At the table with Khadija Gbla - Part One
Khadija Gbla is a young African-Australian woman and a former refugee from Sierra Leone. Since arriving in Australia in 2001, Khadija has been involved in advocacy on human rights issues, including gender violence, multiculturalism, refugees, domestic violence, and female genital mutilation. Through her business Khadija Gbla Cultural Consultancy, Khadija provides cultural competency training, public speaking, and advocacy for multicultural communities. Khadija is also the executive director of No Female Genital Mutilation Australia (No FGM Australia). In recognition of her work, Khadija has been nominated as young South Australian of the year and young African Australian of the year. More information about Khadija is available on her website: https://www.khadijagbla.com.au/
Can you please tell us about your journey?
I’m 30 years old and was born in Sierra Leone, in the west of Africa. Due to civil war, my family had o flee for their lives. So we ended up in Gambia in a refugee camp for a couple of years. And then my mum applied for refugee status which was granted by Australia. We came to Australia in 2001 as refugees. It wasn’t easy, because we have come from war which is quite terrible and I had such an unstable early childhood.
But coming to Australia was a second chance at, you know, life, to be able to do things, to have dreams and hopes because when you’re a refugee kid, you feel like life is hopeless. I didn’t grow up playing with dolls and teddy bears and going to the park. That innocence gets taken away from you. I was saying to somebody the other day, I didn’t get my first teddy bear until I was 13! Before I came to Australia, I experienced female genital mutilation (FGM). FGM happens to girls because they’re girls. It’s sexual violence, it’s child abuse, and it’s done to control the sexuality of
women. I have been fighting and advocating against FGM for 17 years.
What was your experience like moving to Australia?
The first couple of years in Australia were a nightmare.
I started experiencing racism. For the first time in my life, my skin colour was an issue. Before that, it wasn’t because everyone around me was black. As you know, when you’re 13, you’re just entering your teenage years, your hormones are out of control. You’re trying to work out who you are. But for me on top of that, I had gone from one cultural setting, I was thrown into another cultural setting where I was a minority. Then there were other issues you have as a refugee kid. Complex post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, just nightmares.
But you know what, at some point, I realised that I was still lucky even though life wasn’t easy. I have cousins back home who were still fighting for their lives. I had female cousins who were not ever going to go to school because they were girls. Because there was this whole system of being born a girl, they didn’t deserve an education. The boys were sent to school but the girls were expected to get married and have babies.
I was lucky, I was in Australia. When I woke up in the morning, bombs were not dropping everywhere. Nobody is trying to kill me. You know what I mean, there was food on my table. If I needed medical assistance, I just whip out my Medicare card. Back home, I have to pay before anybody treated me. Even if I was dying. If my mum couldn’t come up with the money, there was going to be no treatment. I was lucky, despite the challenges I was facing.
I faced some racist situations – going into a bus and people not wanting to sit with me, going to the shops and having shop assistants follow me around like I’m going to steal, going to school and girls saying that I needed to go back to Africa and calling me a monkey, being in classrooms and being laughed at because of my accent. I spent a lot of my time in the sick room because it was too much. English was my third language and I would struggle in class - I was trying to compete but it wasn’t a level playing field. They were 13 just like me but it was a different start to life. So I got up, stopped complaining, decided to volunteer. But also the other reason I decided to volunteer was because home life was terrible. There was a lot of abuse in my home even though we were in Australia. And that wasn’t going very well for me. And I just said, you know what, I’m not staying home, I’m going to go out and do something.
I volunteered for Women’s Health Statewide, Multicultural Youth SA, I volunteered for the Australian Refugee Association, I volunteered for the Migrant Resource Centre. I volunteered for anybody who wanted somebody to help out. And it’s through volunteering that I found my voice, I found that I had something to offer. As I child I was told I was worthless and had nothing to offer to the world. Volunteering gave me a voice, it gave me a sense of self, it gave me a sense of worth, that I had something to say, something to contribute.
But it also helped me to start to understand my new home, Australia. It’s easy to be isolated when you just interact with people from your own culture. But when I stepped outside of my community and started interacting with mainstream Australia, even though there was a lot of racism, I started seeing the Australians who give people a fair go. I started meeting Australians who really believe Australia should give a home to refugees. That the plight of refugees was one that Australia couldn’t ignore, and it needed to step up to the plate. I met Australians who were kind and generous and believe in a fair go. And slowly, Australia started to feel like home. A place where I could be healthy and grow up to be whoever I wanted, you know. And that’s when my story changed.
How did you go from volunteering to starting your own organisation?
Volunteering went on to build me up to somebody who sat on boards, on committees, and a keynote speaker for conferences. While that experience was rewarding, I also needed to study. I finished high school and decided to study human rights. Through volunteering, I noticed a theme and developed a passion for human rights, women’s right, refugee rights, the rights of people of minority – an overall theme of empowerment. So when I was in Year 12 and was deciding what to study, I decided to study a double degree of law and international studies, majoring in politics and particularly international relations. While studying, I realised I really wanted to work in advocacy. Advocacy was something I was very passionate about. When I finished my studies, and decided to start a consultancy business, Khadija Gbla Cultural Consultancy. I wanted my consultancy to bridge the gap between African and Australian culture and ways of doing things. I saw a lot of intergenerational conflict between migrant and refugee kids who have come to Australia with our parents who are still holding on to the old way. We, the young ones, we were changing faster, adapting faster. I saw myself as somebody who could see both sides, this middle ground, this middle area where it’s about bringing everyone to the table and say, let’s talk, let’s work out how we can integrate our cultural identity with our Australian identity that we’re finding now, which is wonderful and has great things to offer us.
