somalian capital, Mariam Issa grew up in the shadow of brothers, believing that women weren’t entitled to work or education.

As a child, Mariam was circumcised on her mother’s kitchen table, told that an “impurity” had been removed. She didn’t question this, her father’s polygamy or a fate of childrearing and chores until she began devouring books, wondering about the rest of the world.

When she finished primary school, Mariam was determined—despite her parents’ opposition—to continue her education. Headstrong and curious, she convinced her mother to pay her high school admission fees, and would sneak out to work behind her back. At 17, Mariam married into a more liberal family in the hope that there, she might find some freedom. But by 1991, the civil war had broken out in Somalia and Mariam, heavily pregnant with her third child, was forced to flee while bombs fell in the middle of the night.

When Mariam, her husband and five children first arrived as refugees in Australia in 1998, they kept to themselves, afraid of assimilation. Until after September 11, when the other mothers at school glared at Mariam as if she were hiding something under her clothes. Until her daughter, just four at the time, sensed that perhaps, she was rejected from kindergarten because of her skin colour. It was then that Mariam had what she calls her “awakening”—she pushed her way into the predominantly white Melbourne bayside community of Brighton, cleaned homes and worked in aged-care centres, wrote a book, and started the Resilient Aspiring Women (RAW) Community Garden in her backyard.

When I meet Mariam the first thing she does is hand me a rose from the RAW garden—which brings women from different backgrounds together to plant seeds, share their narratives and break bread. It is “where African chaos meets German precision,” she laughs, explaining how RAW was co-founded together with her friend, permaculturalist Katharina Kons.

I visit a couple of weeks later and before taking me through the garden, Mariam insists we sit, and share a pot of chai. She meditates on how compassion is essential to understanding our shared humanity, on the union of old and new and on the wisdom to be found in religion and oral culture; in communities we in the West so often disregard as backward. The story of Africa has been hijacked, says Mariam. It is up to us however, she explains, to reclaim our stories and toshare them, because they have the power to heal.

As we walk through the sprawling urban plot, abundant with herbs, berries, vegetables, animals, and projects to be completed, Mariam points out a dead tamarillo tree, uprooted by the wind. “This,” she sighs, “is the ‘no worries’ tree. We have so much to learn from nature.”

Mariam has lived through oppression, war and prejudice and come out the other side promoting dialogue, peace and resilience. When she enters a room, you can feel her presence—she’s at once gentle and fiercely passionate, championing the power of storytelling and community. But the most incredible thing about Mariam is how strongly she believes in people. Inherent in everything she says is an idealism; that wrongdoing is simply misunderstanding, that people are really good at heart, and that all it takes to change things—even at the highest levels—is a face-to-face conversation. Preferably, over a cup of tea.

This story originally ran in issue #38 of Dumbo Feather

LIVIA ALBECK-RIPKA: Thanks so much for the flower. It’s making me very happy seeing it sitting there!

MARIAM ISSA: That’s all right!

So, you’re a mother, a writer, an activist, you started a cooking school and an organisation that supports women and teaches them to garden. What’s the driver behind all of it for you?

I truly think that every adversity has this sea of amazing potential within it. I don’t think I did really well in the beginning, but as the journey continued I think I started to rediscover who I truly was. That has given me so much. It’s all about connecting with people. For me, it was connecting with women and understanding the power of women. Our world is in turmoil because of women giving away their reigns, not being who they truly are. That’s what I discovered. I think every step I took gave me a little bit of encouragement. I found a lot of women who supported me.

In your book, you talk about how it took you a while to realise this about women, to recognise some of the injustices that you suffered as a young girl…

I think because our voice is suppressed, we never, ever talk aloud. We’re not allowed to be activists back home. All you know is the community, and everyone around you is going through the same, so things become normal. That’s why, again, community is very powerful. Coming to the Western culture, those doors have opened for me. I saw a different community to the one I knew.

This story originally ran in issue #38 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #38 of Dumbo Feather

Tell me a bit more about where you come from.

I was born in Somalia, but I was only four years of age when we migrated to Kenya. We came to Malindi. I think it was a three-day journey. My father had a small restaurant there, he was exiled from Somalia for political reasons and I hadn’t seen him for a long time. My mother, you know, she had a lot of children, she couldn’t take care of them by herself. So we came to Kenya.

