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How a bottle of ginger tonic is changing one refugee's life

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For Yarrie Bangura, a bottle of ginger tonic is a country, a life and womanhood in a drink. It is memories, opportunity and a thank you to a new home. 

It is also proof to her mother - and wider African community - that a Sierra Leonian refugee can also be an Australian business woman.

"You are dreaming" laughed her mother when she first voiced her plans to create a ginger drink business from her home in Marayong, NSW. "Look around. No-one of our colour has a business in Australia."

They are words that Bangura, 22, now laughs at.  

When she, her parents and four siblings arrived in Australia from a Guinean refugee camp aged 10, she had left a wartorn country behind. 

"It was war," she says of her home city of Freetown before her family ran when she was eight years old. "Everything changed to diaster and people were dying. I was scared because in Sierra Leone, everybody is happy, everybody is joyful, but it changed - there were no more happy faces, everybody was terrified."


When the ebola outbreak hit her country in 2014, Bangura plotted to help from Sydney. What began as an idea to export her homeland's cocoa to Australia became the small, but spirited manufacture of Aunty's Ginger Tonic, a drink that powers Sierra Leone and Guinea, and is drunk at weddings, parties, funerals - and, in Bangura's words "to survive", with women traditionally making the drink to sell at market.  

Working with Global Sisters, a movement changing the face of Australian micro-financing, the second-year university student has developed her business concept, learning the fundamentals of food production, marketing, finance and sales.

The organisation, launched in Sydney on Thursday, fosters entrepreneurship, giving employment to some of Australia's many refugee and asylum seeker women who want to work but are unable to because of language, education or care commitments. Supporting the "next batch of innovative Australian entrepreneurs" said Global Sisters chairperson, Olivia Loadwick, the organisation is currently mentoring 50 women from all over the world to grow their small businesses, empowering themselves and their communities in the process. 

At $5 a bottle, Aunty's Ginger Tonic - ginger, water, lime, cloves and brown sugar - is fiery stuff with lingering soft, sweet spice. It is being sold at markets in Sydney and Bangura aims to employ refugees via Settlement Services International to work in her small Marrickville factory. Her dream is to take the brand global, creating employment, supporting Australian organic farmers and, one day, funding the Sierra Leonian cocoa export business she dreamed of in the face of ebola. 

It is a long way from the sachets of Maggi sauce she once sold from a basket she carried on her head in Conakry markets aged nine.

"In Australia, I was seen as a refugee, not a businesswoman. Global Sisters has opened my eyes to believe in myself," she says. 

Indeed, the labels on her drink bottles hark back to happy times in her homeland - and her ambitions in her new land. 

"I laugh as I hold my mother's hand and look into her eyes," reads the label. "I tell her, as long as the sun shines, the moon comes out at night and when morning comes I still breathe, nothing will stop me - not my colour, my country or my past."