#20 Igniting opportunities for Refugees

In Australia it’s hard for newly arrived refugees to find a new job. In 2011, Settlement Services International found a way for refugees to create businesses for themselves – by using the marketplace as a change maker.

Syriana Cuisine: you can order with them at syrianacuisine.com.au

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Or use a Podcast app with our RSS feed. Broadcast 11 June 2019 as part of our third series.


Full Transcript for Episode 20 -Igniting Opportunities for Refugees

ED: It was my first um trip on the plane. It was very exciting but very sad because um I felt that I’m going nowhere. Like I don’t know where I’m going. I’m going to X.

Ed Yousef talking with host Amanda Tattersall

HOST: That was Ed Yousef. When he was 17 he and his family fled the war in Syria and came to Australia away from the escalating war. They faced many challenges. Ed’s eldest brother was 29, he spoke good English and became responsible for supporting his family. He had been working for an oil company in Syria.

ED: It was hard at the beginning. Especially that coming from a different system.

HOST: It took his brother a year to find stable work.

ED: So what did you guys do between? Just looking for any job. Looking looking looking.

Amanda: So did he take on other work. Sort of casual work.

Ed: No.

HOST: It was a stressful time for Ed’s brother.

Ed: He had worked before and now he’s in a different country with no work and he’s like in his thirties.

Ed: It was hard for him to um to just accept the fact that he’s not working.

HOST: Years later, after finishing a medical science degree at the University of New South Wales, Ed faced the same difficulty getting a job. While those graduating around him were able to rely on informal networks like friends and family to crack into the industry, Ed remained an outsider.

ED: I was applying. Yeah but most of the time I got rejected especially when I applied to the pathology sector. They need someone with experience which I don’t have. But how I can get and that was like the puzzle.

HOST: Today … on ChangeMakers we are in Sydney, Australia. If the government isn’t providing the right kind of help for refugees to find a job, can there be a different way? Today we are looking at the evolution of a remarkable market-based initiative that helps refugees create their own jobs. Let’s go.

HOST: I’m Amanda Tattersall, welcome to ChangeMakers, the podcast telling stories about people changing the world.

We are supported by the Sydney Policy Lab at the University of Sydney. They break down barriers between researchers, policy makers and community campaigners so we can build change together. Check them out at sydney.edu.au/policy-lab.

And you can sign up to our email list at changemakerspodcast.org.

JOHN HOWARD: We have a proud record of welcoming people from 140 different nations, but we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.

HOST: That was former Australian prime minister John Howard speaking in 2001. This speech marked a sharp, conservative shift in government policy and national attitude towards refugees.

A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee their country because of persecution, war or violence.

Typically, Australia resettles about 14,000 refugees per year. But there are currently 68.5 million people waiting for resettlement to a safer place.

VIOLET: Some people have lived in camps in substandard conditions for many many years. Children have not been able to go to school or to learn at all.

HOST: Ed’s family were lucky. They could easily have joined the 68 million people displaced globally, living in a refugee camp somewhere.

ED: I came to Australia in 2013. Before that I was a young guy who’s been year 11 in Damascus …

HOST: But after the Arab Uprising in 2011, Syria descended into a civil war. The fighting was first in regional cities like Aleppo, but soon enough the conflict arrived in the capital Damascus.

ED: One day I was approaching the school gate and the the ground shake as an earthquake and as I approached the gate closer and closer another shaking so it was two consecutive bombings at one area and when I went back home I realized that my neighbour who was taking care of me when I was a child died in that bombing.

HOST: And it didn’t stop.

ED: So lots of missiles lots of bombings and not having like the chance to have a good education.

HOST: At the time, Ed had family in Australia. His sister had married an Australian in 2009 and moved across in 2010. Ed’s mother had moved there in 2012.


ED: There was a bombing in Damascus that changed all the equation. And um then we asked mum to stay in Australia and if she can take us that’d be great. If she can’t that’s it. Don’t come back.

HOST: There was a good chance Ed would never see his mother and sister again. But luckily, Ed and the other members of the family managed to hastily arrange for family reunification visas to Australia.

It was a shocking, fortunate, strange transition to move from a war zone to outer-suburban Sydney.

