Category Archives: Marginalised People

The Dream Team

Today was our first full day at the Aberdeen Women’s Clinic in Freetown. The breadth and calibre of work here is overwhelming, but the gamut of circumstances that puts these women and girls in such precarious positions is equally infuriating.

For example, we met 28 girls, aged 12 – 17, who are pregnant, many as a result of being quarantined during the Ebola crisis and the majority through abuse. Added to this, almost all the girls were orphaned as a consequence of the epidemic.

Known as the Dream Team, these teenagers are taught how to take care of themselves, about personal hygiene, nutrition, prenatal care and post-natal care. How do you become a parent when you have barely had one yourself?

A Dream Team lesson with Aminata.jpgAmi %26 a fistula patient.jpgAmi %26 Panny meet The Dream Team.jpgAs we grow up.jpgAWC young patients.jpgDare to Believe.jpgDream Team baby 1.jpgDream Team craft class 2.jpgDream Team dare to believe.jpgDream Team mother %26 baby.jpgGirl in green.jpgMembers of The Dream Team.jpgYoung fistula patients %26 dream team.jpg

The project manager, another Aminata, was worthy of an Academy Award. The vitality, enthusiasm, and aspiration she instilled in these youngsters, who have more than enough reason to disengage in life, appeared awestruck. They told stories through song, shared their personal experiences to reduce isolation, and talked about their dreams.

Towards the end, they had a 15-minute nap to dream about the future they might one day have as a lawyer, a doctor, a teacher or a midwife, and that being a teenage mother was not the end of everything for them. It may sound clichéd but if these beliefs enable these girls to lift themselves out of abject poverty, then dreaming must surely be the best medicine in the world.

Also posted in Dignity, Uncategorized

The Aminata Maternal Foundation in Sierra Leone

Nine years ago, I could never have conceived travelling to Freetown in Sierra Leone with Aminata Conteh-Biger.

With us are the Aminata Maternal Foundation Chair Penny Gerstle and SBS Dateline journalist and filmmaker Amos Roberts, who is filming a documentary about Aminata and the foundation, which is due to air in Australia in mid-November.

The Aminata Maternal Foundation was launched at a small party in North Sydney on October 15th. Maternal mortality in Sierra Leone is among the worst in the world. A woman in this tiny West-African country is four times more likely to die in childbirth than a woman in Afghanistan.

Yesterday, we had the privilege of meeting Freedom from Fistula Foundation staff member Lois Boyle, who oversees the funding of the Aberdeen Women’s Clinic in the Sierra Leonean capital. Our first project will be to fund a project through the centre to support a group of teenagers who are pregnant, many as a result of being quarantined during the Ebola crisis.

The clinic delivers over two hundred babies a month, attends to 12,000 children a year in the outpatient clinic and perform 1,000 fistula operations. The clinic has a well-earned reputation for managing obstructive labour. The cost of surgery would be a whopping $900, so the service would be out of reach for 99 percent of women. The Aberdeen Women’s Clinic provide the surgery free.


Our visit has two purposes.

The first is the film the documentary. Much of it is related to Aminata’s background as a former refugee from Sierra Leone. Aminata was resettled to Australia by UNHCR after she had been captured by rebels during the civil war and kept as a slave wife.

Today, Aminata and her husband Antoine have two young children Sarafina, 4 and Matisse, 3. It was due to complications during Sarafina’s birth that prompted Aminata to act. Both she and Sarafina nearly lost their lives and had Aminata given birth in Sierra Leone both she and Sarafina would have likely died.

We are also here to meet some of the women who have suffered complications during pregnancy, birthing or post-birthing and to learn about the reality of the situation here and what practical support we can provide to help reduce maternal mortality.


Also posted in Dignity, Uncategorized

The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe World Premier

 If you truly want to understand the plight of women in war, I encourage you to go and see firsthand the genius of director Ros Horin, who has written, produced and directed this eye-opening documentary about her play of the same name.

The candid way Ros explains her frustration and ineptitude to help woman such as these is something we can all relate to but she has succeeded where we have only thought about it. A stark show about brutality, rape and the strength of women – many congratulations to Ros and the four breathtakingly strong women who put it all on the line to be heard – I cannot think of a greater example of dignity.

 The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe World Premier

We are premiering at the Sydney Film Festival!

We are very excited and honoured to announce that The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe is making its debut at the upcoming Sydney Film Festival on June 9th at the Event Cinema George Street.

For those who missed the film screening at the Chauvel please join us for the official world premier of this moving documentary and Q+A with the women and Ros after the screening. Be sure to grab your tickets as the film will only have the one showing.

It is a public event open to all audiences. Therefore, if you have already seen the film, please encourage friends and family to join us as it will be a wonderful evening that offers the unique chance to hear the women share their experiences in the Q&A.


