Growing up in Somalia, Abdullahi Mohamed’s mother used to lick his arms when he got home on a Friday night.
She was tasting for salt, a sign that her son had disobeyed her orders not to go swimming at the capital Mogadishu’s chaotic Liido Beach.
Her fears were well-founded: the beach had a bad reputation for drownings. Also, Abdullahi didn’t know how to swim. The first time he entered the water, aged around 11, he went in too deep and had to be pulled out.
“I vomited up all this water,” the 18-year-old remembers. “Now I’m teaching people how to rescue.”
Half a world away from Liido Beach, swimmers at Coburg Leisure Centre might have seen Abdullahi patrolling the pools in his red and yellow uniform making sure people are staying safe in the water.
After arriving in Australia on a humanitarian visa in 2015, Abdullahi took part in swimming lessons aimed at improving the skills of people from culturally diverse communities.
He subsequently trained to become a lifeguard and is now one of a small number among the 1200 employed by the YMCA who comes from an African background.
“I’m a good swimmer now,” he laughs.
“It made me feel like I’m doing something good to develop my swimming skills, I remember the first day I went to the beach I almost drowned.”
Abdullahi is trying to get more people from his community to follow in his wake.
So far, he has encouraged 15 Somalis to take lessons at Coburg Leisure Centre and four of those have trained to become lifeguards or swimming teachers.
He has plans to start a program encouraging young Somali kids to learn water safety.
His work earned him the YMCA Victoria award for inspired young people.
“It’s a good opportunity for those who don’t know how to swim,” he says.
“Most people who grew up here, they know how to swim. If you’re a little kid, there’s a lot of them doing swimming lessons every day. I don’t think people drown here as much as in Africa.”
It’s an important message coming into summer, with statistics showing that people from migrant communities are over-represented in drownings in Australia. Analysis by the Royal Life Saving Society found that 27 per cent of all drowning deaths over a 10-year period were born overseas.
Four people have drowned in Victoria since Christmas Eve.
Those who have worked with Abdullahi are full of praise for him.
“He is focused and always sees things through,” says Lifesaving Victoria Multicultural Manager David Holland.
“Aquatics is an area which has very low African representation, so he is really filling a gap.”
After recently finishing his VCE, Abdullahi hopes to study business as soon as he gets his citizenship. He says he’ll be able to apply in July next year.
Before that, he’ll be working over summer as an educational instructor across Melbourne’s beaches.
He’s had to explain to his mum back in Somalia what his job as a lifeguard actually involves.
“I told her, ‘you used to tell me not to go to the beach, now I’m working at the beach’,” he says. “She still tells me ‘be careful, it’s not safe’.
“It’s good to know you can be safe in the water.”