INSPIRED BY ABDI

December 22, 2015

Sammi Taylor

How one man changed the way I think about identity.

He writes in big, blue scrawl—teacher’s handwriting—on the whiteboard, one word after the other.

Somali.

Survivor.

Refugee.

Australian.

The classroom is musty, as most classrooms are, and the fluorescent lights are a little too bright for first thing on a Tuesday morning. However, we’re not at a school—this is the ‘education space’ at the Melbourne Immigration Museum. The room is at the end of a winding hallway, on the ground level beneath floors of exhibitions, galleries and hundreds of years of history. The ceiling is low—we lie beneath not only years of history, but also years of pain, oppression, genocide and war.

The students are ignorant to this, as most students are, and seem largely uninterested. They’re from two of Melbourne’s brightest schools; a private school from Essendon, and an all boys Catholic system from the North Eastern suburbs. They are 15 years old and privileged, unaware of the emotional weight behind what they are about to hear.

The man at the front of the room, whiteboard marker in hand, is Abdi Aden. He was not wearing an itchy brown private school blazer in high school. At just 15 years old, Abdi was forced to flee the war in Somalia. He spent three months travelling to Kenya by foot, starving and hallucinating from dehydration. He survived the corrupt gangs and wild animals of the African plains. He once gripped onto the bottom of a train for 8 hours when travelling, without a ticket, to Romania. He watched his friends die. He lost contact with his parents and younger sister. He came to Australia with nothing but his life.

Abdi asks the students what identity means to them. They yell out their football teams or say that they’re the oldest sibling in their family. Abdi points to the words on the whiteboard.

“This is my identity. I was a refugee, but I am an Australian now.”

In May 2015, Abdi’s story was put into words and published by HarperCollins. Shining: The Story of a Lucky Man is a chronological account of Abdi’s life so far. It follows his happy childhood in Somalia and the pain and fear of fleeing his home when the war began. It recounts, in detail, his arduous journey across continents and oceans, and finally his life as a student, youth worker, husband and father in Australia. It is a story of survival, family, love and self-discovery. It is a gripping, heart-warming and inspiring piece of work.

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But I have not read Abdi’s book. I admit this sheepishly the first time we meet for coffee, in a bar with red earth coloured walls and quiet jazz music reverberating through hidden speakers. He laughs the kind of laugh that puts you at ease.

“I’m afraid I might spoil the book for you,” he says.

Shining has become an immediate success—it was a top pick in bookshops for Father’s Day, and is touted online as something of a masterpiece in memoir. Abdi has toured the book around the country at writers’ festivals; doing signings, meet and greets and panel talks. When we first meet, he has recently returned from Sydney, and later that night he will travel to Ballarat. Byron Bay and Brisbane are on the calendar for next week. He is a regular flyer, and travel is just a part of the job.

“I was recognised on a plane. A person a few seats away was reading my book. She looks down at the book, and then up at me, and says ‘Are you Abdi?’ It was cool.”

Abdi’s incredible knack for storytelling shines through in everything he does. He is animated and intriguing in his school workshops, poignant and honest in conversation. The stories he has to tell—from the harrowing tales of survival and war in Africa, to the way he glows with pride when recounting his son’s basketball games—are engaging and vividly detailed.

“I’ve always been a storyteller. But in Africa, stories are told through talking. Writing is a western profession. And Somalian men don’t want to talk, or write, about what happened to them—you don’t get to cry, you know, you have to be a man. Ego is important,” he says.

“But I write…I tell this story because I need to. Nobody else was telling this story. And that’s why I don’t think Australian children have an understanding of refugees. But I feel like if I can tell my story, I can educate them.”

Abdi is, understandably, proud of his book. It was years in the making, and something he’d always wanted to do. But one of his greatest prides in life is his role as an educator. He worked as a Youth Worker  after completing TAFE and University degrees, and a Masters. The bulk of his work nowadays is spent visiting schools and conducting workshops on refugee issues, storytelling and identity. He’s ‘that guy from TV’ (thanks to his appearance on season 2 of SBS’s documentary series Go Back to Where You Came From) to most young kids, but finds immense joy in educating them about issues close to his heart. In telling kids about his own journey to Australia, he teaches them acceptance, tolerance and an important lesson in developing their own multi-faceted identities.

“My one hour workshop session, that I do with the students, it’s really good. I’m really proud of it. I love working with young people because they go home and talk about what you’ve said with their family. I just want more people educated about this issue, about refugees,” he says.

“I went to a school just outside of Shepparton yesterday, and they had never met an African person before. They’ve been told certain things about African people, but I can make a positive change [in their attitudes].”

“And the teachers get just as much out of it as the kids do. A teacher said to me once that they only heard about refugees as criminals. I helped them to change that perception.”