ED: It’s very quiet here. Like very very quiet, like the first couple of days we started making jokes about like oh there is no bombings. How come? Yeah. And um yeah. Like every day I would wake up on the like birds noises and bird sounds. So it was it was good.

HOST: Nevertheless, leaving your home and starting a new life in a foreign country can take a while.

ED: Everything is is he is available like electricity water air conditioned rooms. Um but I did miss my friends. I did miss my family back there. And it was going from like a place for full of um noises chaos and a very strong social life I must say even during war it was very strong social life. Um to a place with everything available but social life is not as strong as in Syria. Um for example shops close at 5:00 p.m. and then like life is dead till the next day.

HOST: Language was a real barrier.

ED: On the first day we went to the shopping. I couldn’t speak any English word. I was like what’s happening. Like I just came two days ago speaking fully Arabic and now I can speak English but I can’t say to the guy Oh can I purchase this or can I buy this. Or how much is that. So mom was doing all that. So it was quite shocking for me.

HOST: Remarkably, rather than be demoralised by the challenges, Ed used them as motivation.

ED: It can kind of like gave me the motivation to start something to to use those resources. I would make use of um the quietness. So I don’t just um sit around and do nothing. So because there is electricity I could use my laptop I can do some study I can do some reading. Because I was seven late 17 um that time. My main concern was just to learn the language so I can interact with others. And be more confident.

HOST: Ed began by studying at an Intensive English centre in Blacktown. But then his integration into the country suffered a setback.

ED: I was encouraged to do the HSC again and yeah it was, it was like that moment. It was very hard especially that um I had to do year eleven again due to the Australian HSC system.

HOST: No matter where you are from in the world, the idea of having to repeat a grade is universally frustrating!

And for Ed, he wasn’t being held back for mucking around, he had been very busy fleeing a war zone! Nevertheless he dutifully enrolled at Leola High in Mount Druitt and completed his HSC.

ED: It was a good experience because I made so many friends at year 11. My English improved a lot. And um I also learned so many things about the subjects that I already studied. So it was it was good. And also I kind of like interacted with the teacher by um telling him about let’s say my physics class in Syria and the difference here so he could like engage and interact with me in such a way that makes things easier for me.

HOST: He made friends with his neighbours – including – a nun, who introduced him to the Australian way of life.

ED: We had a Barbie every now and then. Yeah.

Amanda: You had a barbie. I love it.

HOST: His neighbours schooled him in the peculiar art of the Aussie idiom.

ED: Some phrases sounded weird at the beginning for me. Like a.. Raining cats and dogs I was like it’s raining rain. Normal rain. And she said to me No no no, Ed. Cats and dogs means heavy rain. So yeah that’s that’s one of the ways like, one of the ways I was taught.

HOST: When Ed finished his HSC, he believed his limited English language skills would make it difficult for him to pursue his first goal – studying dentistry, because of all the medical exams and interviews.

ED: Those are kind of like a I wouldn’t say barriers but like steps that I have to do.

HOST: So instead, Ed enrolled in a medical science undergraduate degree at UNSW. And can I just remind you – Ed had almost no English two years earlier.

While Ed was studying at high school, he had been volunteering at an organisation called SydWest Multicultural Services as part of a year 11 program.

ED: I tutor young students maths and science and some English. I decided to help to help out as much as I can so that I can um first put something on my resume. And second just so it’s good to help others and engage rather than just um sitting at home doing homework.

HOST: After graduating from university he struggled to find work. He had no connections.

Well, not none. There was the place he’d volunteered. So he went back to SydWest Multicultural Services. He helped out again and scored his first part time job.

The CEO saw his talent and approached him about a program that might help.

ED: It’s called the Ignite but they are more specialized into um starting up a business.

HOST:Ignite. Remember that. We’ll come back to it in a little bit.

HOST: Struggling to find work is a common experience for refugees in Australia. But Ed and his family arrived at a particularly difficult time. The then Immigration Minister Peter Dutton had decided to seek political advantage by ramping up anti-refugee rhetoric.

PETER DUTTON: Well for many people, they won’t be literate or numerate in their own language, let alone English. These people will be taking Australian jobs, there’s no question about that. And for many of them that would be unemployed they would be languishing in unemployment queues and on Medicare and the rest of it there would be a huge cost.

