When Hawa’s husband died in 1991, she was left with no money and didn’t know where to turn. Originally from Somalia, Hawa was living in Italy with her four children. Initially they went to Kenya and then they decided to try Australia, arriving as refugees in 1993.

In Melbourne she found accommodation in a high-rise apartment complex in North Melbourne where she met African women just like her except for one difference: they were sleeping on friends’ couches and weren’t accessing any government support. They didn’t understand what was available or how to get it, Hawa says.They had no money and no house.

Although Hawa could pass on her knowledge to other Somali women she met, it was a piecemeal approach. Wanting to do more to help, she got involved with the Australian Somali Women’s Healthcare Community Foundation.

Today, Hawa is an active community worker in the foundation’s seniors program. The group meets every day to sew, dance, exercise, learn English and go on outings. They care for each other too. When someone is in need, they all pitch in. They visit each other in hospital, clean their houses and cook meals. Anything to help out.

Every Sunday the centre runs the ‘Somali kitchen’ where they show younger Somali girls the traditional ways to prepare food. While they cook, they talk, teaching the girls about life in Somalia, passing on cultural traditions and advising them about how to live here. They talk about their childhoods and some of the girls record the elders’ stories.

Hawa studies community services at CAE in the mornings and does her community work in the afternoons, with no plans to stop. Instead, she wants to add to her workload. I’d like to help more with homeless people, Hawa says. And get more involved with our hospital program.

These stories celebrate the contributions and diversity of people who are part of the Victorian Seniors Festival.