Saba Abraham and her Mu’ooz family
Saba, Your story is unique in how you have survived and thrived in your new home. What is also remarkable, is the women and families you have helped along the way here in Brisbane and beyond. Can you tell us how the social enterprise Mu’ooz started?
When I came here, I met with a group of refugees and we wanted to do something so we could gain economic and social independence. Some of the women had never crossed the city, as they spoke no English and did not know how to get around. Because of this, a lot of women were very depressed. Often their husbands couldn’t find jobs and they felt very helpless.
Something all the women could do is cook, even if they had no other skills. We formed the Eritrean Australian Women’s and Family Support Network Inc Association, and started cooking food to sell at festivals. We expanded to doing catering for newly arrived refugees. Then we started working on completing certificate training in hospitality.
In 2008 we first opened our restaurant Mu’ooz in Moorooka. Now Mu’ooz provides traineeships and employment for African refugee women, helping them practice their English and learn other skills. Working at Mu’ooz gives these women confidence and empowerment. A lot of these women suffered from traumatic experiences so new opportunities in their new country help the healing process. You witness a lot in your life [in Eritrea]. The women have witnessed killing and rape and trauma, many women in the restaurant has been through some kind of trauma.
We have now given training, employment and work experience to over 100 women. It is very important the women gain this work experience so they have some skills and experience to go out and be empowered and active members of society. We provide a pathway to employment with many of the women now employed in other places including schools, factories, restaurants and cleaning jobs. Many of them feel like this is home to them, it is more than a workplace.
The following interviews were conducted at Mu’ooz restaurant, West End in May 2016.
Saba Zerin Mesghun
How long have you been part of Mu’ooz?
After we start maybe I have been there two or three years, active in the restaurant or on the group meeting, but now I am only a member. I am not doing any jobs inside there, because when we are first creating it is for non-English speakers, to give them a job.
When we first started the restaurant, we think about there are a lot of ladies they don’t understand English, they can’t go to school, but they know how to cook traditional food. So that is why we started Mu’ooz with Saba. We talk and say let’s do this from the beginning then it’s going well now.
Saba when did you arrive in Queensland?
I arrived in Australia in 1992. I was in Adelaide for three and a half years then I move here in 1996.
Can you share with us a little about your journey to get here?
First when I escape from my country it was because of the war and it was a lot of problems on the time I escape from the country on 1987 then I went to Sudan, I walk eight days and night walking then I went to Kassala first, then I went to Khartoum the capital city of Sudan and I live in Sudan for five years.
How then did you get to Australia?
In Sudan on my way to Church, I pass through the UN office I seen was crowded with a lot of people. People were jumping taking papers from a guard in the office and I ask what happen? What is this? And they told me they are helping with women with children and no husband and they start to take them to Canada and Australia. At that time I was a single mum with my daughter then I say oh! Maybe it can help me too if I apply and I went there. I couldn’t get the paper because I have a baby with me on my hand, I can’t jump like the other people. I didn’t get any paper.
Four times on Sunday, Tuesday, Sunday, Tuesday was giving the people. I went there. I didn’t get any chance. Finally at the end, the guard opened the door, a lot of people there I always stand on the back because I don’t want to get hurt and he came opened the door he say today I only have two papers and these two papers I know I am going to give to who and straight away.
He pushed the people from them and he came straight to me. You have been here four days. I’ve seen you, you go out without anything, so today I am giving you this. When he give me the paper like this, I do not believe that. Straight away I put that here and I put my daughter like this because I don’t want it taken or to grabbed it from me. Maybe they can take it and run.
The other one he give to who was there one disability person on wheelchair, then he give that to him. Then he say I don’t have any paper now. Enough and goes. All the people were looking at me. I don’t believe it. Say fill this forms and bring next week. Straight away I run home and I fill the forms. Then I get a chance to come to Australia. Yes. In one year. I am so lucky. Maybe that was because of my daughter I don’t know. It was really a good luck for me.
Do you see Mu’ooz as a family?
