First Day: The Syrian migrant who became a beauty industry powerhouse

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Sue Ismiel was beaten up on a school bus in her first week of school in Australia. But rather than shrink into the background, the Syrian migrant used the experience as inspiration to drive her forward.

Sue Ismiel was a top student in her home town in Syria, so when she came to Australia in 1974 she was surprised at the reception she got.

"On the third day of school I was beaten up by a group of girls on the school bus," she says.

"I learned later that the reason that I was bashed up was because I couldn't speak English."

But rather than let the incident define her, the 14-year-old took it as a lesson.

"I had two choices at that moment," she says.

"I could accept bullying and become a victim of bullying for the rest of my life, or I could get up and stand on my feet, learn the English language and prove the critics wrong. And that was exactly what I chose to do."

Today, Ms Ismiel is the owner of the hugely popular Nad's hair removal brand, which she founded in 1992 after developing a concoction in her kitchen to help her daughter remove unwanted hair.

In the brand's early days, Ms Ismiel gave regular demonstrations at shopping malls to show how the products worked. At one such demonstration she spotted a woman in the crowd who she recognised as one of the girls who had beaten her up more than 20 years earlier.

"I looked at her and I thought, 'Thank you,'" Ms Ismiel says. "Look where I am today."

Landing

Ms Ismiel’s parents decided to move to Australia because they believed it would give them the chance at a better life.

“We knew this would be the land of opportunity. We knew that we would come here and we would start all over,” she says.

Were you born overseas? We'd love to hear about your first impression of Australia as a new migrant. Contact us on sbsnews@sbs.com.au or via Twitter @SBSNews using the hashtag #FirstDaySBS

"The first day was a blur. It was a complete cultural shock when you are taken from one part of the world and placed in another."

But Ms Ismiel was determined to become a success.

She left school midway through her final year, after deciding it wasn't for her, and started working. By 18, she was married and by 25, she and her husband had three daughters - Nadine, Natalie and Naomi.

Beauty

Ms Ismiel's path to success started with one, small problem.

"My middle daughter Natalie, she had dark, thick hair on her arms," she says.

Determined to help her daughter feel more comfortable with her appearance, she began looking at what was on the market.

"There was hot thick waxes that tortured her skin," she says. "There was cream bleaches that would irritate her skin. There wasn’t really anything that was suitable for her young sensitive skin.

"That’s when I set a goal for myself. All I wanted to do was to create a product that would help her."

Over the next year, she experimented with different concoctions in her kitchen until she came up with a "magic green goo" that worked.

Workmates convinced her to sell the product and she began taking batches to a local market.

The turning point came when she made an infomercial advertising the product and phone lines crashed with customers eager to get their hands on it. Now Nad's Natural Hair Removal Gel is sold in the United Stated, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

'It's heartbreaking'

It wasn't until 1993 that Ms Ismiel and her husband decided it was time to visit their home country again. It was the first time she had been back to Syria since migrating in 1974 and the trip was an emotional one.

"It was amazing," she says. "We decided to go back every year since then."

The couple built a house in the small village where Ms Ismiel grew up and she sent for a hills hoist to put in the backyard.

"People in that village would come and have a look at it and fall in love with the idea of a twirling clothesline," she says.

Sitting in her office today in Sydney, Ms Ismiel blinks back tears as she talks about the conflict now raging in her homeland.

"It’s heartbreaking," she says. "It’s devastating to see millions of people dying or fleeing, and the brutality that is going on there is unbelievable."

Sue Ismiel talks about her homeland:

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Recently, the village where their house sits was bombed – the house is still standing - and one of their friends was killed. Many other people they knew there have now fled.

Ms Ismiel says she dreams of a day that Syria can return to the way it was.

"When I was growing up in Syria it was an amazing part of the world," she says. 

"Everyone trusted one another, everyone loved one another, everyone cared for one another and today when I look back I think, 'What has happened?'

"How can we go back to that time in life when everyone trusted one another?"

This story was produced as part of the SBS series, First Day, airing on SBS World News throughout January.

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