Mariam Issa on motherhood, being a refugee and creating community
Community leader, author, speaker, ambassador for the Refugee Council of Australia and mother-of-five Mariam Issa has lived an extraordinary life.
But despite all the trials and tribulations, Mariam leads with compassion and love and believes connection and courage can transform us all.
Tell us how you made your way to Australia.
My journey as a refugee was twenty-one years ago. I came to Australia when I was thirty years old, with four children. I was pregnant with my fifth child. It was a really huge journey.
Prior to coming to Australia, we were displaced for eight years. It was a journey of adversity after having closed that chapter of eight years of displacement of the civil war in Somalia. I had never interacted with a Westerner before. I knew nothing about the Western culture.
We were settled straight away into a beautiful suburb in Melbourne, in Brighton. I knew nothing about Brighton. I knew nothing of its affluency. I’d come to a completely different world.
I came at a time when I was really so tired. My husband did not have a word of English at the time, so he started school. The kids started school.
I felt that at that time the transition between my family and the community was all on me. The sad part is we were almost the first Africans to reside in Brighton. It was a totally different sort of community as well. I remember, at that time, our next-door neighbour installed cameras in his house.
Because you’d moved there?
Yes, because we’d moved there. And then two years after that, September 11 happened, and then we were not only Black in Brighton, but we were also Muslim in Brighton. That kind of shook us, and we went into a journey of uncertainty.
We took the kids out of the normal schools and put them into an Islamic school. As all that was happening, my child who was born in the heart of the community reached kinder age.
We went to the nearest kinder in our home. And when we came out, she asked me a question that changed the trajectory of our whole family. She said, “Mum, do they not want me because I’m Black?” It was like a bomb in a mother’s heart. I do get emotional to this day when I remember that. I felt that my four-year-old had lost her innocence that day.
What that did for me was awaken me from a deep sleep. Awaken me from a place of uncertainty, a place of fear, a place of indecisiveness. I wasn’t making good decisions. I think that question really gave me the courage to start something different and to connect with the community.
We were between worlds and always thinking we were going to go back home one day. So that day, my husband and I sat down to make the position that this is home. We’re not going to look back. With that comes certainty. With that comes rooting yourself in a place. That’s where my journey really started from.
What was your childhood like?
I was a very resourceful child. I grew up almost free-range. My mother was from a nomadic background and so is my father. So we just didn’t have any structure. We lived chaotically and in a free kind of way.
My father was exiled from Somalia for political reasons. Then we came to a small town called Malindi in Kenya, which is a neighbouring country. In Malindi, it was sort of a village at the time. We lived among this beautiful tribe called the Giriama. They were the keepers of the land of that town.
I remember when my mum came into the community, the local chief said, “I want to offer you land to cultivate for your children.” My mother did not speak the language at the time. I was actually always her translator. I could speak Swahili, and I love languages. Mum was actually very suspicious of the new culture. She was fearful. So she just retreated and said, “No, I don’t need the land.”
I remember my younger brother and I talking to the chief and saying, “We’ll take the land. We want to cultivate the land.” I think we were about seven and six years old at the time.
That was how we started in that setting. I remember my mum wanted to send my brother to school. I come from a very patriarchal culture. My family was not for schooling girls. I know that my mum’s agenda and mine clashed, because she felt she needed to prepare me for my future husband, as was the Somali tradition.
Did you end up going to school?
I wanted to go to school. I was sort of like a tomboy and a very curious child. At that time, I was learning to read my brother’s books. So, I had to come up with a strategy because Mum wasn’t going to send me to school.
I came up with this bullying scenario: if my brother went to school on his own, he’d be bullied by the local kids. I said I would support him in that, so she should send me to school with him. And that’s how I got to go to school.
Can you share your experience trying to get involved in the community?
When you’re a mother, and your kids are going to school, I think you’re pushed into the community. Whether you like it or not, you have to be part of that community.
I knew nothing. Sometimes I think that’s when they say ignorance is bliss. I was making a lot of mistakes. Perhaps I might have been annoying a lot of people, because I was just learning as I was living in the culture.
I think what’s really helped me was my love for being curious. I was curious about the culture. Also after what had happened with my daughter, I was just pushing in. And there was a lot of resistance.
I remember when I would want to be part of the mothers in the assembly. They’d be talking, and I’d want to just listen in. I remember everyone going, “Oh, I have to go somewhere,” and they’d just leave me there by myself. There were things like that. I do feel like I wasn’t wanted there. But at that time, for me, it was about my children. I remember the women who really accepted me after a while were from England—they’d come to Australia as migrants too.
Before you came to Australia, you’ve said your only experience with white people was reading Enid Blyton books?