There’s this moment in your book; where your father’s sitting outside while your mother is giving birth. When it comes time to name you, he doesn’t seem particularly interested. That was so shocking for me coming from a culture where the father is very much part of the birth process. How did you reconcile that growing up? What did that mean to you?

It truly didn’t mean anything to me when I was growing up, because that was what it was, you know? My father has 18 children: nine children with my mother and nine children with my stepmum. That was just a normal thing in the African culture. I think in the West it’s demonised, but through my contemplation and understanding of cultures, I came to be on good terms with it, actually.

My mother and my stepmum didn’t have any grief or tension between them. When my mother had her last born, she was ready to retire. I often say that African men are so demanding—it’s hard for one woman to take care of them! So, it’s a shared thing. But it’s also so much better for community because it becomes a whole collective. The women take care of the children—whether it’s her child or not. I lived with my stepmum in Mombasa and she was such a gentle soul, so beautiful. I was just one of her children. Now, when I look at globalisation and see how that culture is demonised, I think about all the children who are homeless, who don’t have that sense of community. Even though the Western culture might see it as very outdated, African culture has its goodness as well.

I think you’re right. In the West, we often jump to conclusions about traditions being barbaric or patriarchal—and sometimes they are—but like you say, sometimes they also have real benefits for creating community. Do you think we can find a balance?

I think the balance is empowerment. I don’t by any means stand for a man taking another wife. I wouldn’t allow it in my own experience and I don’t think I would embrace it as my mother did. But every woman is an individual. Some women are very accepting.

You went through the civil war in Somalia, then you came to Australia as a refugee. You’ve had huge challenges in your life. What was the toughest time for you?

I think the toughest time was when I was a young girl, growing up in a very surpressed culture. From the age of five I wanted an education. I learned English myself. The village that I lived in was very small, and the school that I went to was just under a mango tree. You know, a community member thought that the children could benefit from just coming together and learning a few things. 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. I felt: Why was I missing out? I got the little education I had through my persistence. I think reading started to expand my imagination, my mind. 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 improvised…

So your family weren’t supportive of your curiosity?

No! No, they weren’t. My father would say, ‘Why are you going to school?’ ‘You’re not covering up.’ But I pursued. I got good grades and went to one of Mombasa’s good schools, where my father lived. I asked my mother to give me the admission fees, which was a struggle. She had a lots of fears, cultural fears.

Also, we weren’t allowed to work. I remember that when I finished primary school, I was asked to teach. I very much wanted to do that, but unfortunately I was denied the opportunity. Sometimes I do see it from my mother’s perspective. The small town where we lived was a very touristy area. There were a lot of problems like drugs and prostitution. I did teach for a few months, with Mum not knowing. And then, at 17, I married my husband. I wanted freedom, and his family was very liberal.

So even though you’ve been through war and persecution, your biggest challenge has been an emotional one, an internal one?

The physical challenges, you know, you’re going through them for a better future. When you see refugees on television you feel, How did these people manage? But when you’re there, in the midst of it, it’s like any chaos, you’re in the struggle.

You’re not caught in that place of being a victim, you’re just striving to go to the next level, taking it day by day. It’s your life.

You lived as a refugee for a number of years, between places. It really struck me that you could be in that state long enough for the transience and struggle to become routine, to become mundane. What is that like?

I think it’s very hard. But the beautiful thing is that when you’re in service, you forget yourself. You forget being a victim. I always saw the people who were worse off. I was one of the very, very blessed people because I always had family around me. Once I saw a mother just leave her child because she didn’t have anything to feed it. She just walked away, and never returned. In the refugee camp there was a mother who’s boat capsized. She was fighting for her survival, carrying two children, and she let go of one. Every time I remember that story I think, Well, what’s my excuse? I think that is an aspect of our Islamic culture as well, you don’t dwell on the hardships. You look forward to something better. And something better always comes.

Do you think that we have a different mentality here in Australia?

Yes [laughs] I say that in African culture we love to be victims, in the West people love to be angry!

