Sumaya Housaini: Former Afghan Refugee Overcomes Stereotypes to Blaze Her Own Path in Business
Joining our Zoom call from Sydney, Sumaya greets us with a warm, genuine smile, and for the duration of our 30-minute conversation, it barely leaves her face for a moment. It remains even when we discuss her more difficult experiences, like the discrimination she had to contend with as an Afghan refugee growing up in Sydney.
Today, Sumaya has every reason to smile. The first in her family to earn a university degree, she has just received job offers from three well-known organisations, all in line with her chosen career: accounting and auditing. We suggest to her that it isn’t every day you hear a young person profess their passion for auditing. What sparked her interest?
“It’s a challenge, that’s what I like. I wasn’t good at marketing; it’s more innovate, you think outside the box, whereas I’m the kind of person who loves a set of rules. I don’t mind change, but I really like the way accounting and auditing has a structure…This is my expertise, and this is what I enjoy, as much as it may sound boring.”
She also takes a certain pride in defying expectations – both in the Afghan community and broader Australian society – around what women of her background can achieve. “You don’t see many women saying ‘I’d love to do auditing.’ I’ve always wanted to do something different and to be an inspiration for refugee girls.”
She traces this ambition back to her high school days, when she often felt her identity was obscured by the assumptions and stereotypes projected onto her. “I faced a lot of racism and bullying because I was the only girl wearing the hijab in school at the time. Maybe there weren’t many refugees in that area where I was living. I remember I always wanted to represent myself, to show people ‘I’m not what you think I am.’”
Since 2007, when she first arrived in Sydney, Sumaya has noticed a positive change in how Australians react to other cultures. “My self-esteem had really gone down over the years. And then, slowly, things started getting better. You got a lot of support from teachers, friends, colleagues. Now, Australia is the most multicultural country, I believe, in the world.”
She was introduced to the Crescent Champions Club by a friend, but she was initially sceptical of what it could offer her. At the time, it sounded “like all the other employment and refugee services that I’ve been hearing about since I came to Australia,” and her experiences with them had been disappointing. However, she trusted her friend’s advice, and she was getting frustrated with the lack of response from the job applications she had started sending out. With nothing to lose, she decided to give it a try.
From the start, she was pleasantly surprised, especially by the close rapport she built with her mentor. “It’s none of this ‘we’ll send you a PDF and then you read through it.’ It was more practical, one-on-one help from an expert.”
In addition to helping refine her CV, Sumaya’s mentor gave her valuable insights to develop her interview skills. Learning that there were methods and structures she could use to deliver a winning job interview every time was a revelation, and she suddenly understood why her previous attempts to land a dream job hadn’t succeeded.
“I never knew that I was making the same mistakes repeatedly and being part of the Crescent Champions Club highlighted where I was heading and which areas I needed to focus on.” The three job offers she has recently received Sumaya attributes directly to her mentorship with the Crescent Champions Club.
While she is excited to embark on her career, Sumaya does not see a future free from challenges. In her industry, she says, most of the positions of power are still held by men. “I have to compete with men. I believe that there’s not many women in business, or in accounting or auditing firms.”
“Even back at university, in one of the accounting units, I was the only girl out of 13 males in my class. In the other one, there were three girls out of 21 males.” By refusing to be excluded from the industry, Sumaya hopes to encourage more women and girls to pursue a career in business, particularly those in the Afghan community.
“You don’t see a lot of girls excelling or girls who have high standards and goals. For our society, and I mean the Afghan community, there are these stereotypes that at a certain age, they should just settle, their dreams don’t get fulfilled, and they should get married.”
Sumaya’s background as a refugee has presented her with plenty of challenges, but it has also fuelled her ambition. She believes that refugees, having risked everything to escape conflict or repressive regimes, are better able to appreciate the freedoms and privileges most Australians take for granted. In the Afghanistan she left behind, for a girl to pursue an education meant taking on great risks. “It costs them their life. Anything could happen to them.”
“As a refugee, there are benefits, as well as downfalls. New journey, new people, but at the same time there are so many opportunities.”
In the future, Sumaya sees herself as a senior auditor with a leading firm. Her plans also include international travel (she has a bucket-list of countries to visit), and she hopes to one day establish a foundation to support young women experiencing the kinds of challenges she has faced herself. “Not only refugees, but girls that struggle with confidence, self-esteem, whatever I have struggled with.”
“I don’t want them to feel caged. I want them to have the freedom to think that there’s support, such as the Crescent Champions Club. This is one of the best initiatives, and it has inspired me to do something similar, [to help others] the way I received help.”