I love my garden. It saved my life.
In 2012, I wanted to work with women but I didn’t know how. I was sitting in my open garden and suddenly, I saw my backyard and thought, ‘I have a backyard! Why don’t I make use of it?’
Two weeks later I met this woman by chance. A mum through my children’s school named Katherina Kons. I told her I’m starting a “Resilient Aspiring Women’s Garden”. She happened to be a German farmer! We had coffee and decided to co-found the garden. The first point in whatever you do is making a decision. Once you decide, I’m going to do this, you have a foothold.
When I first came to Melbourne as a refugee from Somalia with my husband and four kids in 1998 (with number five on the way) I worked as a cleaner. I was so intrigued by the western woman. I wanted to see her in her natural habitat and see how she worked, lived and parented.
One morning I was so fearful facing the day, and I see this woman in lycra. She wore perfect make up on her face and was pushing a pram. I was thinking: “Wow how is she doing that?” I felt like this woman passed on a permission slip. I saw women at the forefront. They were the doctors I visited and teachers of my kids. Back home women did all the work but behind the scenes. I think there are amazing things in being communal and also in being independent. But none of them can work on their own. We need to marry the two. I hope I can be the bridge in putting the two together.
I was also inspired by my childhood growing up on the coast of Kenya as part of the Griayama women tribe. The women cultivated their lands and walked long distances to sell their produce. They were known as “Mama Mboga” - the mothers and nurturers of the village.
In my Brighton community I noticed there was a trust deficit. What was missing in my community was connection.
I replaced our fence with six olive trees. This was deliberate on my part because the Quran mentions the olive tree to be a tree of neither the east nor the west — I wanted to bridge cultures in my backyard.
Gardens slow us down.
When you come into my backyard, it’s like I’m hosting you in my home. My mother said if you can host someone in your home, you can host them in your heart.
Every tree is adopted by a community member. They plant it with an intention. We ask them to think of what is missing in their space and put it on the tree. My mother-in-law wanted her apple tree to be abundant with lots of fruit people can share. That apple tree was not supposed to fruit that season, but that year it had abundant fruit. It was magical.
We’ve had so many incredible stories from the hundreds of women who come through the garden over the past seven years.
One woman in the garden complimented me on the rosemary. It was Thursday and open house days are Tuesdays and Sundays, but I brought her in and gave her a bunch of food we were growing. When she left she cried. She told me her Italian mum was sick, but the garden reminded her of back home. The moment I asked her to come in, she said she was in a bad space thinking: “What is the point to life?” But now she is now inspired to create her own garden. She told me: “I know there is so much love in the world and in gardens.”
I wanted to bridge cultures in my backyard.
There was this English grandmother who found us one day while cycling past. She was living with her son and daughter-in-law. Her little grand-daughter had cancer. We called her the ‘tomato whisperer’. That year we had incredible tomatoes! Every year she writes us a letter saying thank you. She became family. We held her at a time when she was going through turmoil.
What has the garden taught me? We can let go of the negative stories and comparisons. We are so into our past or the future we want to create. Imagine if we let go of all that and start afresh, without to-do lists and stressing ourselves out? Gardens slow us down.
Today we have a communal kitchen, partner with NGO’s and women cook food from their culture, share stories and even business ideas here. Migrant and refugee women talk about the hardships they went through, like not being accepted as Australia, living in detention, or suffering poverty or trauma.
I work like a bee. A bee’s lifetime is only 35 days. In that space it makes one quarter of a teaspoon of honey. It just wakes up every morning and visits the most beautiful flowers. It goes from one flower to another. While it is doing that it is not only creating honey, but pollinating a crop.
The bee works not from duty but privilege. From a place of joy, going out visiting one flower after another and having fun, not even thinking in 35 days I’m going to die. It is the metaphor I use for my life. I’m going out there to have fun. The by-product of my fun can be supporting other women. If you are in the element of joy, the people around you and the things you do become incredible.
As told to Sarah Malik.
Mariam Issa is the author of ‘A Resilient Life’ and the founder of Resilient Aspiring Women’s Garden in Brighton, Melbourne. She is featured in Melbourne Immigration Museum’s “Grow, Gather, Share exhibition” at the Immigration Museum until April.