It’s true. We do love to get angry, to blame our leaders, our government. But often, we don’t take action. Do we?

Yeah. But having said that, I’ve seen a lot of compassion as well. I came from a whole system that failed. I came into a place where the people were alien. I did not understand their culture. But in that I found a people who welcomed me. People would say, ‘Oh my God, you don’t have anything, what do you need?’ They brought toys for the children, a television; we were resettled from scratch. We cannot ever forget that.

I think our leaders are not also praised for what they do. We’re always very harsh on them. So the minute they come in contact with us, they have that shield, they are protecting themselves. There isn’t dialogue. My children often say, “Mum, why don’t you ever say the good things I do? You’re always commenting on the bad ones.” And I say, “Well, I want you to change the bad ones! The good ones are good!” But they need to be encouraged.

Politicians are not aliens, they’re community members.

It’s not a bad thing to put them in place and say, ‘You’re not doing enough!’ It has its place. I’ve been in the Arab world where nothing was done for us. We were refugees in a country that had millions; money was not an issue, yet we were struggling. We came to Australia and we were given so much.

Tell me more about arriving in Australia.

It was so beautiful. My in-laws were here years before us, so by the time we came they were already settled. My brother-in-law was around and helped us transition into the new world. It was emotional because I’d left everything; my family and my sisters, my brothers in Kenya. I was also pregnant.

Had you ever seen a white person before you arrived here?

Yeah. In Malindi where I grew up there were a lot of tourists. And I had read about the Western culture and was fascinated by it. As a young girl I had pen friends who would send me photos, you know. But other than that, nothing. I did not understand the culture. It was so different! There were a lot of fears, because we came with a belief system. We came with a whole lot of baggage.

What were some of those fears?

One thing: that the children would lose their identity, that they would lose who they were. We kept our distance until my daughter, Sara, reached the age of four. That is when my awakening happened. I realised that the way I was living was not sustainable.

September 11 happened two years after we came. I felt, Oh my God, I don’t want to move again. There was a big divide between Muslims and Australians. So it was a question of morality again: What do I do? I’m wearing this scarf. I am Muslim. People can see that.

Did you feel fear from people when you walked down the street?

I did. Oh I did, especially in Brighton. I was already feeling it as a black woman, but now I felt it even more. I felt it when I went to school and was standing among the mums, like people might think I have something under my clothes. But most of our fears, we project from the inside! Don’t we? It was one of the toughest moments.

We moved our children out of school from Sandringham into Noble Park, an Islamic school. Little did I realise that all the children who went to that Islamic school came from different parts of the world. So it wasn’t any easier, it was harder, because all the children who went to this Islamic school came from war-torn places. There were fights with knives, and I was thinking, I wanted peace! I wanted my children to have a good education!

When Sara reached the age of four, we looked for kinder for her but we got a very cold reception. Nothing really bad was said. Just, ‘Oh, we don’t have a place,’ you know.

So at four years old, Sara felt the tension. She remarked, “Mum, did they not want me because I’m black?”

I thought, Is this what I want for my children? Do I want them to look over their shoulder every day of their life?

What changed in that time for you?

I started a lot of work. I mingled with a lot with the mums at school, pushed my way in. I went to community centres and I volunteered. I went into Brighton homes and worked as a cleaner. I worked in aged-care centres. It took me years to become part of the community.

I was cleaning amazing, beautiful homes, and questioning, Why? Why is one nation so rich in material technology? I think it was a kind of spiritual search as well. I would sit in a public park, and think, So much harmony. Look at the trees, and it’s clean, and organised. Back home it was chaos [laughs]. I was writing as well.

I almost converted into the Western culture. Until I saw your aged-care centres, where the wisdom of the community was away from the community, until I cleaned homes that no one lived in—beautiful castles. The parents were hard at work to pay it off, and their children were roaming in shopping malls. There was a huge disconnect. These things became apparent for me in the midst of the glamour and the glory. I felt, Wow, the truth is not so apparent after all! In the African chaos is the beauty of community and family.

Do you think we can bring some of that beauty here in amongst our Western culture? How can we reinstill a sense of community?

