39. Uma Vijai

26 Jun

_MG_0044-EditI glanced at the clock as I sat in Uma’s shop just before our interview; the time neared 9am. The ‘cling’ of the front door bell then swivelled my vision back around to the shop front, where Uma rushed over to welcome in a community member in need of support. Our interview, and the working day for that matter, hadn’t even started – yet I was already struck by Uma’s ability to radiate such compassion and hospitality to those around her. This act of kindness was clearly so second-nature to Uma, and as I came to learn, was only one small part of the patchwork of Uma’s service to others locally and internationally.

I found out quite quickly that ‘Uma’ isn’t actually Uma’s real name. Thankfully, this was not a result of my chronic inability to remember names properly, but rather that ‘Uma’ actually means ‘mother’. No other name could be more appropriate. Uma is a huge motherly figure of support to her community, particularly for young people through her Rosanna shop ‘Idly Corner’. Uma describes her shop as a social hub of support and networking where guidance is provided to refugees, newly migrated families or anyone else who approaches her. A large component of this support is the practical advice she provides to young international students on how to navigate new life in Melbourne. This advice encompasses anything from train timetable information to library opening times, however, is also just as likely to involve discussions on whether or not the cute girl or guy on the train is worth pursuing. Uma has created an environment of extreme welcome and openness for young people and describes it with one tell-all sentence, “You get anything on the table here”.

Uma also carries on her Grandfather’s legacy of a career in astrology. She uses knowledge of planetary positions to provide advice to refugees on careers and daunting life-related questions. For the financially struggling, Uma provides this advice for free, or makes an arrangement for them to pay her later on. Her clients are from all corners of the world – Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, China, Fiji and many more countries. Uma’s assistance towards others transcends all cultural differences, while religion “doesn’t play a role” in who she helps. In Uma’s view, religious differences can be rectified through an acknowledgement of one core truth – that at the end of the day, “Everything is the same – love.” In a brilliant analogy to clarify this, she tells me, “Some religions are saying 2 + 2 is 4, some religions are saying 3 + 1 is four: the end result is only four”. Uma is a fervent supporter of multiculturalism and the “need to learn about other cultures and learn to respect and tolerate each other”. For the youth of the community, these are powerful messages to be spread.

Uma brings this multiculturalism to life in the Banyule community through a range of Indian-themed events. Some recent examples have been an Indian Festival to “make people aware of multiculturalism in India” and an Indian-themed 2-day function at Bellfield Community Health Centre. Both occasions and others have offered an opportunity for young people to extend their understanding of Indian culture through an authentic experience of Indian food, music and different traditions. Uma has also assisted the Rosanna Golf Links Primary School by providing Indian costumes for over 50 students and parents for their Bollywood Night, and assisted Austin Hospital nurses by providing traditional Indian Saris for their annual Sydney function. She also assisted the Banyule City Council last year with their Harmony Day by providing Indian and Sri Lankan Food. Moreover, Uma also coordinates annual group prayers involving now over 200 families to “ask the planets to give the best to everyone”.

Uma is an agent of change internationally as well as locally. When Uma noticed the torn Saris of rural women throughout India, she collected 108 Saris from Melbourne to be distributed from the north to the south of the country. Her contribution towards young people also extends overseas – you’re guaranteed to catch Uma at Officeworks sales collecting books, pens and other school stationery to be sent to poor students in India. Packs of shampoo, sheets, soft toys and left over stock from the shops surrounding Idly Corner are also sent to needy families. There is no one particular social group Uma helps, she assists “orphans, schools… just whoever I come across”.

Uma received the 2011 Volunteer of the Year Award, a nomination for 2013 Australian of the Year, has featured in the Leader Newspaper and was the recipient of the Westpac Kookaburra Award for her work coordinating 12 years of community prayers. Uma is also a member of the Multicultural Advisor Committee, and was recently a representative of the Indian community at a Banyule International Women’s Day event. The most powerful recognition of her work, however, comes from her daughter, Shruthi, “When she walks down the street… people really love her… you’re her daughter”.

Her greatest achievement yet? “I haven’t achieved it yet, I’m still learning”.

Uma challenges any suggestion that young people can’t pursue similar work to hers. She says, “It’s really not hard at all. You need to set your mind… and be a people person, that’s all”. Uma advises to “do what you can within your own capacity, and then take it from there”, and be persistent in the face of the inevitable criticism that can arise as a result of taking a leap into the unknown. Uma also offers food for thought which doesn’t often circulate throughout groups of young people, “People cheat and say they need things and take it for free…but that is their karma. You don’t have to judge people for what they are doing. If they can be happy with it…good luck to them.”

Uma’s incredible humility in light of her achievements also seems to be a central component of her work. Each award or achievement she shared with me was prefaced with “I’ve said too much about myself” or a concern that she was “showing off”. She shared her story for one reason, which was “to spread awareness and encourage others to act in a similar way for a better community overall”.

I’m interested to know though, will there ever be a time when she has to stop or take a break because there is simply too much need in the community? “Maybe that day – my breath will be stopped”.

Words: Steph Livingstone

Photo: Sean Porter

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