During 11 months in the Christmas Island Detention Centre, Abdile learnt English and discovered how much she enjoyed writing poetry.
“The only weapon that could heal your heart was poetry when I was there,” she said. “It was my saviour.”
A friend from a writing group for detainees put Abdile in touch with the not-for-profit arts organisation Word Travels, founded by Chicago-raised poet Miles Merrill to support performing writers.
Just a month after arriving in Sydney in 2014, Abdile performed her stirring poem I Will Rise (“I may have bad memories/rooted in pain/but one day/I will rise”) in front of 200 people in The Rocks.
“I was so afraid of how my new world would see me,” she said. “I knew that I was a refugee and an asylum seeker; those words sometimes can be haunting labels.
“But it was good. That night I think I made lifetime friends from the audience.”
Abdile, now 25, has since had a book of her poems published with a launch tour around country towns, runs poetry workshops, has performed twice at Sydney Opera House and is studying journalism at university.
And now the livewire slam poet stars in a film, Verse, that is part of an innovative project called Voxdocs – a collaboration between Shark Island Institute, Documentary Australia Foundation, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age to create eight short documentaries about the state of the performing arts.
Directed by Cornel Ozies (Our Law), Verse shows Abdile in full flight reciting her poems and radiating hope about her new homeland – far from her 13 brothers and sisters who are still back in Somalia.
She misses her mother but that is tested when, having just discovered FaceTime but not how timezones work, she calls regularly at 4am.
Abdile has also missed performing her poems during the pandemic.
“Poetry was the only thing that makes me come alive again,” she said. “The pandemic took that away.”
But she has been writing poems between part-time hospitality jobs.
“Every writer that you’ve ever met will tell you there is nothing more beautiful than to have in your hand a pen and paper,” she said. “They are the greatest things.”
Abdile has also been reflecting on her new life.
“When I was in the water, the only thing I asked for was ‘God, take me to a land’,” she said. “When I was in Christmas Island, I asked ‘give me freedom’.
“Now I am midway in my dream to be a journalist and I’m still asking God for more. I’ve figured out that we’re human, we always want more. But every individual, no matter where you’re born, always has struggles.”
Ozies wanted to tell her story to highlight the value of grassroots organisations like Word Travels that nurture new talent from different cultural backgrounds.
“Small arts organisations provide a platform for emerging artists to hone their craft and gain exposure,” he said. “Without them we risk losing unique stories like Hani’s.”
While she has come so far in every sense since leaving Somalia, Abdile is poetically humble about her ambition to become a journalist.
“You don’t climb a tree from the leaves,” she said. “You start from the roots.”
Voxdocs is a collaboration between Shark Island Institute, Documentary Australia Foundation, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. To watch the eight films, visit smh.com.au/voxdocs and www.theage.com.au/voxdocs.
Garry Maddox is a Senior Writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.