Through the Eyes of Refugee Women

Vanessa:

Vanessa came to Australia from Mexico around three years ago and was overwhelmed when she first arrived. “I lost my identity…I felt lost. No one knew what I do and what I did before. You feel like your life is over”.

When Vanessa was 14 years old, her mum taught her to make jewellery and after being introduced to Sisterworks through a friend, she returned to crafting beautiful jewellery using natural materials and stones. I believe that stones are the power of the earth. They were born in the earth so they have energy. You can rely on the energy of the stones, they can help you to heal. To connect with the love energy, you need to clean the stone and you need to learn intuition.”

Vanessa’s sales skyrocketed when her jewellery was sold at a pop-up store in South Melbourne market, and looks forward to other opportunities like this in the future. Vanessa is now working towards operating in her own market and having at least ten consignment stores selling her jewellery. “If it is a dream, I like to dream high!”

Sisterworks has enabled Vanessa to grow and plan her future, I have a strong community here. You can feel the women’s empowerment!”

Take a look for yourself by visiting their store at 393 Swan Street, Richmond or see some of her collection online www.sisterworks.org.au/collections/vendors?q=Vanessa.

Tsepak and Tsam Choe:

Tsepak and Tsam Choe are both from Tibet but met each other in India, which was the start of their beautiful, long friendship.

After arriving in Australia, a friend of theirs introduced them to Sisterworks, which they love because it “encourages women to feel strong”.

Here the women have all sorts of roles, like making dolls, stamping the shop bags and labelling the products. Tsepak and Tsam Choe both learnt how to use a sewing machine at Sisterworks and now want to introduce new products such as cushions, and knitted scarves and socks. “Today I’m making a heat bag...Maybe soon I can make Tibetan jewellery!”

Peruse Sisterworks’ handmade collection: www.sisterworks.org.au/collections.

Mary:

Mary is a Tamil woman who made the journey from Sri Lanka to Australia in 2013. When she arrived, she found the people to be “so happy, so friendly and lovely.”

Mary has been coming to Sisterworks twice a week for a year and has made good friends with the other Sisters. With a love of sewing, Mary has spent this time sewing children’s products and baby blankets and has even begun making custom orders.

Now she is learning new skills each week, Mary said she would one day love to learn how to design ladies’ clothing, like the saris she often wore in Sri Lanka.

“My dreams are to improve my English and become a successful businesswoman.”

Pop by the Sisterworks store at 393 Swan Street, Richmond to check out Mary’s handmade children’s toys and baby blankets: www.sisterworks.org.au/collections/vendors?q=Mary

Victoria:

Victoria came to Australia from Tanzania in 2007 and remembers how difficult it was for her and her family to settle in, especially with such limited English. Now she’s made some friends, Victoria feels like she’s at home.

Victoria is currently making unique jewellery using aluminium and has recently begun running jewellery-making workshops for the public. “The first time was a little bit [hard] and I didn’t want to make a mistake when I talked.” But with the popularity of her jewellery growing so quickly in the past six months (she is one of the top sellers at Sisterworks), Victoria’s confidence has turned this all around.

“I just tried, just continued. When I sold this in the shop I saw that people liked it and I got a surprise, because I thought they may not like it.” When asked about what the future brings, Victoria told us, “I’m still studying jewellery but my plan is to make different things. It is a dream. Sometimes I try to stop but my heart keeps telling me to keep on going.”

Keen to learn how to make earrings and necklaces in Victoria’s workshop? The next one is on Saturday 8th July and tickets cost $50 – visit their website for more info: www.sisterworks.org.au/pages/jewellery-workshops 

Luz:

Luz Restrepo is the Founder and CEO of SisterWorks, the not-for-profit social enterprise we will be featuring this month that supports women who are migrants, asylum seekers or refugees to become financially independent and happily settled in Australia.

Luz, herself, is a political refugee from Colombia who arrived in Australia in 2010, and knows first-hand the struggles of isolation and disempowerment facing many newly arrived migrant women. With very limited English, Luz developed her language skills – and sparked a friendship – with a volunteer from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, and through a remarkable personal journey, founded SisterWorks.

SisterWorks welcomes the most vulnerable migrants to join their family, learn new skills and build their own micro businesses. It is about creating opportunities and creating a Sisterhood, with the belief that Work Empowers Women. When the women get together, they support each other, “This is our community, where people care for others, and no one is less than the other. We need more women’s point of view…we are the voice for people who are voiceless.”

SisterWorks originally focused on sales through market stalls however now they have a shop front, with a design lab upstairs where the women come together to develop their products, Luz feels they have stronger credibility.

“There is a learning process about this place, we make a lot of mistakes in the job but we are learning.” Luz feels the Sisters are “thinking beautiful things but not marketable things. In the end, [the question] is how are we going to make funds? ...We, as women, need to understand [that] whoever has the funds, has the power. The people in the social sector, we are struggling to pay our bills and do good, and we need to learn how to balance the two things.”

SisterWorks are now exploring ways to create new products and opportunities, and access diverse markets. One of these avenues is the development of Corporate Packages and Partnerships. Whilst businesses can provide Corporate Gifts to SisterWorks through donations, they can also order customised products suitable for corporate events, such as conference tote bags and gifts for guest speakers. Businesses can also tie this in with hosting one of the Sisters as a guest speaker, which can enrich their event and show their support for cultural diversity and our community.

“Give us business opportunities to learn how to fish in Australia…well, to buy our fish!”

Over the next five years, Luz envisions a unique and replicable model supporting communities to be entrepreneurs. “How do I see SisterWorks? I see many more SisterWorks! At the moment, we are speaking with people in Essendon and Carlton who have the ‘craft’ but do not know how to convert the craft into funds.”

“We try to understand how to work in the new country…There are a lot of women who suffer from domestic violence, depression and [have] a lot of social issues. SisterWorks [is about] learning business plans, English, learning by doing and creating communities of people who support each other…People start to give value to the amazing people we are, despite which culture we are from.”

Luz has achieved so much in her lifetime, however feels her proudest moments are when she comes to SisterWorks every day. “It’s being able to come here and realise how amazing we are.” It’s when people meet Luz and think, “‘She has something special, she can’t speak English but she gives the opportunity’. This is one of my proudest moments.”

Upon reflecting on the Refugee Week theme of ‘With courage, let us all combine’, Luz states, “This is SisterWorks. Take the risk and take advantage of the opportunities. Australia is an amazing country. People are able to help you all the time – this does not happen in other countries. We need to feel very proud to be in Australia.”

If you would like to connect with SisterWorks and discuss Corporate packages and public speaking opportunities, please contact Luz via their website:

Sarah Long