HOST: Despite the inflammatory rhetoric, Australia has consistently provided support for refugees who arrive by plane. This process is called settlement and in New South Wales the primary organisation which does this work is called Settlement Services International (SSI).

VIOLET: Australia has a very sophisticated settlement program. Probably the best in the world. Probably you say I’m biased you being in this environment.

HOST: That’s Violet Roumeliotis, the CEO of Settlement Services International (which is also known as SSI). She has been working on the settlement of refugees in Australia for several years.

She says that the negative political debate in Australia is what motivated her to start working with refugees.

VIOLET: There was a environment of great fear in the community and the most vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers were being vilified and I felt that it was so horrible that a Western country, such a rich country like Australia, would allow that that our leaders would use the most vulnerable in our community the most voiceless as political football. To me it was so anathema. I felt that I had to do something.

HOST: So when a person lands in Australia, SSI provides all the basic help they need. They will be picked up from the airport, provided with initial rental support and then longer term accommodation. The person then receives a bunch of direct support – anything from health care, trauma counselling, legal advice, help getting their kids to school, job services and english language tuition. People are also linked to cultural groups and faith groups in the local area.

VIOLET: There’s a range of different plans set up for each individual family member whether it’s a baby an older member of the family that is really a bespoke sort approach a case management approach, again one of the key things is employment.

HOST: Finding a job isn’t easy.

VIOLET: What are some of the obstacles that sit in their way. The key obstacle is English language. I think other challenges around understanding you know how things operate in Australia you know simple things such as How do you do. How do you sort of meet people like some of the great stories younger people teenagers say. How do I meet young people. How do I dress. Where do I go and meet people you know. How do you. In workplaces How do you socialize. What are the things the unsaid things that I need to know so I can fit in and get a sense of belonging. A lot of people really do want to link in to broader sort of mainstream groupings as well. They don’t want to just stay with their own communities. That is a really hard thing to do if you don’t speak English well or you don’t have the confidence to do it. And of course if you’re somebody who looks different and sounds different it’s not that easy to do.

HOST: It’s also hard to get your overseas skills and qualifications recognised in Australia. Bob McCottor is a business owner from Hurstville in Sydney, who volunteers with SSI, to help out refugees.

BOB: You come to Australia as a refugee. You’ve either got no qualifications formally or the ones you have you can’t prove you’ve got or are not recognised. Your English is very poor if not non-existent. You’ve got no local experience and no local contacts other than perhaps outside your own community. That makes you a pretty hot prospect to be an employee. Doesn’t it?

HOST: Violet has first-hand experience working with refugees in these exact situations.

VIOLET: There are so many people who would sit on the other side of the desk and it would come in and would you would look at their qualifications and they were skilled people who had either white collar they were working for many many years in the industry in the country of origin or they were tilers who had no qualifications but had done amazing work for many years. So there were people of great talent however they were not able to get through the front door of any workplace in Australia. Many of them would, would be on income support, thankfully we have we have a welfare state and in a country like Australia and they would be able to support themselves. But you know I mean that that income support is below the poverty line. They can’t live on it with much dignity. But it would be this vicious cycle of being sent to apply for different jobs and interviews and you know this endless sort of array of rejections.

HOST: It was a process that benefited noone.

VIOLET: You would look at their face and their eyes and there was this absolute sadness and demoralization because they were they felt absolutely worthless and their stories. So it was like this faceless person.

HOST: And remember, refugees are not simply migrants.

VIOLET: They are people who have come with trauma and they’re people who’ve come from war torn and very difficult situations and given time they will find work.

HOST: Employment is important, but for people who have escaped persecution, there is every chance it will take time.

HOST: While refugees come with a desire to work, finding a job isn’t easy. There is something missing in the Australian employment space that saw too many people fall through the cracks.

VIOLET: There is a challenge for us as a country when people come who are highly educated and have experience in the country of origin and us translating that here and not losing not losing that.

HOST: She began to wonder if there could be another way for refugees to help themselves find work and be self-sufficient?

HOST: Then, in 2011, she heard a TED talk by Ernesto Sirroli.

