7 min read
Sabeeha was kept at home because she was deaf. Now she celebrates her disability
Yazidi refugee Sabeeha Hameed Abdo grew up in Iraq and now runs a unique cooking school on the New South Wales mid-north coast. She doesn’t speak during the classes, instead using different senses to convey the lessons.
Published Sunday 16 January 2022
By Lucy Murray
If you have a question, you bang the table. Not a polite tap, but a loud bang, as it is the vibrations that get the teacher’s attention.
It feels rude at first, but it's all part of the experience of learning to cook at Sabeeha's Kitchen.
Yazidi refugee Sabeeha Hameed Abdo, who is profoundly deaf and does not know her true age, runs cooking classes in Coffs Harbour on the New South Wales mid-north coast. The lessons, she says, are going down a treat.
“It is lovely that I can share my Iraqi cooking skills with the Australian people. I feel they like it, they think it is delicious, and they get a lot of enjoyment out of it.”
“When they try it they say it is delicious. I can tell by their face.”
Sabeeha demonstrates to the class. Source: SBS
Sabeeha works in a team with an Australian Sign Language (Auslan) interpreter provided by refugee support organisation Settlement Services International. The interpreter assists Sabeeha to answer questions about her life in Iraq and Yazidi culture.
The cooking is taught by example. Sabeeha demonstrates how to shell an onion while keeping the layers intact before handing the knife over. Her practised hands make the task look easy, but it often takes a bit of back and forth before the students get the hang of it.
Clients learnt to wrap rice in vine leaves to make Dolma. Source: SBS
"We learnt to make dolma (stuffed vine leaves) and I had seen them, I had bought them and I had always enjoyed them, but I just didn’t realise how much was to it," says one student, Sally Pannifex.
"I'm picking up a few more signs slowly and learning, perhaps not to ask questions when Sabeeha has her hands full because she can’t actually respond."
At one point, Sabeeha checks if a pot is boiling on the stove without taking the lid off. She cannot hear the bubbles rising so through a tea-towel she casually holds the lid, feeling for the vibration.
The classes are a lesson in Iraqi culture and deaf awareness, all wrapped up in one neat dolma.
A childhood caring for others
Sabeeha's love of cooking comes from a childhood spent mostly at home.
In Iraq, she was not allowed to go to school and never had the opportunity to learn Kurdish Sign Language. This meant Sabeeha never had the ability to communicate with people outside her family.
Instead, she spent her days cooking for her younger siblings, using the recipes she was taught by her mother.
“You didn’t see people with disabilities in Iraq. They were kept at home,” she says.
In Iraq, Sabeeha cooked on an open fire for her family. Source: SBS
“I had to learn to lip-read all my friends and family, I didn’t have any sign language ... there was no money or support from the government in Iraq, so I didn’t go to school."
“I had to work supporting the family. I helped on the farm, I helped Mum and Dad. I helped support all the kids, I fed everyone."
You didn’t see people with disabilities in Iraq. They were kept at home. - Sabeeha Hameed Abdo
In 2017, as war came closer to the family farm, she and four of her sisters were granted protection visas to come to Australia.
The family are part of the ancient Yazidi minority and would have been killed if captured by fighters from the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
"I left Iraq because I felt that it was quite dangerous for us. It was a war-torn country and I didn’t feel as safe, so the government assisted us to come here where we could be safe," she says.
"The trip was really strange. We arrived in summer too, so it was really hot."
"[But] Australia is just so beautiful. The housing, the beaches, everything about it is so beautiful."
Sabeeha (right) with her family in northern Iraq. Source: SBS
The women had to leave their parents and brothers behind when they flew to Australia, not knowing if or when they would see each other again.
"Yes, I do miss them," she says.
"It has been a long time since we have had contact and been able to see each other."
Auslan provides 'keys to the world'
After arriving in Australia in 2017, the five sisters, who are all hard of hearing, began to learn English as well as Auslan. For Sabeeha, this was her first opportunity to communicate with people outside her family and she has soaked it all up.
“Now I attend TAFE, I am learning both English and Auslan. English is definitely hard. I am finding that a bit more of a struggle, but Auslan and having access to interpreters has made a huge difference," she says.
Sabeeha is the oldest of her five sisters and still cares for them at their home in Coffs Harbour. Source: SBS
The language has opened a world of new opportunities. As well as running her own business, Sabeeha is also learning to drive, swim and ride horses.
“I am happy I can get out and I am proud of myself that I can actually get out and do these things on my own,” she says.
The horseriding is inspired by her animal-loving support worker Rayti Collins, who has been working with Sabeeha for the past three and a half years.
The cooking class makes Dolma, a traditional Iraqi dish of flavoured rice wrapped in vine leaves. In this case it is served with chicken a stuffed vegetables. Source: SBS
“Just seeing that progression from ‘I’m deaf, so I can’t do it’ to ‘I’m deaf, so how can we do it?’ has just been amazing,” she says.
“It’s like she’s been given keys to the world and there is no stopping her.
“She has become just confident, charismatic, independent ... we say you can’t be friends with your clients, but it is very difficult to not be friends with Sabeeha.”
Sabeeha grows the vine leaves used in the Dolma at home in Coffs Harbour. Source: SBS
That charisma has been instrumental in putting together the team behind the cooking classes.
As Sabeeha never went to school, she needed someone to help manage her accounts. Inspired by her story, an accountant offered their services free-of-charge, her support worker says.
"She’s so charismatic and lovely that she has built a full support team, with some coordination, but mostly it's just her. People gravitate towards her."
"I feel like she was always this person but she was never given the ability to be it. So it is really beautiful and it is a privilege to be a part of her journey to do that."
Khishkok Hameed shares tea and home-made sweets with her older sister Sabeeha. Source: SBS
Sabeeha's younger sister, Khishkok Hameed, agrees she has come out of her shell in the past few years.
"Her opportunities have definitely expanded ... she can now book and go to a doctor, she can use interpreters, so it has changed quite a lot," the 25-year-old says.
But between work commitments, Sabeeha's focus remains the care of her younger sisters at their home.
"She is very knowledgeable in cooking and she definitely still looks after us all the time," Khishkok says.
"We are very close as sisters we support each other quite well."
The Dolma is pour from the pot onto a serving tray and served with salad. Source: SBS
Sabeeha's cooking classes now have a waitlist and she has also been approached by corporate clients to run staff development days.
This article is part of the My Australia series which explores the untold stories of extraordinary people in Australia.
This article is part of the My Australia series which explores the untold stories of extraordinary people in Australia. .
The Change Agents podcast series also hears from people in Australian communities who have become role models for change. .
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