BY EMILY HUA
The women come in, take off their jackets, and roll up their sleeves. “What colour should we make this ... yellow or blue?”
A young woman sitting on the opposite table opens her laptop and begins typing. Polite smiles and morning greetings in an array of accents fill the building.
An iron exhales, and so does the conductor of this event, Luz Restrepo. “We learn as we do,” she says, her freckled green-brown eyes crinkling as she smiles.
The people in this scene left their turbulent countries in hopes of a better life in Australia, free from fear, prosecution, or war. They represent a miniscule fraction of the staggering 258 million migrants internationally, defined by the United Nations as people living outside their country of birth. The number has almost doubled since 2000.
Ms Restrepo, CEO and founder SisterWorks, says it is important for refugees and migrants to show “all the time how useful and smart we are. Not just at the beginning, it’s permanent.” SisterWorks is a not-for-profit the supports refugees, migrants and asylum seekers as they find a home in Australia.
Monash Asia Institute deputy director Dr Mridula Nath Chakraborty unpacks the international forces that displace people from their homes.
“If you think of land ... as something to extract resources from, then it becomes very competitive,” Dr Chakraborty says.
“If you combine competitiveness with the idea of colonialism, where non-Western people are seen as inferior, then that immediately creates an unwelcome and hostile environment towards refugees.”
In receiving nations, people from refugee, asylum seeker or migrant backgrounds regularly find themselves embroiled in political debate or condemnation.
In this stifling environment, she says, people from disadvantaged backgrounds feel pressured to prove their place.
The expectations put on vulnerable women to share their stories is misplaced, Ms Restrepo says, and that is also true for sexual assault and domestic violence cases.
As political refugee from Colombo, she says the story of migrant women should not be defined by past struggles but in present resolutions.
“We need to change the discurso. We need to change the pitch. We need to think about what we are going to do – how I am going to rebuild my life and engage with society,” Ms Restrepo says. The group depends – and builds – on her ability to connect with people in tough circumstances and then to create solutions.
In Australia, according to the Home Affairs Migration Report, 68.4 per cent of migrants are "skilled". This means the majority of new arrivals offer a significant economic, social, demographic, or civic contribution to Australia.
SisterWorks offers a unique model of empowering women through the making and selling of crafts. This builds community, English skills and equips women with the tools to be independent.
A bulk of these crafts are made from recyclable material with the intention of being environmentally sustainable. It teaches women to create business models that work with the environment rather than against it, while implicitly addressing issues of climate change.
Entrepreneur Amanda Nakaharada said the organisation had helped her be herself.
“Before, I had depression, (would stay) closed in my house, now I go to SisterWorks and it is my psychologist,” Ms Nakaharada said, laughing.
Similar to the other 187 women who have come to SisterWorks, Ms Nakaharada intends to use skills gained to open her own business.
Ms Restrepo sthe sisterhood is important. “Part of the solution sometimes, is how to create a community of people who care.”