Sharing stories of the heart

Know My Story participant Mmaskepe Sejoe, volunteer Con Pagonis and Wellsprings for Women's Dalal Smiley. Picture: SAHAR FOLADI. 364068_01

by Sahar Foladi

A documentary celebrating 10 “extraordinary migrant women” stories has premiered at Drum Theatre in Dandenong.

Among the audience at the Know My Story film and book launch on Monday 25 September was Con Pagonis, who has been volunteering for almost two decades.

He says the initiative has given voices to these women.

“History will have a record of what they’ve achieved and goes some way towards rectifying the imbalance that women face in terms of recognition for their contribution to community development.

“I think watching the documentary film, it’s amazing how individuals can make a huge difference to community wellbeing.”

The project was initiated by Wellsprings for Women. It featured the 10 women sharing their journey to Australia, why they took that step, the challenges they faced upon arrival and how each of them contributed to the Australian community since.

They were Leila Ashtiani, Zakia Baig, Hayat Doughan, Larra Juab, Liseby Lapierre, Joyce Rebeiro, Maria Sampey, Sri Samy, Mmaskepe Sejoe and Su Sullivan.

A Hazara woman, Zakia Baig, started her own organisation Australian Hazara Women’s Friendship Network in 2013.

The organisation provides Hazara women from refugee and migrant backgrounds with the opportunity to feel comfortable, supported and empowered in their communities.

Ms Baig says she felt proud for being recognised for the hard work of making a change in the community.

“I was very proud listening to myself and even got emotional because it brought back memories with some pain.

“So totally overwhelmed with the project and it’s an honour to be amongst the others.”

The project manager, Lella Cariddi said the women’s contribution both in the community and in the project was spontaneous.

“Regardless of the many challenges the protagonists in this project had to face, they didn’t look for sympathy, they just got on and achieved fulfilment through altruism.

“It’s extraordinary how the women opened their hearts.

“You need to understand this wasn’t done using a questionnaire. These were reflections on their heritage, the circumstances that brought them here, experience of resettlement and how they contributed,” she said.

While many of the women are humbled of their recognition, they also believe that there should be some sort of recognition of the immense work that community organisations and individuals do.

Mmaskepe Sejoe, an applied human rights expert of more than 35 years, also contributed to the documentary film.

She commended the initiative but thinks this should go on further.

“I was taught as a young person that if my neighbour is not free, I cannot claim to be free.

“It’s great that the women who contribute should be acknowledged somehow and such work should grow.

“We should start to really look into the unsung heroes in the community who’re less likely to get nominated for (honours) because the people they work with are powerless,” she said.

Ms Sejoe urges a recognition at a local government level as a minimum.

At the launch, Greater Dandenong mayor Eden Foster said the stories were of great importance.

“As a female leader in Greater Dandenong this project shares the stories of women who came before me and inspires the women who will come after.

“Greater Dandenong is a multicultural community (63 per cent of our residents were born overseas) and our city is built on the hard work of migrants.

“Being able to share the stories of migrant women is a recognition and celebration of the strength of a diverse community.”

Narre Warren North MP, Belinda Wilson praised the organisation for its initiative.

“It was an incredible event. I think they’re all touching, and they all brought tear to my eyes.

“I think we’re always pressed with different issues with migration and coming to a new country.

“There is a lot of challenges along the way, but I think the women provided great advice and guidance,” she said.

“A lot of them established their own organisations and are doing incredible work in the community which is a benefit for everyone.”

A book version of ‘Know My Story’ is also available and not only does it feature the 10 women, but also the incredible stories of other women who are part of Wellsprings for Women.

Wellsprings for Women chief executive Dalal Smiley says overall they were very satisfied with the outcome of the event.

However, works will be commencing to spread this project to a wider audience.

“It’s not just telling the stories, but we also need to unpack that.

“We need to see how we have changed as a society because of the contribution of the women that everyone saw,” she said.

“It’s just the beginning and I’m sure this movie will reach many people.”

Ms Smiley says social media, the film produced and the publication of ‘Know My Story’ is a great way to reach a larger audience.

“People like to hear stories and there’s a lot behind those stories.

“In the future, we could do a film night, have a Q&A with audience, analyse and discuss the stories.

“It’s just the beginning and I’m sure this movie will reach many people.”