ERNESTO SIRROLI: I decided when I was 27-years-old to only respond to people and I invented a system called enterprise facilitation where you never initiate anything, you never motivate anybody, but you become a servant of the local passion, the servant of local people who have the dream to become a better person.

HOST: Ernesto Sirroli had experienced too much self-proclaimed’ expertise from working in the international aid sector.

He wanted to move away from NGO centred social interventions, and instead created a program where experts advised and assisted local entrepreneurs to create their own businesses.

ERNESTO SIRROLI: There’s a new generation of entrepreneurs who are dying of solitude. What we do is become friends and we find out what that person wants to do. And then we help them to go and find the knowledge because nobody in the world can go and succeed alone.

HOST: The idea of entrepreneurship resonated with Violet.

VIOLET:  Why is entrepreneurship more alluring and interesting proposition. Because it’s self-driven, you’re allowing people to be to drive their own passion in their own way.

HOST: It didn’t just connect with her values, it touched her own family’s migrant experience.

VIOLET: My parent’s story really Greek immigrants arrived in 1950s aspirations for a better life and grew up in western Sydney and I saw them building community building a business and building a new life.

HOST: Violet hadn’t thought of her family as entrepreneurs, but the talk made her rethink this.

VIOLET: I thought about my parents and their siblings and all my cousins and there’s a lot of them 14 first cousins. And every single one runs a business. Even my husband runs a business. The migrant story is all about that. That’s been their salvation.

HOST: Migration and entrepreneurship share things in common. An entrepreneur has the capacity to envision something new and make it happen. It takes a lot of imagination and courage to do that. Just as it does to leave your home and start a new life.

VIOLET: There are people who were running businesses in the country of origin. They were enterprising they had to survive. They don’t have a welfare state propping them up.

HOST: Violet, showing a fair degree of entrepreneurial zeal herself, didn’t hesitate.

She invited Ernesto to speak with the SSI board about his program and he won them over. The board gave Violet three years to run an enterprise program to cater first and foremost to refugees.

HOST: The good news was that SSI had a way forward. But in some ways, what were they thinking! Setting up a business is incredibly hard.

BOB: 50 percent of businesses in Australia fail in the first year. 80 percent after five years. So and this is Australian born people. So imagine the odds if you’re coming from a totally different culture.

HOST: Thinking through how this could be done made the SSI team worry about how Ernesto’s program could be adapted for refugees.

VIOLET: How would you work with people who don’t speak English. How would facilitators actually work with a third person in the room. How would that dynamic change. That’s a big thing because the facilitator working with the with the entrepreneur building that trust that relationship is critical.

HOST: Violet realised that the model needed to be more flexible if it was to work for refugees. To make this entrepreneurship program work, it had to be… um … entrepreneurial.

VIOLET: If we don’t have a lens that is disruptive and that is enterprising and entrepreneurial No we wouldn’t get anywhere.

HOST: It was their willingness to be be creative in the face of this challenge that saw the Ignite program come to life.

HOST: The Ignite model built upon Ernesto’s idea of collective entrepreneurship.

Hopeful, would-be refugee entrepreneurs come in with a business idea where they are supported by facilitators, industry experts and a Resource Team made up of volunteers who can share their business knowledge and skills.

In order to get the program running, Violet needed help.

VIOLET: I thought to myself I need to find somebody who really gets this and somebody who is going to be live and breathe it.

HOST: Violet turned to her old friend and former colleague, Dina Petrakis.

VIOLET: She’s this extraordinary woman who never gives up. And is the best storyteller I have ever met. She put her heart and soul into into Ignite and she is Ignite.

HOST: Dina wrote the training packages and identified a support system that allowed refugees to thrive.

To bring to life the idea of collective entrepreneurship she needed a team of people who could provide day to day support for the refugees who would become entrepreneurs. She recruited a team of facilitators. Among them was Natalia Ballotin-Hall.

NATALIA: I’m originally from Brazil and I’ve been in Australia for the past seven years. When I first joined SSI I actually started as a marketing volunteer helping I was a member of their resource team. It was very fulfilling and it made me realise that I really wanted to have a more of a hands on job as opposed to just behind the scenes.

