Mariam Issa is many things. She is a mother, a wife, a daughter, a business woman, and a community worker. Mariam is also an ardent storyteller who shares a tale of resilience using a book and a garden.
Mariam is the author of a book, A Resilient Life, the story of a strong woman who faces the adversity of a life torn apart by civil war in her native Somalia and the challenges and opportunities of adapting to a new home in Australia.
Mariam continues her story through a local Melburnian community support group called RAW (Resilient Aspiring Women), which uses her garden as a nurturing space to share stories and form connections.
Mariam’s journey begins in the coastal town of Kismayo in southern Somalia where she was born. She then moved to Kenya to live with her father, a political exile. After years of schooling in Kenya, she got married in Somalia, but soon after fled from her homeland in a leaky boat to Kenya.
Mariam’s story will resonate with many Africans who have been forced to leave their homes as a result of war. Fortunately for Mariam, her husband was working in Dubai at that time and she was eventually able to join him there. Knowing that they could not go back to Somalia the family came back to Kenya and eventually migrated to Australia.
They settled in Melbourne, Australia in a predominantly white suburb where this family of black people stood out like a sore thumb. Talking about the rejection and eventual acceptance they faced, Mariam tells the story of an irate neighbour and how they broke down barriers. One day, her son while playing, accidentally kicked his football into a neighbour’s backyard. The neighbour, a middle aged white man, was not happy and complained to Mariam. Coming from Africa where neighbours are like family this was a bit of a shock to Mariam and family. However, the enterprising family did the unexpected. Mohamed, Mariam’s husband, decided to mow the neighbour’s front lawn while he was doing his own. Noticing his freshly mown lawn, the neighbour in typical Australian fashion came over with a couple of beers to share with Mohamed as a way of expressing gratitude. And even though Mohamed didn’t drink the beer a good neighbourly relationship began. This story is symbolic of Mariam’s approach to living in the west. “We may look different, but as neighbours and as humans we have a lot in common,” she says.
Mariam’s integration effort continues with her current project – RAW, a not-for-profit organisation that promotes simple sustainable solutions for a more connected and caring community. With the help of a friend, Katherina Kons, she has turned her backyard into a community garden that is open to everyone. A big sign welcomes passerby’s to visit the garden where fruit trees, flowers and vegetables bloom. Dozens of women visit the garden every week. As they work alongside each other in garden weeding, planting and watering, they often find common ground and share their stories.
“RAW is about breaking barriers and building bridges. We want to empower women to be resilient and to have high aspirations. As well as providing solace and stimulation for the mind, the garden offers a sanctuary and a retreat from the confusion and sometimes threatening environment often confronting us in our daily lives,” says Mariam.
“My book gave me so much. It is like a child that I have brought into this world. I can’t control what it does, but I hope it gives people what it has given me – hope that we can make our world a better place. In much the same way, I hope that through RAW and my garden I can give back a little about the lessons that I have learnt in life,” concludes Mariam.
Abderazzaq Noor, a Somali-Australian based in Melbourne, is a journalist and teacher by profession who works in the higher education sector. He loves his African heritage and shares his passion for East African and Horn of Africa food through his Somali food blog – The Somali Kitchen.