Well, we have the ability to change our stories at any time in life. There is no destiny. At any time, you can change your whole reality. It’s something that has happened for me. Storytelling is so powerful. And coming from that oral culture of storytelling, I realised its power. When I was in hardship, I would remember the stories of my mother. They were all metaphoric stories, parables. Even in the Koran, it’s all about stories.

I feel rich, and so grateful, for that global-citizen feeling; that I belong nowhere. I am rightfully my own being, my own self, and I can live anywhere in the world now. The potential is so great. We can do that in an instant. It’s all about mindsets. That’s the hardest thing, I think, when you have a belief system, or if you like, “God.” Because when you go to a different place, you’re afraid.

It’s the darkness. That’s where the fear of everything is, the darkness of the unknown.

What role has your religion played in your journey?

Huge. Faith and trust is so important in anybody’s life. I think with religion, when the dogmas are removed, and you go to the spiritual core and essence of the religion, then you find trust.

Every now and again when I meditate and when I pray, I ask questions, and the answer that always comes to me is trust. So I simplified the word “trust”: I started with the first “t,” that was asking me to find my “truth,” because everyone’s truth is different and every truth is different in every moment. Then the “r” came back to“resilience”: find your resilience, find your spark. We all have it. And the “u” is the “unification” of the body, the soul, the mind, and the heart, finding that balance. The “s” is “surrender.” You’ve got to completely surrender. Do the best you can, but then the outcome is not with you. And the “t”: forget about the linear time, become a timeless being. Now every time I go on a new journey, I trust.

What about God?

My understanding of God in an Islamic context is “the one in all.” It’s also “the one that lives within,” because in the Koran it says, “I am closer to you than you think I am.” Closer than the jugular vein. It’s not the God that we look for up in the air…

Are you still worried about your children assimilating, now that they’re older?

Well first and foremost, I learned compassion. Compassion is different from sympathy and empathy. Compassionate love is the only thing that we can ever change our world with. No two people live in the same reality and when we find compassion, we can go and sit with the other in his reality. You don’t even have to understand it, just be there.

I think our children teach us. They have taught me so much. Through their rebelliousness, through pushing boundaries… I just feel like a host to these souls. Everyone came here for a different reason, and we shouldn’t stop that. I think by finding my own freedom, I felt that I cannot stop others having the same freedom. I will love them and I will always support them, but that’s all I can do; support, not help. I think that we have divided our world into helpers and help-recipients. And it’s a weakness. The helper takes the role of being a superior being while the recipient gets caught being the inferior one. I love to use the word “support” because—I’m a mother of five—when babies are born, you just hold them and they’re looking for the breast. They know where to feed, and straight away they do it. So we’re all geared with whatever it is that we need as human beings.

What I realised when I came into the Western culture is that sympathy can sometimes create a real problem for people. It can kill the dignity of people as well. It’s what happened to the story of Africa. The story of Africa’s been hijacked. The whole way that Africa is seen through the well-meaning organisations… You see a small hungry child or mother and it’s very devastating. No one wants to be photographed at their worst. You’re taking away the dignity of people. Again, the power of storytelling.

You tell a story about someone again and again, and that becomes their story. And unfortunately if they don’t check it, it can be their story for life.

My father named me an “axe.” I took that story back and I thought, Wow! My father was so amazing! He knew what kind of world I was going into, so he handed me the axe to pave my way! You can change your stories. I’ve learned to do that, and I’m trying to share that with not only my family and children, but with the community that I live in.

What impact has Australia made on you and your values, and what do you feel you’ve brought to the community here?

Oh, it has done so much. I feel truly reborn in this country. When you connect to the people and you connect to the ground, you’re connected. I think our organisation, RAW, is much more than gardening. It’s discovering your raw talents, it’s going back to basics.

Our mindsets change when we’re among aspiring women. All women are resilient, but they need support to allow them to remember who they truly are. Any woman who has had a baby is truly resilient! It’s just allowing them to remember that, to take their rights back, to say, ‘Each and every one of us here today can contribute. We have a wealth of stories that when we share, we empower our communities. We dignify each other. We humanise each other. We can create a whole different story.’ This is just a small seed of an idea.

Where do most of the women at RAW come from?