When there was an opportunity to become a facilitator I applied for the job and got the job.

HOST: Being a migrant herself, Natalia could relate to some of the challenges the refugees faced.

NATALIA: I know the struggles of moving and you know having to settle in a new country. And sometimes their CV don’t look appealing enough for them to be even invited to an interview in the first place. Starting their business it’s their way out of unemployment.

HOST: The facilitators help translate the complicated world of business so refugees can apply them to their plans.

NATALIA: That’s what makes I think this program so unique because we take our time. We work on one on one and we customize our service to each a specific business and individual.

HOST: And Natalia knows about the power of one-to-one support because that’s how she came to be working with Ed Yousef.

HOST: Ever since Ed moved to Australia, he had tried to educate people about his home, Syria. Then one day, that gave him an idea.

ED: I didn’t see much of like many many Syrian um places like Syrian places or Syrian food places in Sydney. So I wanted to take the opportunity and try to present the Syrian food to the Australian community.

Ed: So it’s not just the place of war. It’s also a place of delicious food.

HOST: At that point, Ed knew nothing about starting a business. So how could he possibly make this idea a reality?

It was back at SydWest that he was given a business card with the details of the Ignite program. He called them up and drove in to Parramatta from Mount Druitt for his first meeting.

ED: The first meeting I was I was sweating a stressed because I’m going to a strange place in Parramatta and because of the parking and the traffic and mum keep telling me Oh you’re late. Yeah. So it was um it was um stressful. But after we were introduced to Natalia it was like very um she was very welcoming. We brought some samples and also uh food safety certificates so she was she is she impressed.

HOST: It was clear Ed and his mum could cook. What they needed help with was to turn this skill into a business.

ED: Because um I’m from medical science background I was like I knew nothing about um like marketing financial aspects um and um like anything related to business and how to run a business. But on the first meeting Natalia provide gave us a she drew on the whiteboard a flowchart um explaining everything.

HOST: One meeting turned to many. Soon Ed and Natalia were coming together every 3 or 4 weeks to discuss his food business. Natalia guided Ed through the process, step by step.

ED: It was at at my own pace so they didn’t want to push me like hard.

HOST: Through the process Ed found his voice. The marketing campaign for the business talked about his refugee story.

ED: Some people may consider um refugees as a burden and we’ve seen that a lot on media. But the reality is a refugee is a person who had to do that forcefully he didn’t choose to.

HOST: Ed’s business created a bridge between his Syrian culture and his new Australian home.

ED: Me my brother. And my sister sometimes we all used mom’s recipes and um um we we went from there just starting with Mom’s recipes. Um because she makes good food and we we started the business. We started making food instead of for four people. We started making food for 86 at the beginning up to 200 people at at one night.

HOST: There was something very important in how Ignite did it’s work. While Ed says the program guided him through the process, Natalia firmly places the onus upon the refugees to drive their business ideas.

NATALIA: We do not motivate and we do not give any idea. That’s not how we work. it needs to come from you. We don’t care about what you want to do it but it needs to come from you because we know having a business is not easy. They need to be passionate about it because we do believe that if you are passionate about your business you’re going to make it through. you’re going to work the extra hour you’re going to work until late on weekends you’re going to go above and beyond to make it happen.

HOST: When Natalia explained this to me it reminded me of a famous saying from community organising. It’s called the iron rule – ‘don’t do for others what they can do for themselves.’ Successful entrepreneurship requires incredible drive. While support is necessary the engine room needs to come for the person themself – from the business owner.

HOST: A powerful relationship between a facilitator and a refugee was the starting point of the Ignite program, but those working at SSI also asked themselves – is that enough?

Could there be a way to harness the strengths of the broader Australian Corporate community and find ways for them to support the program?

BOB: If you’re looking to give back to a community not for profit or whatever you sit there and you think well what could I do. How do I get the best contribution from my skills.

HOST: Current or retired business people could be incredibly helpful if they could be enlisted as partners.

BOB:The real experience that I can bring to the table is business expertise in quite a lot of different types of areas.

HOST: There are plenty of people in corporate Australia worried about how we treat refugees. And some of them have applied their entrepreneurial zeal to the question – how can they make a difference.

