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Donna Sherwani's Extraordinary Journey from Kurdistan to Australia

On the important occasion of International Refugee Day, we gather to honour the invictus spirit of our founder, Donna Sherwani. Within the walls of Maidstone Community Centre, nestled within the heart of the Maribyrnong Council, Donna shares her refugee tale, weaving together threads of courage, hope, and unwavering determination. 

In the sun-kissed land of Kurdistan, where echoes of a troubled past reverberated through the air, Donna Sherwani's childhood unfolded amidst a landscape marked by war and displacement. From her earliest days, Donna bore witness to the resilient spirit of her people as they grappled with the harsh realities of conflict and uncertainty.

One vivid memory etched in Donna's mind is the image of her toddling steps across rugged mountains and treacherous terrain. At the tender age of three, she embarked on an arduous journey with her family, traversing the unforgiving borderlands between Iraq and Turkey. Stripped of the comfort of her parents' embrace, Donna's small hands clung tightly to her determination as she navigated the perils of that three-day odyssey. Her journey was one of endurance, fueled by the resilience instilled within her by a community that had become intimately acquainted with resilience itself.

However, at the tender age of 12, she faced a life-altering choice that would forever shape her destiny. With unwavering determination, Donna and her family embarked on a treacherous journey, leaving behind their homeland in search of safety and freedom. Their path led them through a labyrinth of uncertainty, ultimately guiding them to the shores of Australia in the year 2000. 

As the eve of their departure approached, Donna's thirteenth birthday dawned in the vibrant embrace of Bali, Indonesia. It was here, amidst the tropical splendor, that Donna's spirit yearned for solace and security. However, the journey that lay ahead was anything but idyllic. Promised a ferry equipped with modern amenities, they instead found themselves on a rickety fishing dinghy—a vessel that would test their endurance and resilience. In the face of relentless waves, unending discomfort, and a scarcity of provisions, Donna found solace in her innate strength and the glimmer of hope that illuminated her path. They would have only uncooked hard and dry Indonesian noodles to eat, and a couple of lemons they begged from a fellow boat person for their pregnant mother.

Within the confined space of the boat, Donna discovered her first connection with womanhood, as her body embraced the onset of womanly cycles. Filled with fear and uncertainty, she concealed this newfound secret, stuffing torn garments to protect her identity. Yet, amidst the tumultuous waves and constant gaze of the people on board, her resilience shone like a beacon. Enduring excruciating back pain, unrelenting nausea, and sleepless nights, Donna clung to her dreams and the promise of a brighter future.

Upon their interception by the Australian navy, Donna's journey took an unexpected turn. Engaging with an empathetic member of the navy, she seized the opportunity to articulate their collective suffering, utilising her language skills honed through a Kurdish dictionary—a linguistic compass that would guide her towards self-expression. In those heartfelt conversations, the seeds of advocacy were sown, empowering Donna to find her voice and amplify the voices of her people.

Their arrival in Australia marked a new chapter in Donna's odyssey—one where the boundaries of hope were tested within the confines of the Darwin Detention Centre. Within these austere walls, Donna and her family found respite, albeit temporary, as they were cleansed, nourished, and provided with a brief reprieve from their arduous journey. Later, their journey led them to the Port Hedland Detention Centre, where they navigated the maze of uncertainty, yet again, clinging to resilience and perseverance as pillars of strength and survival.

Emerging from the shackles of detention, Donna embraced the transformative power of education as a catalyst for change. Enrolling at Perth Modern ESL School, followed by John Forrest Senior High School, where she confronted adversity in the form of racism and schoolyard bullying. Undeterred, Donna excelled academically, defying the constraints that sought to diminish her spirit. With each step forward, she shattered barriers and demonstrated her unwavering commitment to personal growth. At the age of 15, and determined to tell her refugee story from Kurdistan, she wrote poems and participated in three poetry competitions, all of which she won. This led her to meet Prime Minister John Howard over a breakfast event on the Child Overboard Affair, where she took the opportunity to personally share her refugee story with him and impart her hopes and dreams for the future. Afterwards, he mailed her a letter, writing, “I hope your dreams of becoming a lawyer, writer and a politician will become true.” 

Following her graduation from high school, Donna embarked on a new chapter of her life, delving into the world of law at Victoria University. It was during her studies that she was granted a life-altering opportunity—an exchange program at The Hague University in the Netherlands. Immersed in the global arena of justice, Donna's passion for human rights blossomed, propelling her towards a path of advocacy and empowerment.

Donna's legal career led her to a prestigious corporate law firm in the heart of the city. Yet, as she delved deeper into the intricacies of wills, probate, and estates, she found her spirit yearning for more profound fulfilment. Witnessing the devastating consequences of familial disputes over material possessions, Donna realised that her true calling lay in effecting positive change on a broader scale.

Fuelled by a hunger for exploration and a burning desire to make a meaningful impact, Donna embarked on a transformative journey of self-discovery. She embarked on the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage route from France to Spain, where each step was a testament to her unwavering determination and resilience. The pilgrimage not only deepened her connection to herself but also broadened her perspective on the interconnectedness of humanity.

Returning from her profound journey, Donna pursued a master's degree in International Relations, specialising in Peace & Security. Her academic pursuits were complemented by a transformative internship with Human Asia in Seoul, South Korea—an experience that only ever strengthened her passion for human rights and provided her with invaluable insights into the plight of North Korean defectors, and the treatment of South Asian migrant labourers in the Gulf region, as well as refugees worldwide. 

It was during her time in South Korea that Donna's path intersected with that of her South Korean soulmate. Bound by a shared commitment to creating a more compassionate world, their love blossomed, and they embarked on a lifelong journey together. Today, Donna is a proud mother of two beautiful multiracial children—a testament to the enduring legacy of hope, resilience, and love.

With her personal experiences as a guiding compass, Donna has dedicated her life to advocating for refugees and marginalised communities. Her advocacy work spans from grassroots initiatives to international platforms, shedding light on the plight of those who have been displaced and fighting for their rights and dignity. 

Recognising the need for multicultural purpose-driven brands that align with her ethos, mission and values, Donna Sherwani took matters into her own hands and created her own fashion brand. With a vision to use fashion as a catalyst for change, Donna embarked on a journey to bridge the gap and bring forth a purpose driven brand that is sustainable, circular, ethical and charity giving. Driven by the desire to make a positive impact on the world, she sought to find a solution to the detrimental impact left behind by the culprit that is fast-fashion.

"With climate change and sustainability becoming more important, and given the current dire situation the planet is currently in, we need to be be the solution, not the problem. While some vegan brands do exist and are working hard at doing it big, Shér & Seo is different. We are storytellers, refugees, come from humble beginnings. We know geopolitics and speak different languages, and appeal to the current multicultural world we live in. We are advocates for human rights and disruptive change. We campaign for minorities and the not-so-priviledged because we have walked in their shoes. We are activists for climate change because we realise the interconnectedness of it all. Unlike the big brands out there who care about profit, we care about impact."

Through her brand, Shér & Seo, Donna continues to empower individuals by offering cruelty-free, ethically-sourced fashion choices that align with her vision of a more compassionate world.

Donna Sherwani's journey from a young refugee navigating treacherous seas to a fierce advocate for justice and empowerment embodies the resilient spirit of the human experience. Her fortitude, tenacity, and unwavering commitment to making a difference inspire us all to be audacious, compassionate, authentic and own our unique stories.