Official Premier – The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe
Thursday June 9th, 6:00pm
Event Cinemas George Street 9
525 George Street, 2000
Tickets required

Buy tickets
About the film:
The film follows the story of four inspirational African women, now living in Australia, who, under the guidance of theatre director Ros Horin, collaborate to let their life stories be transformed into an extraordinary  theatrical experience.
This film charts their personal journeys from trauma to healing and public triumphs, as the Troupe’s show moves from a stage in western Sydney out to the world. It tells an inspirational story of courage and resilience, that reveals the transformative power of story-telling through the arts.
Also posted in Dignity, Genocide, Movies, Philanthropy, Refugees, Uncategorized

Meet Khalid – a refugee from Darfur

On the Chad Sudan border, there exists an inhospitable place that reaches 40 degrees Celsius most days with winds over 100 kilometres an hour, 180,000 refugees from Darfur in Western Sudan rot in 12 refugees camps. Persecuted by their Government and paid militia known as Janjaweed, which means the devil came on horseback, most have lost numerous family members and some walked 800 kilometres across the dessert to safety. Their only crime, they are African not Arab. Most people here arrived around the turn of the century – these days, 16 years is the average stay in a camp.

I was privileged to visit four of the most northern camps back in 2009. The people I met humbled me with their stories but one, in particular, stood out from the crowd.

Meet Khalid (His name has been changed for protection purposes).

Kounoungou Crop Maureen %26 Mohammed UNHCR M Collins-c41.jpgKounoungou Mohammed President of the Journalists Club-c95.JPGKounoungou Mohammed Using My Camera UNHCR M Collins-c10.jpg

When I met Khalid, he was 19 years old and in terms of UNHCR policy, he did not meet any of their criteria for resettlement. He had been at the camp since he was 12. Despite little to no education, he spoke four languages and yearned to become a journalist.

While I was there, Khalid and I spent a day together. I asked this ambitious young man to show me his world. I met many of his friends, some had been there as long as if not longer than Khalid. A few months earlier, there had been some excitement in the camp as UNHCR had begun resettling refugees to the United States. None of these young men felt that way. They knew the truth and had two choices: stay in the camp with no progress or prospects until UNHCR deemed it safe for them to return home or join the Janjaweed and rape, kill and maim their own people.

In a two-hour masterclass, I showed Khalid how to use my Canon 1DX SLR Camera. He picked it up quickly and was soon moving settings to accommodate landscape and portraiture. The speed with which he absorbed information was astounding, and I couldn’t help but feel sad at the thought of such a talent rotting there in hell on earth.

At the end of the day, Khalid asked if he could use his refugee card to cross country borders. I showed him my passport and explained about visas. I knew then that he was close to running, and who could blame him, he had his whole life in front of him and no way out.

Today, seven years on, Khalid remains in the camp. He is a teacher now and has some sense of self-esteem but he still hopes that, one day, he may become a photo-journalist, reporting on events in his country that has seen much of the population marginalised purely based on race.

Also posted in Dignity, Genocide, NGOs, Photography, Refugees, Uncategorized

Syrian Refugees and Deng Thiak Adut


The moment I start talking about refugees, most people’s eyes begin to glaze over. The rhetoric and beliefs about the topic here in Australia is so out of whack with reality it used to infuriate me. Instead of boiling away in a pit of anger, I decided to do something about it and this was one of the key reasons this blog came into being. My other intention was to help these marginalised people restore their dignity by having their story told. In order to truly heal from persecution a person needs to be heard. This is something I experienced over and over on my recent trip to Rwanda and if ever there was proof that it worked, Rwanda is it.

So two extraordinary things happened here in Australia this week. Firstly, the Abbott Government agreed to repatriate 12,000 Syrian refugees, and I congratulate them for it. In recent years, Australia has accepted a total of 13,750 per annum so this is a huge step forward in what appears to be a change of heart for our Prime Minister.

But for all those people who have doubts about refugees and their impact on the Australian community, this week’s stand out was the acknowledgement by Western Sydney University to recognise the success of Deng Thiak Adut and , believe me, his story gives a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘against all odds.

Decide for yourself.

Also posted in Dignity, Genocide, Refugees




On Friday 18th May, I was invited to attend an inspiring event called #WeSpeakCode. Held at the University Of Technology,  the coding event was run by Microsoft and attended by 800 teenagers with a passion for IT from low socio-economic schools around Sydney. So what has this got to do with dignity you might ask.

At both the morning and afternoon session, The Smith Family chose a student speaker to thank Microsoft and all the other contributors at the event. The student who spoke in the afternoon was a Year 9 teenager from Auburn Girls School. While the quality of this video might not be fantastic, the content is breathtaking. In eight years of working in the not for profit sector right around the globe, Jumana is, without doubt, the most impressive student I have met. People who witnessed this speech or have seen the video since, including Microsoft CEO Pip Marlow have said such things as: future employee, future prime minister, world leader.

Please take two minutes to judge for yourself. I now know that the world’s further is in safe hands – enjoy!

Also posted in Dignity, Technology

The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe

Baulkam Hills Ladies Troupe.jpg

Earlier this week, I was privileged to be invited to attend the opening night of The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe, written and directed by Ros Horin in collaboration with Yarrie Bangura, Aminata Conteh-Biger, Yordanos Haile-Michael and Rosemary Kariuki-Fyfe; on whose lives it is based.