I started this consultancy because I realised that there was a voice that was needed in that space where we stood together. People have to choose, one or the other, they shouldn’t be, we shouldn’t be forced to. Because that’s actually unfair. Australia’s brand is that multiculturalism that we all bring. That resilience. Our experiences that we have brought to Australia. That migrant and refugee story. If we lose that, then we lose essentially Australia’s identity.
I train organisations on how to be culturally competent. How to harness and tap into that diversity that we have and celebrate it and see it for the good that it really is. But also realise that organisations need to step up to the plate and be culturally competent to provide services to our multicultural communities. Because if you don’t know how to relate to us, how to talk to us, well, you’re losing us. Because we are a large audience.
On the other hand it’s working with the multicultural communities in how to settle in Australia, how to make the most out of their new home. How to truly become Australian citizens. And not just in a piece of paper way, when we get the citizenship. But truly be involved, volunteer, be part of your local community. Step outside of those cultural groups we have set up. Have the skills necessary to really operate in a Western culture, to operate in a Western workplace. Those are things that are hard but we can be taught, we can prepare ourselves for that, so working on that.
I think the most important part of my consultancy is the advocacy I get to do, the advocacy on behalf of my community by sitting on committees and boards, by making sure that at all levels of the Australian system, that the multicultural needs and the multicultural voice doesn’t get lost. My aim is to ensure that when I’m sitting at those tables, that I don’t forget those multicultural experiences and multicultural voice and ensure that our government and all parts of our society actually truly consider diversity as part of our core work. Not something we just think of to tick a box but really becomes part of our core work. Diversity in terms of not just cultural diversity but gender diversity, you know, covering all people. You know, regardless of our race, sexuality, our background, our socioeconomic – everybody, all Australians should be represented and have a seat on those important tables. So that’s what my cultural consultancy is about, it’s just about celebrating cultural diversity, giving people cultural competency and ensuring that multiculturalism and diversity are celebrated and utilised for the good that it really is.
When I’m not running that cultural consultancy, I am the executive director of No FGM Australia. It’s about how we can tackle this form of violence that is not really well known in Australia but is happening in Australia. We have 200,000 women and girls who have experienced female genital mutilation from the 2016 census. We have these women who are living in Australia and who are affected by female genital mutilation and who want to get health services and support necessary to deal with the health consequences of female genital mutilation. We have eleven girls a day who are at risk of FGM. That is a form of child abuse. According to every law in every state in Australia, FGM is considered child abuse.
It’s bigger than just even FGM, it’s about also domestic violence. It’s about making sure every woman is safe in her home. No woman should be scared – home should be the safest place. But it’s becoming the most unsafe place for women. When almost two women a week are dying at the hand of her current or former partner, we have a crisis in Australia, in terms of gender violence. So that’s another issue that’s close to my heart. As someone who has experienced female genital mutilation, a survivor of domestic violence as well, and a survivor of child abuse, I’m very passionate about utilising and using my story, my experience to make sure that those who are not as fortunate as me to have a platform, are able to have their voices, their stories and experiences heard.
What advice would you give your 15-year-old self?
My younger self had such low self-esteem. Like, my uncle and I were talking about this yesterday. He said, you were so shy! You literally weren’t even saying hello to people. That’s how shy you were! I was so scared of the world, I was not sure of myself, I felt so insecure. I was unsure of who I needed to be and thought I needed to please my mum at home, and become a proper African girl.
If I could look back and say to my 13 or 15 year old self, I would say… there is nothing wrong with you! Take your time to work it all out. Don’t rush! We always rush to figure out who we are and who we need to be. Just be young! Just enjoy being 15 or 13. Enjoy that. You will never get it back. You will never be 15 and not have bills to pay! But most importantly, you will figure it out. It’s a beautiful journey! Just be present right now, just be present. Don’t listen to the outside, focus on the inside. Because baby girl, you’re one hell of a young woman. Just listen to yourself and listen to your inner voice. You are already good enough. You won’t please everybody, so don’t even try. Just be Khadija – you can’t go wrong. That’s it!
What has been the biggest challenge you faced?
My biggest challenge was an identity one. Working out what it means to be an African Australian. This whole situation we have going on where we are being crucified as multicultural kids for not fitting into this box that’s been set for us. Our parents want us to fit into one box. The wider Australian community want us to fit into another box. I was a victim of that.
But that’s what the greatest challenge is, even today, it’s always being pulled into two different directions. When I’m fighting FGM, it’s my community that says, oh, you’re selling us out! You’re a traitor! You’re becoming a white woman! How dare you talk about these issues? This is our culture! No, culture is what we make it to be. Culture is not static. It’s always changing and evolving. And we need to evaluate anything that is part of our culture that is harming our girls, that is harming any individual in our culture. We need to reflect on that. FGM is harming our girls, it’s destroying women’s lives. How can we accept that as part of our culture? I’m sorry, that’s not part of my culture!
Then when I go to the Australian side, it’s, oh, gee, these barbaric people! Why are they mutilating their kids? Oh my god, they’re so backwards, they’re so uncivilised! Then I’m like, I’m sorry, isn’t child abuse part of every human culture in the world? Don’t we have child abuse in Australia? Don’t we have gender violence in Australia? Gender violence is in every culture in the world, in every country in the world. No culture gets to take the moral high ground or act superior. So you can’t win, I can’t win! I can’t win either way. And this is the battle. This is the greatest challenge I have faced.
It may seem like I worked it out, I guess, but no one actually has worked it out. I just took what was great about the African side of me and I took what was great about the Australian side. And I just piece those together and everyday, I make a conscious decision on what values, which part of both cultures I want to be part of my culture. Which is a different culture now. That’s what I call third culture, I’m not only African, I’m not only Australian. There’s this other blend where I sit in the middle, where I’m taking the best of both parts. And that’s what I am. That’s where my values come from, that’s where my identity comes from.