54. Hani Qaafow

16 May

HaniWithin an instant of sitting down with her, I am surrounded by the bright and bubbly personality that is Hani Qaafow. Hani exudes an easy confidence as she laughingly states, “I’m your typical girl, I guess”. She loves “hanging out with friends” and was also raised by a “family [that are] all into sports. All of us were in sports … I did little athletics, basketball.”

Despite her modesty, Hani has exceeded the title of “typical girl” through her contributions to her community.

When I ask what first inspired her to become a youth worker, Hani tells me, “Look, I’ll be honest with you. I didn’t really know that I wanted to be a youth worker … I kept changing courses. I went from science to applied science, thinking oh my God, what am I supposed to do … you always want to help people, be there for anyone going through certain stuff. I feel like that’s what worked [to] my strengths. … I always go that extra yard to help people – this just formalised it.”

“I did my first placements at Banyule and I got to work on a few different projects … Eventually, I got casual work at Banyule. I was also fortunate enough to get to do my second placement here. So then, I formed the AWAG group.”

I quiz Hani further about this interesting organisation, the African Women’s Action Group.

“They’re the local Somali girls here. It’s the older generation working with the younger girls … They’re so inspiring! We formed the group from the Youth Summit, because they found [there was a] gap between young Somali girls and their interaction with the community … We played around with it, came up with the name. So we are currently called the African Women’s Action Group.”

“Initially, we used to meet up every fortnight, [to] think about projects. We went on camp, we organised basketball tournaments, we helped with the younger girls playing soccer at Olympic Village as well. A lot of people think of it as you teaching people. But I have learned so much from them.”

Hani and her own experiences helped form part of her motivation to get involved with AWAG. Hani arrived in Australia at the age of 1. She says she “did school here [in Australia]. I went to an Islamic school from Year 7 to Year 9.” She then moved “to Macleod in Year 10”.

“I grew up here, so I can relate to the girls. I feel like they have me to turn to and me to go to. Local government can be hard to approach, but if there is someone they can relate to, then they voice their opinions. And often, it’s doable. All that is needed is for them to announce [what is needed]”.

As Hani explains more about the goals of AWAG, it becomes clear that they are nothing short of inspiring.

“The main aim [of AWAG] was to inspire the younger girls to do more with their lives, to have careers, have families, learn how to juggle the daily life of being a Muslim and an African within this community. There are a lot of layers to their lives … they face a lot of things, such as their home responsibilities, they juggle uni, work. It’s hard – it actually gets very hard.”

“Another thing we wanted to focus on is mental health, because it’s not highly recognised within our community. A lot of people think of it as shame. You won’t see a young person seeking help, you won’t see the older people recognising it … So it’s about speaking out, not being ashamed, [or] hiding it. A lot of girls wanted to speak out and make that recognised. It’s about awareness, so then girls will know where to seek help.”

“One of the other things that we focused on was sports. We formed the big basketball tournament, because there are not so many opportunities for young Muslim females to play sport … I personally think it’s a great developmental step. The boys can just get up and join any team, but we don’t have that. So what we did was organise the basketball tournament and we had guests from local clubs attend, to see if there were opportunities for them to get involved there.”

Upon the differences in the opportunities women face compared to men, Hani states that it is not always a negative thing and that religious barriers are not necessarily bad, but they must be dealt with.

“If the boys want to play soccer, they have less cultural things to consider, but that’s not to say that we can’t be involved too. For example, the boys have a local swimming place to go to and we [the girls] now have that too. So I feel like the Banyule community put thought into that. Acknowledging that females can’t go to a local pool to swim, they said let’s consider their cultural barriers, address that and make it accessible. I feel like we are not disadvantaged, because it can happen, like with the swimming and the basketball, but us females don’t voice our opinions nearly enough … It is just a matter of saying, these are our barriers but this is what we want. How do we get there?”

When asked about how the group is going, Hani replies with a grin and makes it clear that the work of AWAG is already taking effect in her community. “I feel like the girls are a lot more involved in their community. I feel like they are taking responsibility for what they want from their community – they will speak loudly and be very opinionated! … It’s driven by them, which is great to see.”

“It has broadened our views on the status of Muslim, young females from the community … they are so driven. It has changed the whole dynamic of where Somali young females are headed, compared to the older generation when our parents came here and it was all about settlement, [providing] comfort. They’ve done the hard work, it’s our chance to run with it, to create stuff for the younger girls.”

“I think the whole point is to lead by example. I love it. I absolutely love it, because we sit down and it’s like, each of us have different views and a direction that we want to go and we are not going alone. If we move as a community as a whole, I feel like we can do bigger and better things.”

Through AWAG, Hani hopes to create “a go-to place” where girls are encouraged to “seek assistance with anything from employment and careers, education, and mental health.”

Education for girls is also of top importance in Hani’s eyes.

“As my dad would say, educate a woman and you educate a whole household. We were all brought up with education as priority and nothing else would get in the way of that.”

Her experience in Somalia helped emphasise the importance of education. “I have been to Somalia. It was bitter and sweet. I don’t remember leaving when I was younger, so going back there… it’s so war torn. You see people living with nothing. I feel like it inspired me to do more. That’s probably why I encourage a lot of females to get an education under their belt because that is what our [home] country is lacking.”

Here, women are doing everything, they are juggling it all and I think that is just incredible.”

As for the future, it seems that a lot lies ahead for this vibrant and enthused person sitting across from me.

“Personally, I want to travel to all different places. I feel very sheltered, because I wasn’t exposed to much growing up.”

Hani also wants to become fully qualified, as she hopes to be able to work in a school one day, in order to become “someone that students can relate to.”

The message that Hani wishes to pass down to girls she works with is a positive one. “I would say to every female, not just Somali females, that they should work with their strengths. You don’t have to do what everyone else is doing – as long you are doing what makes you happy. Set goals and have aims in life.”

Words: Annabelle Pendlebury

Photo: Sean Porter



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