The word ‘inspiring’ comes up a lot; it’s mentioned at least twice in every book review of Shining and is used every time Abdi is introduced as a speaker or panelist. And the word should, in theory, sum him up pretty well. He’s faced unthinkable adversity, yet has pulled through to become successful, resilient and courageous. But being somebody’s inspiration is something of a burden to carry, and doesn’t sit well on Abdi’s shoulders.

“I like being called a youth worker and an author. But, inspiring? I don’t know. I have a strong message, but I’m not an inspiration.”

“The kinds of people that I find inspiring are the ones that are doing things, things they’re passionate about, making a difference.”

I assure Abdi that he is doing all of those things, and making more of a difference than he knows.

“And I’m also very good looking,” he jokes, with a wink. He has been in Australia long enough to be more than capable of making dad jokes.

“My hero, my role model, is me,” he says, “I could be a mechanic, a CEO, a bus driver, a restaurant owner…don’t get me wrong, all of those things are good things to be. But I think that what I’m doing, educating people, I’m very proud of that.”

“My success is that I am a functioning person, despite everything, without mental health issues. I am becoming a genuine, functioning Australian— I go to work, I have a family, I have friends, I have a Facebook account. That’s my success.”

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The first time we meet, Abdi politely tells me that he doesn’t like to talk about Australia’s immigration policies. A few weeks later, we meet again in a coffee shop, on the morning photographs of Aylan Kurdi— the 3-year-old Syrian refugee who’s body was found on a Turkish beach— are splashed across our television screens and on the front page of our newspapers. The European refugee crisis is the headlining story on all bulletins and broadcasts, and footage of hundreds of people crossing borders and arriving on boats is everywhere you look. These visuals are inescapable for everyone, but for Abdi, it’s as if he’s watching himself on the screen.

“Watching that on the T.V, it’s very familiar. It brings back a lot of memories for me. But sometimes I look at it and think ‘Oh, but they look like people who know where they’re going.’ I didn’t know where I would end up.”

“I didn’t even know that I was a refugee until the T.V told me. It’s just one of those words, you know, I still don’t know how I feel about it.”

“Sometimes I’ll sit down and have a cup of tea and just have a moment of oh, I’m alive. I survived.”

But are there positives to the increase in media coverage and broadening of the conversation on refugee issues?

“Absolutely. People used to say to me, that they didn’t understand how I went from Africa, to Europe, to Australia. But now, even just in the last two weeks, people are realising that that refugee journey is possible. So that’s good,” he says.

In the same way that the photographs of Aylan Kurdi triggered a worldwide response to the Syrian refugee crisis, they sparked in Abdi a desire to abandon his hesitation and reluctance, and speak to me about his thoughts on Australia’s asylum seeker and refugee policies.

“We can do more. We can do so much more. These people are not just ‘migrants’. Migrants come from America, or China, or places where there is no war. These people are refugees. They need our help.”

It is a Thursday night, and Abdi texts to let me know he’s in the foyer of the office building where I work. Tonight, we’re heading to a formal event to honour Matija Barisic, a Bosnian refugee who dedicated her life to volunteering for the Red Cross Tracing Program in Australia. She was a prominent figure in many refugee communities, and a friend to Abdi. She passed away in 2014, and Abdi is speaking at an oration held in her memory, where he will be announced as the Red Cross’s newest ambassador.

“I knew her. She was a friend to me. I didn’t know that she’d passed away until the Red Cross told me,” he says.

There’s an obvious solemnity in the room that night, as attendees mingle with the friends and family of Matija, sharing stories and expressing condolences. Abdi speaks candidly and openly about his experiences as a refugee in Australia, and reflects upon his time with the Red Cross and Matija.

It is the Red Cross’s tracing program that is responsible for Abdi’s reconnection with his mother, whom he was separated from in the war and feared was dead. Years later, he was able to contact and sponsor her, and her nine adopted children, to come to live in Australia, with the support of the Red Cross.

“[When arrived in Australia] I didn’t have enough English to speak, I didn’t have enough education to go to school, and I didn’t have any support. Even finding friends was quite difficult,”

“Red Cross was my friend, Red Cross was my family. With Red Cross I felt safe every time because people understood me.”

Later in the night, he gets up on stage with Sudanese performer Ajak Kwai, and joins in on a song about ‘being happy’. He gets the whole audience involved in chanting the chorus.

That is Abdi’s greatest strength. He’s Somali, a survivor, a refugee and an Australian. But he is so much more than that. He is a storyteller, an educator, a youth worker, an author, a father and a husband. He is an incredible source of energy, positivity and light. And now, I am privileged to call him my friend.

– Sammi Taylor

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