It is. This restaurant it’s like we are all together. We stay as a family as friends. Our culture also, it’s always, it’s really good you know we don’t say this person is from this city, that country, that place. We are here in Australia. We have to live happily and peacefully life and we have to do as a friends as a same from one country. We are from Eritrea. We don’t have to have these different problems and solutions politics things we don’t need that here. So that’s why I like it the restaurant.
With the food served at Mu’ooz are there different African cuisines, not just Eritrean. Are there influences on the food?
It’s mostly from Sudan and now at this time maybe they use it in Eritrea too, but we know as I know a long time ago it was from Sudan. But we use it here. There is some like a pasta there is some food the way cooking ways is different yet similar to other countries too.
We celebrate like Easter, Christmas and some occasions like christening, wedding, we use our traditional foods.
So how long have you been part of Mu’ooz?
In the beginning, when we founded Mu’ooz, when we start, we almost don’t have any equipment and ingredients so we have to bring stuff specially. The ingredients from Eritrea, was not available at that time and we don’t know where to access as well. So we have to bring from our own houses to make it happen.
So we create a job with help from MDA, like looking after these new comers and that’s when the income started and we start buying our ingredients from Indian shops and we start asking people to bring us. For example the chilli, is a special chilli from my country so they bring for us and finally when we to open the restaurant, Saba she goes and brings the stuff we need from back home, but mainly we get for the bread, we get all from Brisbane. It’s sometimes expensive like millet but its already exist in Brisbane which we didn’t know at that time. So once we start up the restaurant we discovered by going to the supermarkets some of the ingredients already existed.
So was that a surprise to you?
Well we had a great faith, because we have got this friends and organisations like I’ve said like MDA and they were telling us.
When did you arrive in Queensland?
I came in October 1998. Before that I lived in a refugee camp in Sudan for about eight years.
Were you able to speak English at that stage when you were in Sudan?
When I came to Australia I didn’t even answer the phone because it’s so hard the accent. Like reading and writing I do understand at that time, but when someone talks to me I totally don’t understand when I came to Australia.
That is when I moved from Mu’ooz and do my studies.
So what did you study?
I just study nursing but I didn’t finish.
Did you want to be a nurse?
Since now I am getting older because I have been there as a student I have been there and really a big role being a nurse, I love nursing.
Because when I was back home I graduate nursing still I love working with people but at this time I want to do something different.
The reason is like I told you have to have a good communication with the people. To make them understand why you why they are there for, what they are taking, what is it all about and sometime you miss the interpreting, from you or vice versa. Sometimes from the patient you can’t understand their accent sometimes is hard and just, it’s not just that one but the study was so hard for me because of the writing part, they are big essays 3000 word essays was so hard for me. I work aged care still, I love it. I love to work with the aged care. It’s helping. I am not using my brains all the time, but with my hands, still I help people.
Do you feel like Mu’ooz is a large family to you?
Yeah Mu’ooz, when new people come at least it is how you present, how you meet people, where you know people, it is a base to find a job because you learn the skills like customer service and the culture, Australian culture and different culture, you are interacting out there with the people, so it’s really good for newcomers. You feel confident, because you can feel nervous when you go in a place owned by some people, but when you know your own people are there that gives you just reduces the stress.
What about your traditions from your homeland do you feel that you continue that in some way at all here, do you feel like you can continue your traditions that you brought?
Yes we can still do but we are aging and our young ones, they are not taking that tradition with them. We want to introduce to them. We really try hard to make our children follow what is our tradition, because the big culture of Australia, it absorbs them especially for example when we have got the teenagers when they are are 14 or 15 most of the time they should be with the family because when we tell them that they go out we know what will happen. We don’t like sleep overs because in our country the virginity is very important, but here parents, we feel so bad about it they are not following the way will grow. For example when you get married your parents they might see who you they then they might evaluate them and then say it’s okay to go on, but here there is just boom then their brain ‘this is my boyfriend mum’ so it’s just we don’t know where that boyfriend comes and even traditionally, when I have got my daughter married.
