A sisterhood of difference: how SisterWorks empowers women from all backgrounds - #refugeeweekau
By Riley Wilson
In downtown Richmond, with Citizens Park on one side and Dame Nellie Melba Memorial Park only blocks away, a storefront is bursting with possibilities. The front window is filled with handcrafted gifts and toys, with art and bright colour capturing changing futures in real time. This is the home of SisterWorks, a certified social enterprise that helps migrant, refugee and asylum-seeker women build a better life in Australia.
“The overall mission is to enable migrant and refugee women to be economically empowered,” says Maria Chindris, SisterWorks’ community relation lead. “Having access to the Australian economy and having your own income is pretty essential in being able to settle down in any country, especially when bringing family or kids or having other members of the family to support. Being able to have a steady financial stream is very important.”
Over the past nine yearsas a social enterprise, SisterWorks has supported over 1400 women from 95 countries in their transition to life in Australia. There are around 300 women actively involved with, and being supported by, the non-for-profit at any one time. The organisation was founded by Luz Restrepo, who arrived in Australia from Colombia in 2010 seeking political asylum. From first creating crafts with other women and selling them around Melbourne, Luz established SisterWorks in 2013,turning it into a leader of businesses that support refugees in Australia today.
SisterWorks supports their “Sisters” in a variety of ways, from training and job opportunities to formal education and community involvement. When women join the organisation, their aspirations are assessed, to see where their needs can be met. The SisterWorks employment team assesses the women’s experiences to help work on CVs, and then connects them with external companies or offers contract work. SisterWorks also has the shopfront in Richmond, which directly supports sales from sister-owned businesses. If women come to SisterWorks with an existing business and product, or a mostly formed business idea, their entrepreneurship is actively enabled through both sales in the shop and market opportunities.
“Being able to have a steady financial stream is very important,” says Maria, a second-generation migrant, whose parents left Romania fleeing political persecution in their 20s. “For a lot of women, as well, [we are] able to teach them the importance of economic independence.”
When Maria found SisterWorks as an intern during university she fell in love. “I saw the value of lifting migrant communities as well as refugee communities; not only for the impact that has on themselves but also for their families, lifting up their children and everyone around them.”
One of the SisterWorks programs is in own-branded products, including their fig jam, or Moraba Ye Anjir. The recipe was originally created by – and licensed from – Vajiheh, a Sister who joined the organisation from Iran. She taught the recipe to other Sisters, who then produced the product for sale.
“All of those [SisterWorks label] products are made in collaborative workshops with the women,” says Maria. As part of the production process, Sisters have to undergo training and get their food handling certificate. “The women that participate in that food program are taught how to make the recipe and then produce en-masse.”
Coordinated by the Refugee Council of Australia, Refugee Week will take place from Sunday June 19 until Saturday June 25. This year’s theme ishealing; one that aligns directly with the impact SisterWorks can make.
“Healing is a very important value at SisterWorks, and I think that’s really achieved through our community values, the sense of community that we have, and acceptance regardless of cultural backgrounds,” Maria says.
“We’ve been able to support women from over 95 different countries. It speaks to a very high level of diversity. Despite that, the women are still able to connect with each other like a sisterhood. That’s why we call our women Sisters.”
“A key point of connection can be shared hardship; when you find someone else who has experienced the same challenge as you. It helps you not feel alone, and to overcome those challenges.”
That was the experience for Faith, who is originally from Papua New Guinea and joined SisterWorks in late 2017. Fleeing family violence, Faith arrived in Melbourne without her family and found herself seeking kinship and community. While she was a teacher in PNG, Faith felt slightly directionless when she first arrived in Australia and took up free community craft classes. A combination of being recommended to the SisterWorks community and meeting founder Luz at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre gave Faith the kickstart she needed to jump in. She started taking workshops and then running her own, giving her the encouragement and training she needed to take on her first job.
"[SisterWorks] gave me a starting point for my career [and] my journey in Australia … It was that starting of meeting people and working with people," Faith says. The community and experiences give her confidence to express herself, and say “this is me, this is who I am, this is my story”.
Refugee Week aims to celebrate and create better understanding between communities in Australia, and to encourage the successful and safe integration of refugees to Australian society, while demonstrating their many valuable contributions. As a leader in community relations, Maria says that better allyship between communities starts with open ears, open minds, and open hearts.
“Just have conversations, understand why they’ve come to Australia and ask them directly what they need to feel supported, to not sort of assume as well. You have to speak directly to that community and understand what they need to feel more accepted in society,” says Chindris. “Everyone is just human at the end of the day.”
As #refugeeweekau commences in Australia, Curated with Conscience will be supporting SisterWorks in their mission to empower refugee, asylum seeker and migrant women in Australia. $10 from every hamper purchase made during Refugee Week will be donated to SisterWorks.
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