The number of global refugees has reached unprecedented levels, with more than 25 million people displaced from their home or fleeing persecution.
People arriving in Australia from refugee and asylum seeker backgrounds face a myriad of barriers to inclusion, particularly to gaining employment.
While some arrive with limited English proficiency and limited or disrupted education, others are highly qualified and educated individuals with skills and qualifications that go unrecognised in Australia, forcing them into low paying entry-level jobs or unemployment.
Maria Chindris, Community Relations Lead at SisterWorks Inc., shares how one woman seeking asylum started a social enterprise to change social and economic outcomes for migrant women in Australia.
How was SisterWorks established?
Luz Restrepo, CEO and founder of SisterWorks, arrived in Australia in 2010 seeking political asylum.
Despite being a qualified doctor and communication expert in Colombia, Restrepo faced significant barriers to employment.
“Her life was in tatters and she spoke no English. She felt like a nobody; frightened, isolated and disempowered. Luz soon discovered that she was not alone,” said Chindris.
Restrepo soon started working alongside 25 women facing similar challenges to create and sell crafts around Melbourne, share skills, and support and strengthen each other.
In May 2013, a committee of volunteers with legal, marketing, fundraising and administrative skills joined Lestrepo to officially launch SisterWorks Inc.
The SisterWorks model – Work Empowers Women
“Earning money is a key element that encourages women to improve their personal development and social, emotional and economic participation while developing English literacy and business skills,” said Chindris.
“More importantly, the women gain confidence, empowering them to develop skills to address challenges and barriers that otherwise prevent them from accessing individual pathways to employment, entrepreneurship, further education and community connectedness.”
Becoming more financially independent means they can afford to visit and support family and friends remaining in their home countries. This helps alleviate some of the stress and anxiety that relocating to a new country brings these women who may not know when, or if, they will be able to return.
“When you migrate to a new country, it feels like you are leaving forever. It feels too far and that you can’t come back. It is easier for me now because I know I can come and go,” said Vanessa, who started working with SisterWorks in 2016.
Vanessa formerly worked as a retail lead at SisterWorks’ Richmond and South Yarra sites, and is now a successful career woman with roles as a radio broadcaster for 3ZZZ and a host for the Channel 31 Multicultural Football show.
SisterWorks run practical learning ‘labs’ which have been developed to respond to the needs and priorities of the women they work with.
These include a Design Lab, which supports women to design, create, market and sell their own products, a Business/Pathways Hub which focuses on women’s avenues to education, employment, entrepreneurship and leadership, and a newly launched Digital Lab.
“We are working to educate our women in information technology literacy. In this modern age, technology is essential for everyday activities such as communication and travelling,” said Chindris.
This new lab uses technology to remove financial and language barriers, bridge physical distances, and improve access to information and social connections.
Milia Simielli migrated to Australia from Brazil, where she worked as a nurse for 10 years. Upon arriving in Australia, Simielli worked as a Doula, as she loved being able to support mothers physically and emotionally during labour.
“When I used to teach childbirth classes, I wanted to make something that changed the view of childbirth and breastfeeding, to make it more normal,” said Simielli.
“I also wanted to make something for the kids to learn. So, I sewed a doll with the placenta and the uterus, with a big belly and a place for the mother to breastfeed the baby. This is how I started sewing and making dolls at SisterWorks.”
Simielli now works at SisterWorks teaching other women how to sew and create dolls, and runs a successful business making childbirth dolls, as well as sustainable, reusable female hygiene products like sanitary pads and face wipes.
What advice would you give women wanting to join or start a social enterprise?
- “Fall in love with the mission of your enterprise. Share and connect that passion with others in your community. Wear your heart on your sleeve and channel that love into all that you do as an enterprise,” said Chindris.
- “Don’t be afraid to reach out, ask for help and lean on others. You need to build a team of reliable people with a diverse array of skills. Together we are stronger.
- “Embrace change and be flexible. The environment of a non-profit is always shifting to meet the current needs of a community. Do not resist change.”
What is one thing you wish people knew about refugees and asylum seekers, particularly women?
“You would be surprised with how much you have in common with these women. The talent, passion and love they possess is inspiring and something that parallels Australian citizens,” said Chindris.
“All they need is an opportunity to unleash their potential.”