I would love her to dress like Saba is dressing now, but she refuse to dress, because in the beginning the one month period she should look with all the ornaments and stuff but she doesn’t want to, so that is hard, but we love, we miss much. When it is party everyone goes. When there is wedding, we all go because we miss that party really and there is no like clubs where we can go and enjoy ourselves to dance. The only thing is we go and put our tradition is either when we go to church or there is festivals or like remembrance days and stuff and we love to dress.
Mu’ooz Vice President
“It was just lovely to see that people could do work here
because I know from my experience it’s wasn’t easy to
find a job when you come to a new country with no skill
and no language, well you might have skill but no language
no experience in the new country and Mu’ooz gives the
opportunity for many, many women.”
I am the vice president at the moment. I joined Mu’ooz I think four years ago when they were in Moorooka. I’m not really a founder but I have been here for a while.
Are very active in the organisation?
I try to. I wish I could do more to just help more somehow, I hope I can do more and I wish in the future. I will do more.
When did you arrive in Australia?
I arrived in Australia in August 2008. We came straight to Brisbane.
What was your story of coming to Brisbane?
Oh well mine is a little bit different. I immigrated to Holland first so we used to live with my former partner we used to live there for about ten years, then we migrated again in 2008 and we decided to stay and I am here still.
What is your role as Vice President?
Yes, I am a board member, so whenever Saba is away I had to do things or attend meetings. I have been fortunate to receive award twice because she is away, but I should do more while she is away, due to life circumstances I cannot and I guess my dedication is not as strong as Saba’s.
So do you have a sense of being a part of a family here at Mu’ooz?
Yes, It’s a lovely place to be. I had my daughter birthday here, I can borrow things when I need them. I had my wedding here. There was just a hundred people, it was quite full. It was just lovely to see that people could do work here because I know from my experience it’s wasn’t easy to find a job when you come to a new country with no skill and no language, well you might have skill but no language no experience in the new country and Mu’ooz gives the opportunity for many, many women.
It took me a while before I found a job in Holland that was in the hospitality but it wasn’t easy, whereas Mu’ooz gave opportunity for women from Eritrea well also from other African countries.
What traditions do you continue here?
We eat the same food, that is one yes, I guess pretty much that is the first and important thing and also the value you carry and the culture you that try to you, you know and try to integrate.
There are good things from every culture and not so good that might be personal I’ll try to mix both and choose the best things from the basket and try to live a good life.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Well for me the story I can tell is the story of Saba Abraham. The dedication she has and the strength she has is just amazing and whenever things fall down I just think of her and say you know she’s doing it she’s done a lot and she has passed through a lot of you know hurdles and this is ok.
I can live through it or I can deal with it because being at her position with the different kind of people even though from the same country and try to lead is not an easy task. She is a very solid rock. Things can be very pushy sometimes. Some people might have wrong assumption or they might be suspicious because from the outside. If you don’t come closer and you don’t come to the meetings you don’t know what is going in or going out. So there might be a direct comment feedback to her or there might be an attitude toward her, quite a lot. I don’t think I could deal with that in my lifetime.
How old would you have been at the time Mu’ooz opened? What was your first memory of your mum with other women starting Mu’ooz?
I was seven or eight years old. My first memory of Mu’ooz would probably be when they were making the little traditional white clay like storage unit; like oven stove and when they were first looking into buying the actual place. Then I remember the bits of the actual launch for Mu’ooz. It was exciting as a kid.
Outside of your family what role do you play at Mu’ooz?
So I officially started working here towards the end of 2014. I was fifteen then so when we moved here, that was when I actually had a proper role. I had a shift every week, once a week or so and that’s when I officially had a position here. Before then it was just helping out when I could or if I wanted to.
Can you explain how Mu’ooz is a bigger family and how extends out?
In the essence of it, being here. I guess it’s good. I feel like this is the first place I experienced multiculturalism because I grew up more with people who were from my background. Eritrean People or Ethiopian people, that’s just because there wasn’t a bigger community when I was younger. When I was at primary school there was just westernised people or Asian or white people. I wasn’t exposed to a lot of black people or African people until I started engaging with my Mum when she went to her meetings , so I grew up with it and so I feel like I don’t really have to go back home. I mean it’s nice to but I also have it here now.
