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Somali refugee turned lawyer reflects on life growing up in Australia

Yusuf Mohaamud, proudly displaying his admission to the Supreme Court of Victoria. Source: provided

Yusuf Mohamud, a 28-year old lawyer and Somali-Australian discusses life in Australia, his contribution to society and the challenges his community faces settling into their new home.

Born in Somalia, Yusuf is the youngest of five children and came to Australia at just nine months of age.

His family decided to leave Mogadishu just before civil war broke out in 1990 with Yusuf’s mother telling him years later that their flight was one of the last flights out of Mogadishu before the city descended into chaos.

His family settled in Melbourne’s northern suburb of Heidelberg where he started his schooling.

He remembers Heidelberg as a low socioeconomic area with a lot of drug use and violence in the early days.

His family was among the first cohort of refugees from Somalia who came to Australia and he remembers it as tough time.

“My older brothers used to get into fights due to racism, it was quite tough,” he says.

A few years later that would all change when other families from Somalia arrived in the area and Yusuf felt more at home.

Village life to reconnect to his roots

At the age of nine Yusuf's parents decided it was time for him to learn some culture, language and religion. His father took him on a whirlwind trip across the Middle East and Africa, through Egypt, Jordan to UAE and finally Mogadishu at the height of Somali civil war.

Yusuf Mohamud
Yusuf Mohamud Image Source: Provided
provided

Mogadishu was a war-torn city divided and controlled by warlords and clan militias.

“I remember seeing 14-year-old with AK 47, it was crazy,” he says. “I would pass time playing soccer, going to Madrasa.”

Concerned by Mogadishu’s insecurity, his father took him where it all started, a little desolate village with no electricity, and no running water on the border between Somalia and Ethiopia. It was where his father grew up.

Islamic Madrasa was the only education on offer, where ink made of charcoal and water was used to write on wood

For a nine-year-old from Melbourne, this was far away from home, no Mall to hang out at, no corner shop to buy a chocolate bar or ice cream.

“I remember not having potato for a while," he says. "For some reason I needed potato and one day someone told me there was truck with potato and watermelon in the village, I chased the truck and bought potatoes, came back to my aunt’s house, gave her the potatoes and asked her to put this in the pasta that day.

“It was probably one of the best days in the village," he says, looking back at an event that gave him a perspective on life in Australia.

“I think that gave me a lot of things to be thankful for to live in Australia, but it also gave me a real sense of identity,” he says.

No straight pathway to education

After finishing high school, it wasn’t easy for Yusuf to find his feet and studying law was not his first choice, trying engineering and doing a variety of jobs he didn’t find “mentally stimulating”. In the end the biggest motivation to be a lawyer was to help his community.

“I did it because there were no other lawyers and it surprised me that there was no one else doing it,” he says.

As a lawyer Yusuf commands respect within the Somail-Australian community. Generally, lawyers are not portrayed in a positive light but in this community, he is held in high regard. It is enough to say, 'the lawyer' in his community without mentioning his name and people know who you're talking about.

Yusuf began working for West Heidelberg legal service where he started to volunteer after his studies.

“When I first applied to volunteer, they knocked me back and I had to explain to them my connection to the suburb and community,” he says.

Now he divides his working time between West Heidelberg Legal Service and legal firm Starnet Legal.

Founder and principal of Starnet Legal, Kimani Boden describes Yusuf as “motivated, self-disciplined and hardworking young lawyer”.

“He has been able to use common sense and undertake legal research in order to identify legal solutions to unfamiliar factual scenarios,” Boden says.

First experience in court

Within three months of officially becoming a lawyer, Yusuf represented pro-bono a Somali refugee family who bought a car on a hire purchase agreement against the car dealership.

The newly arrived Somali refugee family with limited English skills and little money didn’t know what to do when the family's father got into an accident and the dealer with whom the car was insured with refused to pay up. Instead the dealer repossessed the car claiming payment arrears.

Supreme Court of Victoria
Supreme Court of Victoria
SBS

“I spent the whole weekend preparing and learning the intricate national credit code and consumer law,” he says.

Facing a company represented by lawyers and barristers, the 28-year-old novice lawyer in his first appearance convinced The Federal Circuit Court to have the car returned to the family, his first victory in what felt like a David versus Goliath style court battle.

“It was a huge win, a huge experience,” he says.

Yusuf helps the community with legal issues, sitting once a week at The Mall, a small shopping centre with a large number of Somali community-owned businesses including restaurants, cafés, tailors and travel agencies.