Before she was 17, Fiori Giovanni had experienced things most people would not endure in a lifetime.
Born in Eritrea, a tiny country in Africa’s northeast, Giovanni’s marriage to a 25-year-old man was arranged when she was the age of 12.
After seeing her sister marry and have her first child by 13, Giovanni knew she couldn’t follow that same path. She confronted her parents and threatened to take her own life if they made her go ahead with the marriage.
The wedding was cancelled but Giovanni was about to face another hurdle.
At 14, she joined a summer work program, but educational workshops quickly transformed into military training and Giovanni realised that she was being primed as a child soldier to fight in the war against Ethiopia.
“We had to get up at 4.30 in the morning to learn how to march or how to shoot guns. And we slept on cement, hard floors – there were no beds,” she said.
Even though it is mandatory for people in Eritrea to undertake military service for 18 months from the age of 18, the reality is that many children are conscripted long before this and serve for an indefinite period.
By the age of 15, Giovanni decided life in Eritrea was not the kind she had hoped and dreamed about.
“A lot of things about the culture [in Eritrea] did not make sense to me. I almost felt like I was not at home,” she said.
She made the decision to flee to neighbouring Sudan. She travelled for about 24 hours by bicycle with a trafficker and she was left to fend for herself after crossing the border.
Now a refugee in Sudan, Giovanni had no plan and nowhere to go.
“I started walking. I walked for about 12 hours. I had to keep walking so that people didn’t know that I was lost. I had to pretend like I knew where I was going,” she said.
Giovanni eventually saw a man working on a house in a street she was walking through and something about him looked familiar.
“I went up to him and said, ‘Excuse me, are you Eritrean?’ and he said in my language, ‘Oh, my daughter. Did you just arrive?’
“I cried my heart out. I couldn’t believe I had found a person who spoke my language, who was from my country.”
Giovanni stayed in Sudan for more than a year and made a life for herself as best she could – she learned Arabic, worked as a cleaner, enrolled in computer studies and ran a restaurant.
But she constantly feared deportation from Sudan, often hearing about Eritrean women going missing, and eventually escaped to Libya which took 24 days via the Libyan Desert.
It wasn’t safe to stay in Libya, so Giovanni boarded a boat to Italy which became lost at sea. The boat was found by the Italian Coastguard, and she was placed in a detention centre in Sicily while authorities decided what to do with her.
She was granted a temporary visa and the ability to work in Sicily but was restricted to only cleaning jobs indefinitely.
The fear of deportation was also very real, and Giovanni now faced a similar threat to her situation in Sudan.
After hearing that Belgium was welcoming of refugees, she made the journey there by car, and sought asylum. This meant staying in a detention centre for two months while getting processed.
Giovanni was 17 when she moved to Belgium, a country she made her home for 7 years and where she obtained permanent residence.
She had a place to live, a decent job and the ability to travel frequently – she no longer had to live in fear.
On a holiday to Australia in 2008, Giovanni met a man and was quickly swept off her feet. He returned with her to Belgium, where they got married, and they settled in Melbourne a year later.
But the relationship deteriorated, and her husband was physically and emotionally abusive. Giovanni was now enduring a different kind of war – one where she felt lonely and helpless under the control and manipulation of her husband.
After several life-threatening incidents, including having a knife held to her throat, Giovanni found the courage to leave her husband, and sought safety at a women’s refuge.
Despite the danger she faced when escaping countries, Giovanni said it was unbelievable to think she could’ve died in a domestic violence situation in a country as safe as Australia.
“At this rock bottom moment, I experienced this shift in perception. I realised that if I was going to help myself and feel better, no one was going to help me. That acceptance of the situation became my sole source of strength and healing.
“After this experience, I became really focused. I realised that I had to help myself.”
Becoming a businesswoman
There was no stopping Giovanni now.
In the years that followed, she secured work, found a place to live, took training courses and accepted promotions.
By 2011, Giovanni had graduated as a certified business and executive coach, and was running her own coaching business, Transformations Coaching Group.
After working with dozens of executives and CEOs across a range of industries she observed a common thread.
“I was noticing a pattern of three main problems with nearly every client with whom I worked: stress; lack of clarity and direction; and feeling stuck in a rut,” she said.
“That’s when I dared to dream about creating my very own coaching framework – not a system I’d learnt about in textbooks or at lectures or from master coaches – a framework that I’d create based on my own knowledge and life experiences.”
Giovanni developed the ART framework which guides clients through the steps of Analysis, Reframe and Transform that can be used to overcome any problem.
Her coaching work has led to many other opportunities including public speaking and publishing a book that details her life story, titled Defy Your Destiny.
Despite enduring such a painful past, Giovanni has now reached a happy place.
She is running a successful business and is building a life with her partner Ben Bellinger and their son Odis.
It is perplexing to consider that someone can come away from such traumatic experiences and not be drowning in sorrow. Instead, Giovanni continues to show courage, determination and resilience.
“Resilience is an emotional muscle. It’s not going to work if you just do it once in a while. It’s something that we have to exercise,” she said.
“Resilience makes you stronger, because sometimes things don’t get better, but you become better at handling them.”
Giovanni said resilience is also about letting go of fear – a sentiment she echoes in her book: “The only way to let pain pass through is to be courageous enough to first let it in.”
Even though her story is a painful and traumatic one, Giovanni shares it regularly through her public speaking because she has discovered it helps others.
Her story has shown people that their past does not define their future, and that people are capable of incredible transformation.
“I’m no longer afraid of change or pain because I know every time something amazing comes out of it,” she said.
“I knew I was a determined kid. Wherever I would have landed, I would have died trying to be who I wanted to be, trying to achieve what I wanted to achieve. To me, that is a life worth living.”
Defy Your Destiny by Fiori Giovanni is out now. Purchase the book here.
If you or someone you know is struggling with trauma, immediate support is available for all Australians from Lifeline. Call 13 11 14.