I am sitting in the garden at the back of Mu'ooz restaurant in West End, Brisbane with Saba Abraham, its founder and director. There are ethnic posters dotted around the garden, the pillars are painted a leaf green and the bougainvillea, so reminiscent of Africa, is flourishing right here in the heart of West End.
Sabat tells me that Mu'ooz means tasty and healthy in Tigrinya, the language of Eritrea and parts of Ethiopia.
The restaurant is one of the few African restaurants in the city and it is soon to celebrate its ten years of life. It offers very traditional African food and the basis of the meal is shared plates, as a meal is a collective experience where family and friends share food from a large platter filled with layers of enjera (the local yeast flat bread) topped with a delicious assortment of spicy stews and vegetarian dishes.
Eating involves tearing off a piece of enjera and wrapping it around a portion of food and then eating with your fingers. You can ask for cutlery of course, but getting in there with your fingers makes it a particularly finger-licking good experience.
This restaurant, however, is not your usual restaurant. It is something quite special, as I found out from its owner and founder Saba. It is a not for profit social enterprise and it is dedicated to helping refugee women who come to Australia find their feet and become financially and socially independent.
Saba was born in Adiharbo, near Mendafara town and she was the only girl in a family of seven brothers. They were a middle-class family. Her parents were exceptional, particularly her mother who is her inspiration. She always wanted to help disadvantaged people and to give them emotional and social support, as well as food when they didn't have any. She taught her children that if something happened in their lives that they didn't like, they had to be ready for it and if good things happened, then they had to share them. She ran a farm and a shop to sustain the family. Her father and brothers were all involved in politics.
The Italians, the colonial masters, created the colony of Eritrea in the 19th Century. After World War II, Haile Selassie of Ethiopia annexed Eritrea against the will of the people of Eritrea. This resulted in a political movement for the liberation of Eritrea and a civil war was fought for many years. At 14, she joined the Eritrean Liberation Front and fought for women's rights and she rose through the ranks. She encouraged women to participate in the armed struggle.
Eventually, there were two organisations, the ELF and the EPLF who fought and the one Saba belonged to, lost, so her position became very difficult, especially as no opposition was tolerated.
She fled to Sudan and continued the struggle from there until Eritrea became independent in 1991. She was persecuted for her beliefs and her life and her daughter's life was threatened. This made her apply for asylum as a political refugee. Her priority was to get her daughter out and secure a peaceful future for her. She went through her application and interview in Egypt and thought that Australia was somewhere in Europe!
She arrived in Australia and was overwhelmed by people's kindness and the provisions set up to help them settle. Gradually she learnt English and tried to fit in. Very soon she was participating in a number of resettlement organisations and helped with immigration and settlement matters for the Africa Australian Association. She looked at what skills some of the women had, who arrived in the country, and realised that the most obvious one was cooking, so they started out in 2003 with a loan of $1000 and ran food stalls in Brisbane for festivals or markets. Within a year they had paid off the loan and made $15,000 profit. For the first year, everyone was a volunteer but by the second year profits increased to $27,000 and they could afford to pay $10 per hour as an incentive payment for the volunteers.
Finally, in 2006 the Eritrean Australian Women and Family Support Network was formed and the restaurant opened in 2007 and since then, 154 refugee women have passed through. They come and learn on the job and pass their Certs I and II in Hospitality and this boosts their confidence and their language skills. 97% of them go on to work elsewhere.
She knew that refugees come to Australia with very few skills and some are illiterate. So even when they are here, they live a disadvantaged life. To realise equality, women need financial independence. She has created a safe and happy place for them to learn practical English, about food preparation, be connected, to heal from the traumas they have endured and to become confident and independent women, holding their own within the new society they live in, contributing positively to Australia's economic output.
While she knows how hard the work is, it is the purpose of the exercise which keeps her going.
To learn more about this very worthy not for profit social enterprise and to hear about their events and celebrations, go to Mu'ooz.