Zam Zam, an active member of Scalabrini’s Women’s Platform, has found her calling as an advocate for integration. Her leadership skills, coupled with a strong sense of identity, have served as an impactful combination.
Journey to South Africa
Political instability drove Zam Zam Hirsi out of her home in Somalia and into a Kenyan refugee camp, where she spent her much of her childhood and early adolescence. After a period of sustained peace in Somalia, Zam Zam returned home in 2002, hopeful to resume the life she once knew. Shortly after her arrival, however, the political instability that drove her away resumed. Equipped with enough money for only one of them to escape, her mother insisted she go.
Zam Zam sought refuge back in Kenya, but was turned away at the border and threatened with arrest. After a long and dangerous journey, she arrived in South Africa in 2003. At the time, the process of seeking official refugee status was considerably different than it is today. “Things were not so bad then,” she begins. “Refugees were few and home affairs was an easy process, so I got refugee status very quickly.”
Getting Right to Work
Shortly after her arrival, Zam Zam served as a translator and facilitator for other refugee women seeking stability. She describes her first experience advocating on behalf of a group of widowed women. “I went with them to the cemetery, undertakers, and set up meetings with UCT between these very traumatized women who had to go to counseling. UCT saw that I was the only facilitator and I ended up seeing that these women needed a voice. I started to think, this is where I belong.”
“I started to think, this is where I belong.”
Zam Zam was then introduced to Scalabrini, where she began as a member of the Women’s Platform in 2008. She became one of the group leaders among the women’s leadership program, and found fulfillment in this role because it allowed her to meet and connect with other refugee women. Zam Zam went on to help Scalabrini establish credibility within her community. “They played a big role in fighting xenophobia in 2008, and because I am in the center of the refugee community, I helped Scalabrini develop a reputation of trust.”
Today, Zam Zam leads integration workshops for members of the Women’s Platform. She advocates for the importance of active community involvement. Following her own advice, she is the first non-South African woman to be part of the Community Policing Forum where she lives. “In my area, there are no Somalis. I spoke for the foreign, the Somali shop owners. Sometimes in meetings, the police would blame Somalis, so I represented the good business owners and non-South Africans. I am a spokesperson not just for Somalis, but for the whole community.”
Zam Zam believes the future of integration lies in educating young women. “I only have one vision, and that is to work for my community, and also to achieve more by educating young girls and women, empowering them with information. If you give money today, the money might end next week. But with information, they can empower themselves…I see myself working more and more until it’s the new norm that women can be active in the community.”
“In my area, there are no Somalis. I spoke for the foreign, the Somali shop owners. Sometimes in meetings, the police would blame Somalis, so I represented the good business owners and non-South Africans. I am a spokesperson not just for Somalis, but for the whole community.”