Poetry the tonic for Yarrie's scarred soul
Yarrie Bangura’s joyful childhood was disrupted by a bloody civil war that ravaged her home country Sierra Leone. But the refugee-turned-student entrepreneur has found solace and healing through poetry.
Severed human limbs on the ground
Blood like rivers, all around me
My feet caked in gore …
Yarrie Bangura is about as far from a downtrodden refugee as you could imagine.
The young poet, student, businesswoman, performer and role model describes herself as “the happiest person in the world”, and it’s hard to argue with her. She wears a constant smile and is never far from a belly laugh. She’s confident and articulate, with a musical way of speaking. Her clothes match her personality: colourful, bright, bold, flamboyant.
“People always ask me, ‘Why are you so happy?’” said Bangura, 24. “What should I do? Lock myself in my room and cry? No. I want to be happy.”
But this instantly likeable woman has witnessed horrors that most Australians could not imagine.
Yarrie was seven years old when her carefree childhood was taken from her. Sierra Leone was on the brink of civil war and Freetown — her home city — was the scene of a fierce battle as rebel soldiers tried to seize control of the capital.
There were buildings on fire and dead bodies on the street. Arms and legs were hacked off civilians as a tool of terror. Boys were kidnapped to serve as child soldiers and girls stolen from their families to be used as sex slaves.
Along with her parents and four siblings, Bangura fled and sought asylum in a refugee camp in neighbouring Guinea, where she stayed for years until arriving in Australia in 2004 on a humanitarian visa.
While she had escaped the war and the misery of life in a camp, the atrocities she had witnessed deeply traumatised her. About two years after settling in Australia, she began to experience nightmares and flashbacks.
“When I was in Guinea, I didn't have these flashbacks because I was focusing on survival,” Bangura told Impact. “But here in Australia, I didn't have to worry about food and shelter. I could be myself. I think that sometimes, these things come up when you're free to think about them.”
Yarrie didn’t tell anyone what she was going through.
“I thought if I told people, they would think I was ungrateful. I am lucky to be in Australia, there were still refugees in the camp who weren't fortunate to be here, so I had that guilt,” she said.
“At school I couldn’t focus, I would sweat and shake. I suffered every night and day. In my mind, I would go back to the war.”
I go to school
They ask me so many questions
Where do you come from?
Why did you come here?
What was it like there?
For a long time, the endless questions from well-meaning classmates were a source of dread for Bangura.
“This is something that former refugees are constantly confronted with — people asking us these questions,” she said.
“People don’t mean to harm. They just see us as different and they're interested in knowing a little bit about us. They don't know that asking us about home can put us right back into our traumatic situation.”
Years earlier, while waiting in hope in a Guinean refugee camp, Yarrie had some burning questions of her own.
“I was asking the question, why? Why do we have wars? Why do I have to experience such horror, and leave my home?” she said.
“People told me that education would give me the answers to my questions, which is why it was so important that I learned to read and write.”
Yarrie could only speak broken English when she arrived in Sydney as a 10-year-old. At the home of her uncle, who had settled in Australia as a refugee years earlier, she saw an American woman on television.
“It was this strong black woman, and I didn’t know who it was or anything about the history of America, so I said to my uncle, ‘I want to be this woman’,” Bangura said.
“My uncle was like, 'You have to work very hard to be like her'. That’s why education has been a very big part of my journey. Every single day after school, I would go to the closet and I would dress up like Oprah Winfrey.”
Poetry as medicine
They are not part of me
I am more than them
They are nothing
I am something
That is why
It was a primary school teacher who gave Yarrie Bangura a pen and told her to write.
“She would always give me this task, to write about my weekend, and soon I started to write things that came into my head as well,” Bangura said.
As a teenager, Yarrie was seeing a counsellor, which provided some relief from her nightmares and flashbacks. But poetry proved the panacea for her trauma.
“Poetry and writing is a medicine,” she said. “I'm from a culture where we don't talk about the past, and so for me, the gift of poetry was something that allowed me to express what I was feeling inside.”
At first, Bangura would write a poem and tear it up, as if to destroy another page in her book of trauma. One day, after reciting a poem at a public event, an audience member saw her tearing up her work.
“She came up to me crying that this poem had touched her life, and she started picking up the pieces of paper and putting them together,” she said.
“That was when I realised, if I want to give something back, to empower people, maybe poetry is one way I can do that.”
A life with many threads
Sometimes some even say
Your life has many threads
Frayed like a torn garment
The threads fly into the wind
It never finishes
The Yarrie Bangura of today has a busy life.
“They say an idle mind is the devil's playground, and in my situation it's a playground for trauma, and I don't want to play there,” she said.
“When I'm not doing anything, I am more vulnerable to thinking about my past, but when I'm busy doing something to contribute I get excited and look forward to finishing it.”
In recent years, Bangura has racked up an impressive list of achievements.
She went through ACU’s Clemente program and will soon graduate with a Bachelor of International Development Studies, which she plans to use to start an enterprise aimed at creating jobs for youth in Sierra Leone.
Her poetry and writing has been published widely and featured on the ABC and The Sydney Morning Herald.
She’s a special ambassador for the UNHCR, and was a keynote speaker at a major event organised by the refugee agency.
She tours high schools to speak to disadvantaged youth as a representative of several organisations, including ACU’s Equity Pathways program.
She makes music with her sister Isatah under the band name Sierra Sisters, and one of their songs has featured on a Schweppes commercial.
She performed in The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe, a hugely popular play about the real-life experiences of four refugee women who fled persecution. The show’s success led to the making of an eponymous documentary film featuring Bangura and her co-stars.
These achievements have gone some way to covering the scars left by civil war. But halfway through her university degree, Bangura decided she wanted to do something more to contribute.
“I loved the idea of business as a way of giving back to Australia for welcoming me into the country,” she said.
After many sleepless nights and a few false starts, she chose to manufacture Aunty's Ginger Tonic, a traditional West African drink that’s the centrepiece of celebrations like weddings and birthdays.
To Bangura, this spicy ginger tonic is more than just a drink. It’s home in a bottle. It reminds her of a scene of her childhood: the sights, sounds and smells of Sierra Leone, as she played while her grandmother and aunties peeled ginger roots, sung songs and told stories.
“That memory is so vivid,” she said. “It feels like I'm there. For me, this drink has the soul of Sierra Leone.”
It is also a way of telling her people’s story and teaching others that there’s more to her homeland than civil war and poverty.
“Some people think that because you are a refugee, your life is always full of sorrow and you’ve always lived in misery,” she said.
“By starting this business and making this drink, I’m saying I'm not accepting that judgment. My childhood was full of joy and colours. So this drink is a way of celebrating my life, my homeland, and my history, and the parts of it that are good and pure.”
Her dream is to employ refugees who are struggling to get a job in Australia, “to give them opportunities, but also to show them that they can start a business, too”.
“I meet young refugees, and they see me as a role model, so I always try to use myself as an example of what is possible,” Bangura said.
“I'm a dreamer. I dream a lot, and I try to make my dreams come true.”
Yarrie Bangura is completing a Bachelor of International Development Studies at ACU Strathfield. She also works for ACU’s Equity Pathways program.