Sainab Sheikh's courage and leadership

20 June 2019

Sainab Sheikh had three options presented to her by the UNHCR when she was in transition at a refugee camp in Egypt. They were USA, Canada and Australia. The migration agent pointed her towards Australia.

So she hit the history books and quickly identified common touchpoints between Australia and her native homeland of Somalia. Education was the biggest draw card. But she admits that landing in Western Australia after Egypt presented something of a culture shock.

“The way that civilisation was built in Egypt compared to Australia was a surprise. At first I thought it was a stopover, not Australia itself. I missed how close people were in Egypt and I wanted to go back. I missed my family.”

In December (2001) she arrived in Melbourne and everything changed.

“I realised Melbourne is different to Perth… it’s more diverse ... Everything you want you can get from different cultures, and people are more friendly”.

“I knew I had to focus on my education and this is where I built my life until I completed Bachelor of Social Work and Bachelor of International Community Development and so many different certificates and diplomas including a Certificate IV in Training and Assessment and Certificate III in Aged Care.”

She is currently studying an Applied Masters in Public Policy and Management and a Masters of Counselling*. It is here that she pauses and reflects on how far the emotional journey has taken her from her days in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, where she was born and raised. During the civil war, which grew out of the resistance to the military junta during the 80’s, Sainab’s family experienced the tragic consequences.

“In the war, me and my Mum were at home with my uncle and uncle’s son, and my two brothers and my aunt’s son – and all the boys were killed. Straight away the junta killed them.. shot them.”

Losing her younger brother was especially heartbreaking “because I loved my brother.. he was everything to me. So many families were torn apart”.

It’s a tragic chapter of Sainab’s life she rarely speaks of. I ask her how she manages to carry on with such a cheerful disposition and she replies, “crying cannot make anything change. It cannot bring back your family”. She glances over at her young 12 year old son Khalid Hassan and she beams. He cuddles her and tells her he loves her for a least the dozenth time that hour. The single mum proudly tells me his name means ‘eternal’ and that his arrival restored her will to live a purposeful life.

In May 2004, the Somali Women Development Association Inc. was registered and elected Sainab Sheikh the Chairperson; a non-profit organisation which aspires to create positive change for women and young people.

“When I came here, I looked at how people lived here, especially Somalian community members … I witnessed poor language skills and equally poor education outcomes and most people were the same age as me and I thought, how can we help these people? There is a lot of opportunity, especially for developing the skills of young kids with the right education.” She says as a qualified social worker, the work might be challenging at times, but it’s always rewarding. “I use my skills and experience to support my own community. It’s not in my cultural DNA to not help those who are in need of help. I know if I got a job somewhere else, the work would collapse. I don’t want to stop what I am doing. One thing I pride myself on is my honesty. It’s the most expensive character trait one can have. It’s not something you can go to a shop and buy. It’s gifted from Allah, ‘God’.”

She says although she has fully embraced Australian values and culture, she continues to marvel at the strength of her heritage and the women within it. “Without Somalian women, our communities wouldn’t survive. Women will do anything to save their families. Women are the backbone of the family.” It is also clear that Sainab has become something of a mother figure to her community. Midway through our photo shoot, she welcomes her neighbours and their children into her home, because she wants the community to know her door is always open. She regards the entire community as extended family. And the feeling appears to be mutual. She is also proud of her new home.  

“One thing about Australia is that we know it’s a multicultural society, especially here in Victoria. Everyone comes from a different culture. I am proud to be a Victorian and proud to be Melburnian. What can I say? It’s a really good place to live. Especially when you go outside this country, when you visit somewhere else, that’s when you really appreciate what we have here. Australia is the best.”

*Interview first published in the Victorian Multicultural Commission's 'Proud To Belong' publication, released March 2017. 

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