Yes, The Famous Five. I loved that, and the adventures. To me, these were stories, someone’s imagination. I never thought that one day I would befriend a woman with green or blue eyes or blonde hair. Those things were unimaginable to me. I think that helped a lot. I felt like I was in an adventure somehow.
You’ve spoken before about the different phases of emotion you went through while trying to break into your new community.
Yes. What I remember through these adventures was that I had phases. I had the first phase, where I was going into the community and getting to know them, and I felt like a victim. There was an utter powerlessness within me.
I think it came from shame as well, having had a whole country disintegrate in front of my eyes. And then coming into an affluent space when I had nothing. Even my dignity—I wasn’t dignified in the space that I was in.
Somehow, with the grace of God, I transitioned into a space of anger, which I think is so much better than being a victim. You get to breathe and blame other people for your problems. Then I became an activist in that space.
I was really angry. I was angry with the world that had disintegrated in front of me, and I was angry with my parents for having sheltered me from life.
Then, I was also angry with my communal culture. I was angry with the racism that was going on around me in the new community. And I was also angry as a woman. I felt that I wasn’t living in my power and I wasn’t owning my story in that space.
I wasn’t being supported and there were a lot of assumptions around me as well. Unspoken assumptions were worse than the ones that were said.
You mentioned that once you got to work inside those Brighton homes, you realised things were not so different from everywhere else.
Absolutely. Once I started to go into community work, I started volunteering in community. I started working in Brighton homes because I really, truly wanted to see the Western woman in her natural habitat. How does she parent? How is she within her household?
I went into these really beautiful Brighton homes that I often felt nobody lived in. Sometimes I didn’t even realise what I was cleaning. They seemed clean to me.
I think my insights and understanding of the community really came from those homes. Then I happened to work in an aged care centre and I interacted with the elders. To me, aged care didn’t make sense. I felt that this is the wisdom of the community, and they’re kept away from the community.
In our African culture, when you are an older person, you really look forward to having moments with your grandchildren, being around them and being around the community. All of a sudden, I see there was destruction here as well. As I became more a part of the community, I started to understand there was mental health, suicides, domestic violence. I realised it wasn’t all glamour and glory in Brighton. There was a lesser side as well.
How did that propel you to the next stage of realisation?
At that time, I became a storyteller. I was writing as well. I was really looking at the stories. And this is my story.
Having discovered that, I felt that it was also a compelling platform. It was a platform that was compelling me to ask brave and courageous questions. If I was going to live the kind of life that I wanted to create for myself, then what is it that I want? In that space I became introspective. I started to ask powerful questions. One of the questions I really asked was: Why am I here? I didn’t know. Why was I in the heart of Brighton? Why was I brought here?
Having asked that question, what became apparent to me was I’d lived in communal culture all my life, which means that you are in dependency. You are dependent on each other. You don’t get to learn about yourself that much.
But coming to the West, I realised it was a very individual culture. The individuality was really missing for me. That was why I became really intrigued by the Western woman, because I felt she was actually the woman—the teacher of my children, the doctor that I visited, the community builder. She was everywhere that I saw progression happening.
I wondered, How is this possible? There aren’t many African women leaders where I come from. That became my big curiosity. I wanted to understand more of the journey as a woman, how I could become the leader or the voice—how I could have my own voice heard, and how I could contribute to the community. I realised that, on its own, communal living doesn’t work—hence, the destruction that happened in my community. An individual culture doesn’t work on its own either.
What did you see as the solution?
When you combine the two, that’s when we self-actualise. That’s when we reach our interdependence. When we know that from this space, we understand: I’ve reached my individual potential. I can now contribute to the greater good. I think that’s the space where I entered my third phase of life, or true empowerment. Feeling I’m empowered now to voice the concerns in the community, to voice the concerns of women, to bring the stories of my ancestry, to give life to my culture.
When I came, my currency was deflated. I couldn’t buy anything with it. But now, I could teach other people. That’s when I started my business Cook with Mariam. I became an entrepreneur and started teaching people about the wealth of other nations. I used food as a catalyst for social change.
How did you get into the community with your business idea?
I was part of a networking group. I remember people saying, “You can’t go in there, it’s exclusive. It’s very affluent. You won’t even understand the people there.” In that space, I was navigating, exploring and making a lot of mistakes. But you know, I have a love for people—I think my superpower is connection. I got to know Rotarians and men of business. In the end, I could talk to men and women.
I did not differentiate—I just went in and talked to anyone who would talk to me. I think I’m now sort of an icon in Brighton; I feel like I really stand out because I was wearing the scarf, and I was the only Black African woman in the room. So, no one could not see me. I was the elephant in the room.