“Women have been the spoils of was for centuries. In some societies, rape is so commonplace that no words exist to even discuss it. It’s just how things are. And have always been,” says director Ros Horin.

This year the United Nations has declared that the abuse of women in war is a war crime and will be prosecuted. India has been in uproar over rape. And as Hilary Clinton declared, in her now famous speech, “women’s rights are human rights,” and they must be fully instituted this century. The tipping point is here.

It has taken an almost five year journey to the Opera House for Horin and these four extraordinary women survivors.

Horin says, “I felt strongly from the start, that I wanted to have the four women, whose stories are at the core of this work, to be in the show. It was extremely painful at times, as well as joyous, inspiring.

Many times, Horin asked the women if they wanted if they wanted to go on.

The answer was always the same. “if this work can help even one women’s life, give her the confidence and courage to break free, then it is worth doing.”

I have been fortunate to see rehearsals of the play as well as full performances at the Belvoir Street Theatre and then, this week, at the Opera House. To my mind, it has been worth doing for another reason. The dignity shown by these four women who have suffered crimes that we can barely imagine is truly inspirations but to see how they have grown throughout the evolution that brought us to Wednesday evening and how tall they now stand, is miraculous. A credit to the four women but also to Horin, who has nurtured them on their confronting but cathartic journeys.

I first met Horin through my work for Australia for UNHCR and introduced her to Aminata Conteh, as she was then. A former refugee from Sierra Leone, I have mentored this young woman for seven years. During that time she has married and has two young children. Aminata always tells me, “You have changed my life.” The truth is she has changed mine too.


Also posted in Dignity, NGOs, Refugees

Holy Cow!

There’s a new law in India that penalises people for up to five years for slaughtering a cow. Sexual harassment against a woman carries a two year sentence – sad but true.

cow image.jpg

Read more here:

Also posted in Dignity


Last night I saw the new Cuba Gooding Jr movie Selma. The film chronicles three months in 1965 where Dr Martin Luther King led a campaign  to secure equal voting rights for coloureds in the face of violent opposition.

The story of Martin Luther King is well known but this particular event, less so. It is easy to walk away from the film thinking how far we have come. For me, it was a stark reminder of how much is left to do and that oppression and brutality are not a third-world problem. It is in all of our backyards.

I saw the film as a reminder of how one simple act of cruelty or a cutting remark can marginalise a fellow human being.

In the words of the man himself,

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Also posted in Celebrity, Dignity, Movies

Varuna – the National Writer’s House

Happy Australia Day – as you celebrate today with your family and friends, please spare a thought for those whose lives were marginalised as a result of the actions carried out on this historic day – thank you.

Now many of you know that I am on annual leave, but I want to reassure you that I am not having a holiday, well not entirely.

At the end of last year, I was privileged to be awarded an Eleanor Dark Fellowship for Fiction at Varuna.

Varuna, the National Writer’s House is situated in the Blue Mountains, an hour and a half north of Sydney. Eleanor Dark was one of Australia’s finest writers of the 20th Century, and Varuna owes its existence today to Eleanor, her husband Dr Eric Dark and their family. Her best-known novel was the best-selling The Timeless Land (1941), the first part of a trilogy, with Storm of Time (1948) and No Barrier (1953).

Read more about Varuna here:

I arrived last Monday and the first thing that hits you when you get here is the peace. Not actual quiet, as a mob of sulphur-crested cockatoos act like court jesters and keep everyone entertained, but more a sense of tranquility.

I am here with four other writers, who between us are working on fiction, non-fiction and academic manuscripts, so a diverse range of genres and inevitably some varied dinner table conversations.

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to meet with Varuna elder, Peter Bishop, who was insightful about my work, but also about life.

Varuna House Sign.jpgVaruna Painting l-res.jpg

It would be remiss of me not to thank Jansis and her extraordinarily kind staff at Varuna, who have made me feel so welcome. A special shout out goes to Sheila, who prepares our divine home cooked meals each evening. I haven’t eaten as well since I was married to a chef!

On my arrival, the weather was foggy with drizzling rain, arguably a perfect environment for a budding writer. The next few days were bathed in glorious sunshine and much of my time was spent in the garden working on my laptop. I even indulged in a trip or two to the spa. Now, the rain is back and with it my productivity!

I am staying in the Bear Room, overlooking the garden. The house’s original veranda has been closed in giving each bedroom its own workspace. So, as I sit and write, amused and somewhat distracted by my screeching yellow and white friends, I can appreciate that just in front of the trees at the end of the garden is one of the most environmentally significant World Heritage sites on the planet.

It is impossible to stay at Varuna and not be aware of your surroundings. As a photographer and writer, there simply aren’t enough hours in the day. A few early morning bush walks followed by half an hour of yoga have both pampered my soul. A reminder of what it means to be at one with nature, to be calm, and to have the capacity to be creative – that is Varuna. You cannot fail to be inspired by such surroundings.

My aim is to try to do justice to my story in recognition of the people I am writing for. In this instance, the people of Rwanda and Darfur, and two heinous crimes that the world should never forget, one of which still continues today.

Thank you – Maureen


Also posted in Dignity, Genocide, Writing