Yarie Bangura spoke to a crowd of 150 Google employees about her small business Aunty’s Ginger Tonic, on Friday evening, November 25. The event was the launch of Google Give Week; a week during which Google employees are given the opportunity to donate to local charities whose initiatives are making a significant impact in the community.
Ms Bangura and Aunty’s Ginger Tonic have been supported by SSI’s Ignite Small Business Start-ups, and SSI was chosen as one of five organisations to present their initiatives to the packed room at Google offices in Pyrmont.
Ignite Program Coordinator Dina Petrakis started the presentation with an overview of Ignite and how it helps facilitate small businesses, but Ms Bangura stole the show with her personal story. This is her story below:
Yarie Bangura’s story
“I am originally from Freetown, the capital city of the beautiful country of Sierra Leone.
I grew up in a strong, colourful environment with a good sense of community. I had a great life. But one day everything changed: from being a happy girl to experiencing the terror of war.
For a while I stayed in a refugee camp in Guinea. I couldn’t go to school. I had lost my childhood and learned to be an adult, having to sell things in a market to survive.
Then, in November 2004, I was fortunate to be able to come to Australia. I was 11.
For two years in Australia my life was great. I watched a lot of TV shows and one of my favourites was Oprah Winfrey. She was my hope as a black woman. I saw her as an African woman that had achieved so much. I could see myself in her. I thought if she can do it I can do it.
I wanted to understand things. Like why did we have war? Why did I have to leave my home? Why was my beautiful community suddenly torn apart?
I knew education would help me find some answers.
I wanted to learn to read and write and follow my dream of giving something back to Australia.
I felt fortunate and privileged to be in this wonderful country but I was haunted by my past.
For some time I couldn’t sleep on my own. I was shaking. But I couldn’t tell anyone.
But I loved education and I loved words. And through poetry I found a way to express myself. I shared my poetry and started talking about myself.
And then last year I was able to put my dream into action.
Back in Guinea I had seen women sitting together and making a ginger drink to sell in the market. From that memory came the beginning of my business.
I wanted to give something different, something that would contribute to the economic growth of Australia and also the health of Australia. Ginger is very big in my country. So I started a ginger tonic business.
My mother was worried for me but I used to say to her, ‘I know it’s going to be hard. I just want to break that stigma that I am a refugee; that I am a black woman, therefore I cannot achieve in a foreign country.’
I believe this country is a land of opportunity for all. . . if you work hard. It might be difficult for some people but if you find the right people to work with it will be an easy journey.
During a Refugee Week event this year I met Australian businessman Tony Shepherd who helped me find Ignite.
And now I can relax. Because people with the same background, who have been through the same situation, they understand. I can relate to them. Everybody has been so supportive and I can see my vision coming to reality. I am sure within myself that my instinct was right.
And thank god that I didn’t give up.
Now I am hoping that it will be a venue to give job opportunities for other migrants and refugees who are finding it hard. Because when you come to Australia it is a wonderful country, very peaceful and I will be forever grateful to Australia because it has given me a second chance in life.
But it can also be very intimidating and overwhelming.
Refugees come with dreams and plans to move on by supporting their family here and back home but sometimes they lack education and can’t speak English so there are barriers and they can be traumatised. Often they are starting from zero.
That is why I want to provide jobs for people who are finding it difficult. Making this drink can be something where refugees can work together and contribute to our wonderful society.
Programs like Ignite allow people like me stand tall and take responsibility for our lives.
Ignite helped set me up with a street food market in Marrickville. I was able to interact with customers who wanted to know more about me and the product.
Ignite helped me find a mentor who was just what I needed. He had a background in the food and beverage industry and has helped another woman start a flourishing business.
Sometimes when things get confusing I can visit the Ignite office and I’m always welcome. I sit with them and they lift my spirits. Sometimes stigma and self-doubt are strong. But when I go to Ignite they are my sounding board and I know I can do it.
They are very determined and passionate to see people succeed.
Refugees are not always people who have lived in poverty. Once they led a better life. Some might have had businesses. But they lost everything when war came. It can happen to anyone. It could happen to anyone in Australia. You can be on top and then next minute you will be low.
Returning that passion to people is amazing.
It is very important to have guidance from people who have experience to learn how the system works. We can trust and relate to Ignite.
Refugee people are strong but if they are not quite strong enough, with just some support they can achieve anything.