Luz Restrepo and her band of ‘sisters’ are empowering and connecting Melbourne’s most vulnerable asylum seeker, migrant and refugee women through grass-roots social enterprise.

‘Luz’ is Spanish for ‘light’. It’s a befitting moniker for SisterWorks founder, Luz Restrepo, who is a beacon of light for hundreds of women who have come to Australia seeking safety from persecution.

Luz is herself a former political refugee, forced to flee her native Colombia five years ago. In Colombia, she had built a distinguished career in medical administration, then in marketing. Arriving in Australia with no English language skills, her self-identity was swiftly put to the test.

“You put a lot of pressure on yourself when you move to another country, especially when you need to start to work and look for opportunities,” she says. “When you don’t speak the language and don’t have the networks, it can feel like your skills aren’t valuable.”

“I started to feel like I was a nobody in my new country; that people were thinking that I didn’t have anything to offer. I knew I had lots of skills to contribute, but I couldn’t communicate my ideas—that is like a feeling of powerlessness all the time.”

In the English classes she took in Melbourne, Luz connected with other women who shared her predicament.

“These women were in the same situation. Some of them had been here for 10 years or more and they still had a lack of confidence, a lack of identity. Some were experiencing domestic violence, isolation and depression. I thought to myself, ‘Luz, this is your future—what are you going to do?’”

“In that moment I knew that we had to push each other outside our comfort zones to practice our English and make new connections so we could look at options together.

“I am a people’s person,” she continues. “If there was one thing I understood in my life it was that even when you don’t have money, you still have connections. I had a few connections, and I knew that the women in my class had a few connections too, and that was enough for us to get started.”

“We started with zero money, but lots of human investment!” Luz laughs.

Using her relationships with the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and the Brotherhood of St Laurence, Luz began to share her idea for a project, which has grown to become SisterWorks—a grass roots social enterprise devoted to helping the most vulnerable asylum seeker, refugee and migrant women become self-sufficient and independent by providing life and business skills.Generosity_Luz-SisterWorks

SisterWorks is currently helping 75 women from 26 countries learn practical business skills, ranging from computer skills to selling sells, to help them on their journey as entrepreneurs. With designated Work Labs, Design Labs and Business Labs, the ‘sisters’ are supported to practise and develop new skills.

By providing opportunities to ‘learn by doing’, SisterWorks is committed to empowering women through work.

“Many of our sisters don’t have the computer skills or language skills necessary to go to the ATO website and follow all the instructions to apply for an ABN—this is not easy for someone who doesn’t have these skills, and there aren’t business education programs that are tailored to these needs,” Luz explains.

“SisterWorks is like a small umbrella or platform that gives women the resources they need to be confident and build work opportunities or explore the options to become an entrepreneur.”

After selling hand made products across greater Melbourne’s many markets for the past two and a half years, the social enterprise is set to expand with its own shopfront and business lab due to open at 393 Swan Street, Richmond in late January 2016.

 

Big steps

“All of our sisters now feel that they belong as a group,” Luz says. “As SisterWorks is becoming known they feel important and happy. The majority of them are travelling to markets by themselves taking a tram or car or bus. These sound like small things, but they are big steps for us.”

“We need more people to talk about how work empowers women and how migrants and refugee people can be useful to society through small opportunities.”

“I believe that all human beings are equal,” Luz says emphatically.

“We have to think about how we connect people with each other so we can exchange experience and needs.

“Through SisterWorks, we are connecting people. We put people together and challenge them to think about how we can support each other so each of us can empower ourselves.”

On 7 December, SisterWorks will launch a crowdfunding campaign to help with the fit out of the new shopfront. Go here to lend your support.

Read more about the inspiring journeys of Luz and some of her ‘sisters’ including Liliana and Andy, 79 year old Maria from Burundi, Ronya from Iraq and Alia from Pakistan here.

Get involved by becoming a social, design or business mentor, shop online at the SisterStore, find a complete list of markets or make a tax deductible donation.

 

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