Next month Sumaya Harare makes her first appearance as a guest speaker at Sacred Edge, a festival of arts, music, justice and spirituality hosted by the Queenscliff Uniting Church.
From an early age Sumaya Harare was acutely aware of being different.
“At the age of seven, I arrived in Melbourne with my three brothers and parents as refugees from Somalia,” Sumaya said.
“The only English I knew was from Sesame Street, and I was nervous to be in a place where no one looked like me.”
Going to school heightened the fear of not fitting in.
“The school I went to was predominantly white,” she said.
“It was hard to make friends as I was too different in my classmates’ eyes.”
Sumaya felt particularly self-conscious about her physical differences from the other children, particularly hating her hair and size of her forehead.
“Up until mid-2015 I was using a chemical relaxer to keep my hair straight… and [I] was very insecure about my forehead,” she said.
However, she eventually learned to love those aspects of herself.
“I’ve come to the realisation that I can either spend my life hating it or embracing it. Either way, it’s here to stay,” she said.
It wasn’t just her appearance that made Sumaya feel out-of-place but also her religious and cultural background.
“I went through high school where I wanted to be in a relationship like my friends were in, where I wanted to go clubbing and drink,” she said.
“But these are all things that conflict with my [Muslim] religious values.
“Alcohol is banned in Islam and so are physical relationships before marriage. These are things I wanted to remain true to… but I also wanted to do what all my friends were doing.”
Sumaya is proud that she stuck to her beliefs while still finding a way to socialise.
“In the process of staying true to my values, I still had some great experiences with my friends without having to do things that make me feel guilty later on,” she said.
Sumaya’s mother Mariam Issa is a well-known community advisor and public speaker who shares her experiences as a refugee.
On occasions, Sumaya accompanied her mother to speaking events to take photographs.
“I told my story to a few people who suggested I too become a speaker as my story would benefit a lot of young women,” Sumaya said.
However, addressing an audience was definitely out of her comfort zone.
“It was definitely not something I ever saw myself doing,” Sumaya said.
“Growing up, I was a major introvert. Public speaking made me extremely anxious.”
Sumaya, however, was not going to let that stop her and now gives regular addresses to young women about finding a way to feel accepted without losing what is personally important.
“Don’t try to change for the world, but make the world accept you for the wonderful being you are,” she said.
Certainly Sumaya understands how difficult the teen years can be.
“I know it can feel like you’re in a bad place, but try to focus on the good, even if it’s small,” she said.
“Most of all, don’t bottle things up. I made that mistake and went into a dark place. Talk to someone about what is going on.”
Sumaya encourages young women to focus on the positive.
“Have a day where you spoil yourself because you deserve to be spoilt,” she said.
“Find your talent and spend your time excelling at it.”
Sumaya said society’s pressures on young women to look a certain way need to change, and she encourages women to focus on what they love about themselves.
“Even when I was going through it all, the one thing I never hated about myself was my eyes,” she said.
“I was always told they were too big or that I looked like I had bug eyes but for some reason, I always loved my eyes.”
Sumaya shares her message of self-acceptance and compassion via her YouTube channel and Instagram page (@sumayaharare).
She is excited about speaking at the Sacred Edge Festival this year.
“I look forward to sharing my story on what it was like coming to a new country and entering school without speaking the language properly, the challenges I faced and how I overcame them,” she said.
Sacred Edge runs from 4-6 May.
For more information visit www.unitingqueenscliff.org.au or call 5258 2854