Meet Prudence Melom, the Inspiring Woman Erasing Racism in Australia Through Storytelling
As far as inspiring women go — the mover and shaker kind — Prudence Melom, Amnesty International My New Neighbour Ambassador, would have to be up there with the best of them. After fleeing her home in Chad, Africa at the age of four with her pregnant mother and sibling, Prudence spent seven years in a refugee camp before arriving in Toowoomba, Queensland, where she has lived ever since.
Speaking to Prue, she is warm and humbled by the freedoms living in Australia has afforded her — ones she says wouldn't have been possible had she stayed in Chad — however on the flip side, growing up in regional Queensland meant she experienced racism first hand and the impact it can have on a person. It was this that motivated Prudence to launch E-RACED, a not-for-profit organisation with the goal of 'erasing racism, one story at a time' by connecting refugees and migrants with Australians, and bringing change to Australia's current educational system.
To learn about Prudence's experience and the culture-changing work she's doing, we spoke to her over the phone . . .
Can you please share with us a bit about what it was like growing up in Chad?
Growing up I had a very normal childhood. I was surrounded by family members and for the most part it was just filled with love, I had loving parents, and so you know . . . I would wake up, go to school . . . I had a really normal life for a child. But when i was four years old, things turned and my life turned into a nightmare where my father was taken away from us and my mum was left with two kids and one on the way, and being such a young mum she saw that life in Chad was no longer the same, things had changed a lot and our lives now were also at risk, so that's when she made the decision to abandon the only place she'd ever known as home and that's how we left Chad.
So you came to Australia with your mum and your siblings?
Yeah, so when we left Chad we went into the xx republic which is another country in Africa, where we stayed in a refugee camp for seven years before coming here in 2007. So when we were in the refugee camp, two years after being separated from my father, we were united . . . He found us in the refugee camp, which is very rare because in a lot of cases, when a parent leaves, you never find them again. So we were very lucky that we were able to be reunited with our father. With our dad, we all came together here . . . my mum and my siblings . . . we all moved to Australia in 2007 and have been located in Toowoomba, Queensland, since.
What was it like growing up in Australia as a woman refugee?
Growing up in Australia was great. It's been filled with so many memories and so many friendships that we built along the way. I actually came without speaking english you know, I'm from a French-speaking background so the most challenging part of us settling in Australia was learning the english language . . . being able to communicate with my peers, and things like that, but after I started understanding english a little bit more, I started being involved in my community, started going to different programs and different events, and just putting myself out there to make new friends and stuff like that. And also the freedom I have in Australia here is totally different from the restrictions that I had in Africa, growing up in Africa, you know like, I grew up in a place where especially young girls were not allowed to do many things that the boys could do. So coming to Australia and having that equality where you know it doesn't matter if I'm a young woman, I can still go out there and have fun, live my life and just do what makes me happy as a person. So that's been a positive of growing up here in Australia. I think for me, I've had my fair share of racism and people who just really didn't understand why I was here in Australia, people who would tell me to go back to where I come from and that I don't belong here, and all of this . . . At the same time, I've also encountered a lot of great people who have made me feel very welcomed as a young refugee here in Australia.
The Black Lives Matter movement has been catapulted into the spotlight in recent weeks and has forced Australia to look at what's going on in its own backyard, are you optimistic it could be the start of widespread change?
I think the BLM movement is definitely bringing change, where a lot of people are now having those uncomfortable conversations, whether it's with their family members, with their colleagues, wherever they are. People are talking about racism and what's happening around the world which is so important because prior to that, talking about racism was almost like a taboo conversation and it made people very uncomfortable to talk about. But now that, you know, a lot of those situations are being put out there in the media, it's at a point where people can no longer hide away, or shy away from those conversations. So I think that's one of the positive things that came out of the Black Lives Matter movement, and now a lot more people, even in Australia are looking in their own backyard and realising this is not just an American issue. People are dying in custody here in Australia too, people are experiencing racism on a daily basis and these things are happening here. It's time that people wake up and do something about it. Like me running an anti racism program during the Black Lives Matter movement has really created a lot of traffic on our end that we're doing, simply because people who don't know much about racism, they've reaching out to learn more, they are reaching out to find out ways they can help, ways they can contribute. You know, instead of just posting something on social media and forgetting about it. A lot of people around Australia are being actively involved in this movement and finding ways they can be a part of this change. It's definitely a great thing to see, that the community are behind this movement.
A big part of creating change is educating people on the experiences of others . . . Exposing them to different perspectives and realities. I understand this is part of the work you do with E-RACED?
E-RACED is a not for profit organisation based in Toowoomba and Mount Gambier, but we pretty much travel all across Australia. What we do is run an anti racism program that sends young people from refugee and migrant backgrounds into rural and regional areas, including the bigger cities. We run one-hour sessions where we share our personal experiences of arriving in Australia as refugees, as migrants, and go through our experiences of racism so that young people can have that face-to-face interaction and meet somebody who might look physically different, but at the end of the day that person is human. We educate young people through storytelling, just to create that understanding and that deeper connection because sharing your story with someone really touches their heart and it really pushes them to become more open-minded and more compassionate towards your personal experiences. So that's how we run our programs. We just use real stories, real experiences, and we allow young people to hear those stories, meet those storytellers and to connect with them. At the end of our session we have a Q&A where no questions are banned or censored and we allow young people in the comfort of their own classroom, in the comfort of their own hall to ask whatever questions they may have about racism, about refugees, about migrants . . . For us to just be there so that those stereotypes and stigmas may be eliminated through our experiences.
What is the biggest business challenge E-RACED faces?
The biggest business challenge is finance [laughs] you know, as a not-for-profit you survive on fundraising and donations, things like that.. That's why when COVID-19 hit a lot of the events we'd planned for the year didn't go ahead, so financially it put a lot of stress on us. From a business point of view, it's definitely finance and being able to bring people in to help and be able to afford . . . because most of the time our school program is delivered all across Australia so we pay to host those things. So yeah, definitely finance has been a big business challenge for us as a not-for-profit
What is the best way we can support E-RACED?
There's a lot of ways that people can support. It doesn't just have to be money. We are looking for volunteers, people that feel they have skills they can contribute to our cause. Even if it's someone who is really good at marketing, someone who is a trainer . . . whatever skills you have that you feel you can contribute to the organisation, we welcome them. And we welcome all people that want to volunteer. We also have our anti-racism T-shirts that we sell on our website, and all proceeds from those sales go directly towards the cause, so that's another way people can get involved. People can also support by donating to us through our website as well. And then social media, and people using their platforms to spread the word about the work we do so that our message and our stories can reach as many people as possible.
You've been on such an incredible journey so far. If you could tell your younger self something, what would it be?
That is a deep question! [laughs] Well something that i would tell my younger self, would be to take things easy . . . To not over-stress in a way where it's like . . . don't be your biggest critic, just take it easy on yourself. You're not supposed to have everything figured out, life is a crazy journey and you will work things out one day at a time as you go through every experience and at the end of the day you will sit down and realise that all those hurdles and hardships were meant to be, and things will always get better.