Doing it for themselves:

Meet Melbourne's thriving community of migrant women

14 February 2021 - By Justin Meneguzzi

Social isolation, unemployment and language barriers can make life challenging for migrant women new to Australia. SisterWorks is changing that – building a supportive community that helps these women to become empowered.

When Chilean-born Macarena Erbs arrived on Australia’s shores in 2016, she felt like her identity had been erased. Despite holding a Bachelor of Industrial Engineering and a Master of Business Engineering from one of her home country’s most esteemed universities, her education and background mattered little in her new adopted community.

“It was very hard. I kind of panicked, and even though my background is strong…when you arrive here it is like all your background is like deleted…you are just your name,” says Macarena.

Macarena’s experience is shared by so many other migrant women arriving in Australia – who have diverse backgrounds working as qualified nurses, university tutors, entrepreneurs and economists. Having prior formal education officially recognised can be a political minefield, especially when English is your second or third language. For unskilled migrants, the challenge of finding a job can be even harder.

For all these women, being separated from family and friends back home and living in a new country where they feel disconnected due to language barriers, finding a sense of community is crucial.

SisterWorks migrant women speaking

Enter SisterWorks, a not-for-profit that works to empower migrant women, refugees and asylum seekers by creating a sense of community and connecting them with opportunities for skills development and employment. This not only helps to improve their confidence, mental well-being and sense of belonging, it also boosts their economic outlook.

“The common problems these women face are low levels of English language, limited work experience, or a lack of acknowledgement of the qualifications from their home country once in Australia, social isolation and low confidence,” explains Maria Chindris, Community Relations Lead at SisterWorks.

“We offer free training and skill development workshops in areas such sewing, crochet, conversational English, digital literacy and wellbeing. These are transferable skills that can then be used in their day-to-day life as well as their establishment of employment, educational and entrepreneurial opportunities in Australia.”

These workshops take place at SisterWorks’ Empowerment Hubs, based in Richmond and Bendigo, which act as a centralised meeting place where women are encouraged to visit, connect with others and learn new skills. In addition to weekly classes led by the SisterWorks team and community volunteers, women are able to access business support as well as vocational training and even cooking classes.

Women taking part in workshops

The women, who are referred to as Sisters, are also encouraged to get involved by producing hand-made products for SisterWorks’ social enterprise store. Sisters who sell items through the SisterWorks store get to keep 50% of profits from products sold. For some of them, this can sometimes be their first income in Australia.

For instance, Milia Simielli, a former nurse from Brazil, produces handmade dolls that teach children about the process of childbirth. Andy, who emigrated from Hong Kong, was introduced to the sewing machine by SisterWorks volunteers and has since taken up designing and making her own handbags. She dreams of one day having her own handbag label.

Perhaps the most inspiring thing about Sisterworks is how Sisters give back to the community that has helped them plant roots in Australia.

Migrant Women at a SisterWorks Empowerment Hub

Macarena, the business engineer from Chile, initially joined SisterWorks through its cooking program but it became apparent that the organisation needed a little help to launch its social enterprise store concept. Macarena swung into action, applying her expertise as a business engineer. She’s now the organisation’s very own Social Enterprise and Production Engineer. Macarena says the role helped her feel connected and empowered, and helped her to build her confidence.

“I forgot about my broken English, I forgot about not fitting in this country. And I was like: ‘I fit here, and I want to fit here full time, every day and support more people like me.’”

To date, Sisterworks has supported more than 800 women from 56 different countries. At present, the organisation operates in Melbourne is starting to expand its model to other Victorian regions, welcoming new partners throughout the state.

This blog includes quotes and materials adapted from the SisterWorks blog. Meet more Sisters and hear their inspiring stories on the SisterWorks website.

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