Women have basically been gathering in circles since, well, forever. In a small classroom out the back of a high school in Sydney’s south west, you’ll find a group of women doing just that. What started – as it often does – as a small group looking for connection, has grown into a community that’s been incredibly significant in women’s lives. Four years ago, Sydney Women’s Fund (SWF), a sub-fund of Sydney Community Foundation (SCF), together with the Parents Café Fairfield Inc., initiated a Women’s Refugee Sewing Circle to help newly arrived women from Iraq and Syria start to re-build their lives, often after escaping trauma. What began as a program to help women connect, has evolved into a path to economic self-sufficiency through a number of very clever partnerships.
Last year the program welcomed fashion social enterprise The Social Outfit to offer TAFE-recognised beginner and advanced sewing courses, and this year SWF initiated a new partnership with Australian fashion label Ginger & Smart, working together to create a job-readiness program. Nine women have been part of the program, working with and mentored by Ginger & Smart founders Genevieve and Alexandra Smart and The Social Outfit to create a designer product for sale: the limited-edition Strong & Kind canvas tote. Eighty per cent of refugee women struggle to get a job simply because they have no work experience, so having access to this, coupled with a supportive environment that empowers and builds capacity, is a winning formula.
This has been true for Janette, who arrived from Syria this time last year as a humanitarian migrant. A mother of five, she’s living in Sydney with her husband and three of her children; two are at high school and one is at university. Her other two children are in the United States. Through the Sewing Circle and the support of the Parents Café Fairfield Inc., Janette has been introduced to the many opportunities available to her and her family. “When we attended the first sessions, we didn’t know anything about what is happening in Australia or what the opportunities were,” she says. Through the Strong & Kind Job Readiness program she’s been able to learn valuable skills in fashion manufacturing. “Although I was a sewer in my country, here I have definitely learnt something new that’s helped me to develop my skills,” she says. “I like the group, I like the ladies, and it is really a very nice place. It is better than sitting at home doing nothing. I like to be with people, it makes me more comfortable.” The program has also given her the opportunity to earn an income and enhance her own financial security. Ultimately, the experience has supported her to realise her potential to succeed and build a fulfilling life in Australia. “There is no limit or time in life to learn; you can start anytime with the willing or wish to,” she says. “Everything is possible, there is no limit.”
The program has also proven to be a form of therapy for the women involved, many of whom have not spoken previously of the circumstances that forced them to flee their homeland. It promotes community belonging and lasting friendships in what can be a very lonely time for many migrant women. Jane Jose, chief executive at Sydney Community Foundation, is proud of the work they’re doing. “It’s a program that’s connected women to help other women, and it’s an exciting project for SWF and the Community Foundation. We feel we’ve really given these women a real opportunity to belong. Our wonderful donors can buy the bag and the funds go back into SWF and enable other women to have opportunities they might not otherwise have.”
Both Women in Focus and our partner, Business Chicks, chose to support the Strong & Kind Job Readiness Sewing Circle at our International Women’s Day events this year. Business Chicks sat down with the head of Women in Focus, Melynda Carpenter, to chat about why this program is so important.
Business Chicks Why did Women in Focus choose to support Sydney Community Foundation for International Women’s Day?
Mel This year for International Women’s Day, we launched the Women in Focus Giving Community, an initiative supporting programs that build capability in women through education, business skills and financial wellbeing. Women in Focus is committed to creating lasting social change, and Sydney Community Foundation’s Strong & Kind Job Readiness sewing collaboration was a perfect fit to support this important pillar.
Business Chicks What is it about their work that you love most?
Mel SCF projects transform the lives of women and girls. The programs have a lasting impact that changes the opportunities that are available to the women who participate in the programs. SCF understands the key issues impacting women in the region and invests in programs to address the most important needs to build a sustainable future for women. We particularly loved supporting the Strong & Kind Job Readiness sewing collaboration work as it empowers women with the skills, experiences and networks to seek employment or business enterprise.
Business Chicks Why is it important that communities like Women in Focus and Business Chicks work together?
Mel There is strength in coming together to advocate for change for women and together supporting organisations that are making real, tangible change. With such extensive networks, as one, we can create so much more visibility, awareness and share the stories of the amazing programs and organisations that are truly making a difference in making the world better for women.
This article was originally published by Women in Focus partner Business Chicks in Latte Magazine (issue 56). The article has been reproduced with permission from Business Chicks.