Connection’s an incredible thing.
My mother used to tell us if you can host someone in your heart, you can host them in your home. So, what my mother meant is she asked us to always forgive people. So I had been caught up in the hard bits that had happened in Brighton, and I felt the racism and assumptions made of me, all the labels that were put on me—I let go of all that.
What did you do next?
I just started anew. I wanted to be the change that I wanted to see in the world. And I saw many things were wrong in this community. I felt I was part of this community, and I could voice these wrong things that were happening. When I did, people embraced it.
In 2012, an explosion happened for me. I launched my book A Resilient Life. I wrote that book over three years in a writing class. It took me another three years to contemplate if I really wanted to share it with the public.
Tell us about building the RAW community garden, a garden you built in your own backyard.
I met Katrina, a German migrant, at my child’s parent-teacher night and we just clicked. Afterwards, I had this idea of starting the RAW garden. I had just done a permaculture course.
I felt it as a calling. My backyard was completely empty at that time, and I knew nothing about community gardens at that stage. I just wanted to gather women. So, I told Katrina about the project. I said, “This is the project I want to do. Do you think that you can support me in this?”
The beauty of it is that Katrina had come from a family of farmers. They owned a ranch in Germany. We started it together. We joke that our garden is where the African chaos meets the German precision. She is a really hard worker, and she had that precision. I had this chaotic creative mind.
Creating is very chaotic, actually. Until I became a gardener, I was not happy with my chaotic ways. The garden taught me that chaos is part of life and part of creation.
So you literally knocked down your fence at home and built it?
Yeah, it was actually almost like I was being guided. I’m also a woman of faith, and I love the Qur’an. There is a verse in the Qur’an that says the olive tree is the tree of neither the East nor the West. So it’s a bridging tree.
We made our fence with olive trees and wanted to invite people in. So, we went into the community and started talking. We started speaking to Rotarians, to community elders, to community women. We just took our work out there.
As we were talking to people, the organisation just started, so we invited people to build the garden together. One of my friends I did the permaculture course with was a permaculture designer. So she agreed to come and design the whole place for us.
Then we asked the community to adopt a tree. They could put in their tree with an intention. We had a tree-planting day, which the whole community came to. Everybody came with their tree. We bought the trees, but they donated the money. Everybody had an intent for their tree. They wanted to choose the trees. We have almost forty fruit trees now in our backyard and front yard.
What happens in the garden?
The RAW garden has many aspects. It brings academics, storytellers and communal people. I think it brings all people into this one gathering. Eight years later, this place has not only transformed the community around me, but it’s taught us that family exists beyond blood relations.
It transformed my family back home, because they see the work I do here. I connected them to the project. It’s incredible. One of the women I met through this permaculture journey went back to Uganda and met my family. She was doing projects there and connected with them. It’s amazing what can happen from a simple vision, a simple seed that you sow.
We are just seeds. Whatever seed we plant is what we are going to harvest. That’s why in our community garden, this time, we say we’re seeding our community with love. We are weeding out fear. That’s our mantra when we are gardening.
Let’s talk about motherhood. You’re a mother of five! What are your learnings in all this?
I feel truly, truly privileged to be a mother. It absolutely humbles me that I’m a mother of five. My mother used to always tell us you’re a mother even when you’re not a mother. Even as children, she would say as long as you have the womb, you’re a mother.
Having your own children, though, is so different. For me, I’ve had my children in hard circumstances, in spaces where there was a lot of suffering. I think with motherhood there comes a lot of guilt. Because of our want to give our children everything, we sometimes feel we haven’t done enough.
I have learnt to let go of guilt and fear for our children. When we are very fearful or have guilt, or when we look at our children in a certain way, whatever energy we project on them is the energy they become.
Looking at our children, we have to look at them as souls who have come for a journey, who have come for an experience. It took me a long time to learn that. We think our children are ours. We treat them as material, sometimes, and feel like they’re ours.
What have your children taught you?
I’ve learnt a lesson from each and every child of mine. When we are open to the lessons, I think we grow. My children have challenged me in ways that are beyond understanding.
I think that as a speaker and storyteller and space holder, I learnt to hold space with them and for them. One of the sweetest things that came out of that is I work with my daughter now. We call ourselves ‘Intergenerational Story Inspirers’. We want to use our story to inspire mothers and daughters, especially mothers and daughters. They carry the lineage of the female, the matriarchal which we’ve lost.
I think when we make sense of that lineage that comes from the grandmother to the mother to the daughter, then we can dismantle a lot of things. I love the Native American saying, “If a woman heals herself, she heals the women before her and the women after her.”