When Khadija Gbla was 13, life was not turning out how she had expected. Having arrived in Australia in 2001 as a refugee from Sierra Leone, Gbla was suffering from depression – she was being bullied at school, was physically unwell, and was suffering from emotional abuse at home.
‘Everything around me literally was falling apart, and I suppose there was this need to escape all of that, and that’s how I got into volunteering,’ Gbla, now 26 years old, says.
Gbla got involved with the Women’s Health State Wide program, ‘Female Genital Mutilation’ (FGM) in 2004, and it became an important turning point in her life.
‘That’s where my leadership potential popped up,’ Gbla says. ‘It wasn’t so much that I wanted to lead, or even that I recognised that I had anything to offer. I just wanted to escape the realities of my life, of a refugee kid living here stuck between two cultures.’
‘I started speaking on just my journey and my experiences and then realised that other people agreed with me, they just didn’t feel as confident in voicing it,’ Gbla explains.
‘Essentially, that’s where the leader was born – it was just having the quality to say, “You know what, if this is bothering me and if I’m going through this, I’m going to speak up and hopefully somebody will hear it”.’
And people did hear. This first step sparked a chain of volunteering and advocacy work that has led Gbla to where she is now – one of Australia’s key voices for young people and migrant youth, with too many honours and achievements under her belt to count.
Gbla has chaired the Minister’s Youth Council, represented Australia at the Harvard National Model United Nations, been awarded a Pride of Australia Young Leader Medal, and joined the Multicultural Human Rights Honour Roll, to name just a few accolades. Somehow, she fits this in around studying Law and International Studies at Flinders University.
Yet, this journey into leadership has not been a smooth one, and the cultural obstacles that have risen as a result of Gbla’s choice to speak out have at times seemed too difficult to overcome.
‘I come from a background where speaking up as a child wasn’t welcome,’ Gbla says.
‘In my culture, adults speak, kids hide away and are not heard. When you are a woman, you don’t speak either. You are inferior, you are a second class citizen, nobody wants to hear what you have to say, you’re not intelligent enough to have an opinion.’
Gbla defied all of these norms from age 13, speaking out about the numerous issues facing the refugee community in Australia, and in doing so, stirred up a level of anger and disapproval from her community that was overwhelming at times.