I have Mu’ooz where I have met so many more different people, I went to high school I went “whoa” there is a lot of us. I wasn’t exposed to that, how big the African community was in Australia until then. I meet new people every week.
So is there a short story or something you would like to tell us, anything you would like to add to your experience?
I haven’t had a personal experience but it’s benefited me so much personally, but it’s nice to see how much it does for other people, where you see them when they’ve had like their first week in the shop and the next day and when you see them ten, five, six years later and it’s like it’s really completely a different person, it’s like really you’re grateful to see how much Australia benefits them and how they can contribute to Australia. It goes back and forth. Like you do something for someone and they are doing it back for you. It’s really good. One of the things you do appreciate, as you get older and where you are not so involved either, you realise the thing Mu’ooz helps you remember: There are people that really need that help or some people don’t come with family, some people aren’t as fortunate as the rest of us who have family here. It’s a good thing, it reminds you of other people’s misfortunes.
Have you been back to Eritrea?
I haven’t been back to Eritrea no, but I have been to Ethiopia.
Do you feel less of a need to go back to, because there is such a strong sense of community here?
Yes I feel like that, I’ve got everything here. It’s more touching and real in your face when you go back there. Here you experience more of the good than you do the bad. When you go there you can still see how much help they need.
Are you aiming for a specific job or role for the future?
Definitely, my plan is to study business and law at university. The actual job I want to do is a lawyer and looking at family law, humanitarian law or maybe criminal law but more on the family at the moment. It’s not actually a cultural or background thing, not too many broken families. Just in general I’m just so attached to family, it’s something I am passionate about, so I definitely want to do that.
“My Uncle he sponsored me and my two sisters.
We did not have any family back there,
so we just came here.”
How long have you been part of this bigger Mu’ooz family?
I have been here two years and a half maybe. I came in November 2013, from Ethiopia. My family originally Eritrean but because I carried my Grandparent and my parents used to live there so I just grew up there. I was born there, but I am too Eritrean.
So what was your journey like to get here?
I used to live with my Grandfather till he passed away. My Uncle he sponsored me and my two sisters. We did not have any family back there, so we just came here. Now I live with my Uncle and Aunty with my sisters. It wasn’t quite so hard but living there by myself with like only my sisters was hard. So my Uncle decide to bring us here and then we like got a better education and a better opportunity so I was like I just go there and get better opportunities and education.
What is your role here at Mu’ooz?
I work front house and back house, sometimes I work at the front and sometimes I just help with the chefs.
What is your favourite part of working at Mu’ooz?
Back of house in the kitchen I like best, I like serving and I like make ready food for the customers, because I love food, and I know how it seem like to wait for food, I want to make quick and clean and stuff and tidy. That’s why I want to be in the kitchen, I don’t want people to wait. So I‘d rather be in the kitchen help.
What do you see is the next step with your career?
For the moment I’m studying event management. I want to build that up and I want to be a part of a big organisation and also Mu’ooz as well as a part-time job. I just want to build that up and this give me a lot of experiences so I like want to be a hotel manager.
What traditions do you continue here in Queensland?
For example when we cook in the kitchen we cook our traditional foods it helps me to experience that more that’s one and with my colleagues my elders, they help me, look after, sometimes they tell you stories, like how they get here, how thing went back home, like in Eritrea, I don’t have any idea because I grew up in Ethiopia. Like when they tell me more stories whether it is a good or bad thing. If it’s a good thing I try to keep it, if it’s a bad thing if I tried to improve it. When I finish work sometimes we have a talk, have a chat about how things were back then in Eritrea so I think it helps getting more awareness, getting more information.
It’s all those little conversations you didn’t plan for and those things that happen. Did you have anything else you’d like to share?
Whoever visits Mu’ooz they are not just eating food or they are not just experiencing the culture. I just want them to come here and know about more and help more Eritrean women it’s a woman base so that helps us more go, grow, if they come it will be a big support.