That’s what Bob did. After contacting a few different organisations with the hope of giving something back, Bob, an engineer from Hurstville, joined the Ignite program as one of their volunteer support team mentors.

BOB: I’m old enough to have a quite extensive network of people that you can call on for a favour if you need them.

HOST: Many of the refugees he worked with didn’t know the intricacies of how business was conducted in Australia. That included laws, taxes, insurance, but it also included cultural norms.

BOB: Concepts of how business is conducted are very much framed by your life experience.

NATALIA: In some countries you literally shake hands and the deal is done but it sometimes is very hard for us to explain to our clients that in Australia for them to start that same business a lot of thing needs to be done. They almost think that you’re trying to stop them from doing it. So you need to explain No this is the Australian regulation you need to follow that.

BOB: Ignite does provide a safe way for people to move into a business without jumping off the cliff and risking their entire life saving and their health in some cases. But by providing them with this sort of framework that they can be successful.

HOST: Ignite not only creates new businesses, it changes people.

BOB: Amanda: So I’m wondering how has been part of this program changed you. or impacted on you.

Bob: Every culture you work with um you you get a different insight. I know almost nothing about Africa but we have participants from Sierra Leone and Nigeria. I’ve never been to the Middle East so it’s been a real privilege to interact.

HOST: It’s also given him a different understanding of purpose of setting up a business.

BOB: What’s the standout lesson from what you’ve learned at being a part of this project. That ironically success in conventional business terms needs to be reframed. If someone can not be reliant on welfare or less reliant they can follow a passion and a vision that might not turn them into BHP or anything like that but uh allows them to provide for their family. That’s a great success.

HOST: Ignite was always an ambitious idea. But despite all the odds being against them, the program has enjoyed incredible success.

NATALIA: We’ve got over 500 clients that have received support since program’s inception in 2013 of these 130 small business established to date. Over 60 percent of the entrepreneurs have generated enough income to be economically independent.

HOST: And not shy to use the entrepreneurial spirit which the program champions, Violet ensured Ignite was self-funded.

VIOLET: We were lucky because we are large and we are able to put a lot of our own funds to make this happen. It’s all self funded by SSI. We run like a social business and any efficiencies we reinvest back in.

HOST: For Ed, being an entrepreneur helped him find a place in Australian society.

ED: The program didn’t just provide me with the business starting steps. It also provided me with um connections with um new ideas and with self realization that um the environment here is welcoming that people are supportive.

HOST: Ed’s food is a place for breaking bread and building new relationships.

Amanda: And so if people wanted to eat your delicious food where would they go.

Ed: They can visit our Web site SyrianaCuisine.com.au.

HOST: Connecting with the corporate world has been an important part of Violet’s vision for Ignite. Not only does Violet believe that the corporate world has a responsibility to build community, but to do so actually benefits them.

VIOLET: They need talent and they need to employ people and they need diverse workplaces and we know from research that diverse workplaces are more productive workplaces economically and socially and culturally.

HOST: It’s a philosophy that has the power to make long-lasting change.

VIOLET: It’s not just about profit there needs to be some sort of engagement with social outcomes and toward contributing towards something more than just the bottom line.

HOST: In fact, Violet already has seen success in empowering the corporate world to invest in supporting refugees.

VIOLET: We we run a program with Alliance insurance that has employed people in a cadet-like program and that’s worked very well.

Violet: They won a human rights medal because of that program. What’s significant is that you can contribute economically and be competitive and not lose your heart that you know you don’t have to compromise those ideals. You can be competitive and you can still be a human.

HOST: It’s a philosophy that won Violet Telstra’s Business Woman of the Year Award in 2017.

But Violet’s ambition for Ignite goes beyond assisting the individual. She believes it may change the way society thinks about refugees.

VIOLET:  I really do think that programs like this can change the debate because it’s evidence based.

Violet: if you could fund more enterprise facilitators on the ground and you get more businesses up and running it does. It could make a big impact on the budget.

HOST: It’s such a creative way at coming at such a difficult debate in Australia. The political parties are stuck talking about refugee issues, so instead, this community has gone to the market to make new opportunities possible.

VIOLET: A little program that was initiated out of the love of people that run SSI who know that refugees are more than a visa type.



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