‘My Australia’ is a special SBS News series exploring cultural heritage and identity, and asking what it means to be Australian in 2018.
Jamila Gordon is a long way from the small village where she was born. She fled Somalia’s civil war and came alone to Australia as a young refugee. She couldn’t speak a word of English.
But that didn’t stop her from becoming a top tech executive for companies including Qantas.
“The village (where I was born) was very desolate, dusty, we had water in the wells,” Ms Gordon told SBS News.
“My mother was pregnant every year, or she had a baby … In the end, she had 16 children.”
Her family moved to Mogadishu to avoid a drought. But just before the civil war broke out they were separated. Ms Gordon was sent to live with distant relatives in Kenya.
“Through my friends in Kenya, I met an Australian backpacker. It was his second day in Kenya and we became friends and he sponsored me to Australia,” she said.
At 18 years old, Jamila found herself in Sydney alone and unable to speak the language.
She quickly learned English at TAFE and got a job washing dishes, earning five dollars an hour. She went to university in Melbourne to study accounting, before taking an IT elective and falling in love with it.
At 18 Jamila was separated from her family and sent to Kenya. Supplied
She says IT had some surprising similarities to her first school in Somalia.
“The process I used to memorise the Koran in the village where I was born, was exactly the same as the process of software programming that I used when I was at Latrobe University,” Ms Gordon said.
After university she got a job as a software programmer and climbed her way up the ladder, working in Europe for major companies including IBM. She later returned to Australia to become chief information officer at Qantas.
She is currently based in Sydney and works with smaller tech start-ups, helping them get off the ground.
Rod Bishop CEO of Jayride, a start-up marketplace for transport hire, says working with Ms Gordon has been a perfect fit.
Jamila arrived in Sydney a young refugee with no English. Supplied
“There’s really not a lot of growth-focused technology people operating at an extremely high level in Australia. So it was an absolute pleasure and we saw eye to eye straight away,” Mr Bishop said.
Former professional colleague David Thodey, who is the chairman of the board at CSRIO, says Jamila brings a unique approach to her work.
“She’s always had a vision for what she wanted to do, but a great determination and incredible will and drive to get the job done.”