Starting to be me

Mariam Ajang arrived from a Kenyan refugee camp with her South Sudanese mother and five older brothers when she was just two years old.

Fleeing civil war in South Sudan, Mariam’s mother Sarah was determined to give her children a better life in Australia.

Mariam remembers little about her birthplace, Kakuma, a UNHCR refugee camp in north-western Kenya. It houses more than 180,000 refugees from more than 20 different countries, including South Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. But she remembers the early days in Brisbane as awe-inspiring and difficult.

“We couldn’t believe it when we first saw a microwave. We’d never seen anything that heated up food that fast! And there was so much to watch on TV and a machine that washes dishes…” Mariam recalls. “But no-one looked like me or sounded like me.”

For many years she wouldn’t go out, preferring to stay by her mother’s side. That was, until she noticed how much fun her older brothers were having playing basketball and decided it was time to join in.

Throughout her early years at school Mariam found that although she had plenty of ideas in her head, she lacked the language to express them. “I felt dumb and out of place” she reveals and was worried others would laugh if she mispronounced words. By grade 1 she was determined to break down the language barrier and started taking home books each day and constantly reading and writing.

It paid off. Today she’s a Year 12 student at St James College, a small independent school in central Brisbane. 31% of its students come from a non-English speaking background, and 6% are Indigenous. The school offers fully funded scholarships to migrant and refugee students, has strong community values and encourages all students to “give back” through its volunteering program with local charities.

St James College is also supported by the Beacon Foundation – an Origin Foundation volunteer partner.

Together with her class, Mariam visited Origin in early 2018, as part of a Beacon Foundation initiative to familiarise students with industry and workplaces. The visit inspired her to apply for a school-based traineeship a few months later with Origin’s Workplace Services team in Brisbane, in partnership with Beacon. It meant Mariam could continue with her studies while gaining valuable work experience one day per week and obtain a Certificate III in Business.

Mariam said the moment she told her mother she’d secured the internship with Origin, Sarah knew she’d done the right thing by her children. “This has opened another pathway for me. It’s helping me develop new skills and showed me there’s more than one way to reach my goals.”

In the months that she has been working at Origin, her manager Kayla Nemaia has seen her confidence grow.

“Mariam has really come out of her shell”, Kayla says. “You see this in the way she answers phone calls, transfers them and easily engages in conversation with visitors and staff. She has such great energy and is a great fit with the team, taking on any small admin task with a smile and a “can do” attitude.”

It seems that confidence is translating to the classroom, too. Recently Mariam discovered she has been appointed female School Captain at St James for 2019!

Traineeships like Mariam’s don’t just benefit students. Kayla reports that “having Mariam at the reception desk and the team sharing their knowledge with her has also been a great way for us to take on a mentoring role, which we’ve really enjoyed.”

In 2018 Mariam had the opportunity to volunteer in Cambodia and saw first-hand the everyday struggles that many families face. “It brought me back to my beginnings” she said, “those kids had nothing. I can walk to a tap to get water. It made me so grateful for everything I have.”

Mariam plans to go on to university but at this stage is unsure what to study, given she has so many interests. She figures “if I work hard now I’ll be rewarded with the option of choice – and this motivates me”.

Perhaps the most exciting part of Mariam’s success is not that she’s also a high-performing student, writes her own music, sings, is learning piano and still enjoys playing basketball, but that she’s “finally starting to be me.”

We’re proud to support young people like Mariam through our partnership with the Beacon Foundation, connecting hundreds of Origin volunteers with students to help them learn more about the world of work. 

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