Well the women are from all walks of life. For instance, the first woman I met, Carol Hensley, through a permaculture gardening class. I remembered the communities back home and I thought, This is it! Oh my God! The African woman does not know herself in a closed space! In schools and organisations, they want outcomes and this and that. But if you allowed people to just come and be who they are, they can get whatever they want.

I took whatever I was learning from the permaculture to my backyard, and for the first time in my life I saw the hugeness. I’d lived in that house for about 12 years and for the first time, I saw the space and I thought, Oh my God! This big space, what are we doing with it? So I realised that I could do something and I said to Carol, “I’m doing something with women. Please, can you help?” Then I met another friend, Katharina Kons. She’s a German woman, also a migrant, and was very fascinated with my story. She became the co-founder of RAW. That was it. It’s all about resourcefulness, it’s never about the resources, is it? We started showing a film by the Liberian’s women movement called Pray the Devil Back To Hell. I was absolutely fascinated by Leymah Gbowee, the social worker who started the movement and I felt, Look at these women! These are the women!

What do you think about the current debate around refugees and asylum seekers in Australia?

Well I don’t follow it [laughs].

What about the general political discourse? The rhetoric at the moment is incredibly frightening and disheartening for a lot of people.

It is. But as I said before, I think it’s all about dialogue. I think it’s about having conversations with people. Just like we’re having a conversation here today. It’s my ambition to talk with the local politicians, invite them to the RAW  garden, sit down with them and say, “We can do more.” I’m Australian now, but I am also someone who has been there.

We need to give the politicans a dose of compassion as well. The debate goes both ways.

And if we debate in the way we do we create more turmoil. We create more hatred. We create more division. For instance, the other day I went to Bentleigh where there was a politician talking. One man stood up and he said, “Well, don’t you think that in Melbourne now there are a lot of people and we’re getting so polluted. What are you doing about this? All the refugees, and all the migrants coming…” It hurt me and I felt, I should answer him back! But I didn’t, because the politician gave a really beautiful answer. He said, “We are a nation of refugees. We cannot forget our background. Helping people will boom our economy. These people come with skills, it’s a contribution, look at them from that perspective!” So it was very satisfying. Later on I went to the man and said, “I am from a refugee background.” When you humanise a story and you talk to the person, it just diversifies.

Again, I think it’s about, again, telling these stories. I think there are a lot of people who are defending refugees, but I think the refugees should also start talking and sharing. I do genuinely believe that people mean well. On both sides, there’s always a fear. My next-door neighbour, when we first came, he literally put up cameras, he was very scared. My children were playing and their ball went in his backyard. He came to my doorstep and said, “My name is John, I’m your nextdoor neighbour. Your children’s ball is in my backyard. Could you not allow them to do that please?” I was so startled. A week later my husband Mohammed was mowing our grass and he did part of John’s area. Luckily, that day John was there and he came out with two beers. Mohammed goes, “I don’t drink, I’m sorry.” But from then on John would wave when he went from his house. So, people don’t know. It’s just that. The push and pull tensions of debates: the “who’s right” and “who’s wrong” takes us away from the context. That’s a very manly way of doing things. But I think…

 More women in politics!

…the womanly way, yeah! At one of our workshops people invite us to their tables, they invite their friends. I cook from the African culture and we tell stories around the table.

Wow. That’s beautiful.

Women create remedies for the world. I’m very passionate about working with women and I want to go back home, but I felt that I should start locally. It is all interconnected. If I educate the Western woman, she can be a very amazing support for me. I’m just waiting for RAW to stand on its feet, and then I want to go back, not to live, but to create the same thing that I did here. If you can get different cultures to come and tell their stories, how beautiful is that? We’re telling a bigger story. We’re teaching our children that it’s possible.

Livia Albeck-Ripka

Livia Albeck-Ripka is an Australian journalist in NYC. She has had bylines at The Atlantic, Quartz, VICE, Haaretz, Tablet & others. Livia is a former fellow at Fabrica & previous Deputy Editor at Dumbo Feather, covering culture, identity, politics & environment.

Photography by Lauren Bamford

Dumbo Feather has evolved, follow the journey by signing up for the Small Giants Academy newsletter