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Designs on their future: retail training helps young refugees

By Fiona West | December 19, 2023
Mariam, Marleen and Sarah at The Social Outfit Retail Training Program graduation.

Three Navitas Skilled Futures (NSF) youth students have gained work experience, retail skills and increased confidence from a unique program at a Sydney social enterprise empowering refugee and migrant women.

Sarah Al-Nadawi, Marleen Jameel and Mariam Kamara graduated from the 12-week Retail Training Program at ethical fashion store, The Social Outfit, Newtown, which included paid work, mentoring, financial literacy and job-readiness training. Since participating, two of the women have already transitioned to paid employment. They had both never worked before.

NSF Fairfield Youth Class trainer Camilla Portela, who helped the students apply for the traineeships, said the safe, supportive environment of The Social Outfit and its understanding customers, gave the young refugee women the security and confidence to grow.

“As a youth class trainer, I believe in working hard to prevent youth homelessness and unemployment in south-west Sydney. All my students deserve safety, support, and opportunities to reach their potential,” she said.

“The Social Outfit has given Sarah, Marleen and Mariam an amazing opportunity to practise what they have been taught in the classroom, and connect with their new Australian community and develop a sense of belonging.”

“Their confidence has improved, and they are now working towards achieving their learning and employment goals for 2024. I am extremely grateful to the wonderful team at The Social Outfit.”

Over three months, the women were paid to work one day each week and received free face-to-face mentoring sessions and online training.

Receiving their certificates, with Employment Pathways Coordinator, Sonya Price-Kelly.

Iraq-born Sarah, 23, who lived in Turkiye before moving to Australia with her family in May this year, said the program had been life changing.

“For me, it was my first job, not just in Australia, but in my whole life. So this was a big step for me,” she said.

“I had no experience at all. It gave me all the skills I have now – customer service, talking to the customer, taking payments, attention to detail, many things.

“It made me realise how important it is to learn English because you have to be able to communicate with people.

“The Social Outfit has given Sarah, Marleen and Mariam an amazing opportunity to practise what they have been taught in the classroom, and connect with their new Australian community and develop a sense of belonging.

Sarah would like to pursue a career in interior design but is first working on improving her English, gaining skills and work experience. She has recently been successful in applying for a position with a retail agency.

“Now I am working in a pop-up Versace store,” she said. “I am very happy and so grateful for everything.”

With Retail Manager and Trainer, Eliza Da Costa.

Mariam, 20, who moved to Australia from Guinea last year, agreed that English was the most important skill in the workplace, and this program had helped hers to markedly improve.

“When I started working here I was really shy,” she said. “But I met new people and talked to customers. Now I speak better English than before. It has helped me a lot.”

Mariam is now working in home care, which is what she would like to do long-term, with plans for further education.

“I am very happy today,” she said.

“I don’t know how to say thank you enough.”

Marleen, 25, originally from Iraq and now living in Fairfield, has been in Australia for the past four years but had never before been to Sydney’s Inner West.

“We have learned many new things,” she said. “It has been an experience even to get here.”

“Before I came to Australia I lived in Lebanon and I did work there, and had experience in retail and customer service, but it is very different in Australia.

“I am shy and I’m not very good at English so I did find it difficult at first talking to customers, but over time I got better and now I am more confident.

“My mentor has helped me with a resume, cover letter and finding jobs. I am now looking forward to getting a job.”

With the NSF team at the graduation (L-R): MIchael Hill, Maria Jabar and Genevieve Lewis.

The Social Outfit CEO, Camilla Schippa, said the “wraparound support” for trainees, including one-on-one mentoring, had helped 90 per cent of all trainees transition to employment, and in 2023 the social enterprise had provided more training and employment than any other year.

“So far this year, I’m very proud to say we’ve seen 90% of young women transition to employment, which is huge,” she said.

“We are well on track to reach our goal of 100 jobs by our 10th birthday (in 2024). We are actually only three jobs away. We’ve provided 97 jobs to date.”

The Social Outfit is now looking for its next group of retail trainees. They must be aged 19-29, arrived in Australia within the past five years as a refugee or humanitarian entrant, currently looking for their first Australian job, and interested in retail, sales or customer service. Weekly online training modules provide information on topics such as product knowledge, customer experience, styling, visual merchandising, e-commerce and social media. Trainees progress through 12 modules in their own time over the 12-week program and test their knowledge with a quiz at the end of each lesson.

“This program is an opportunity to build your confidence and learn all about retail customer service, how to process sales, ship orders and create beautiful displays in store,” Camilla Schippa said.

Artist Wendy Sharpe spoke at the graduation in the jacket she collaborated on with The Social Outfit called “Girl’s Night Out” .

Artist Wendy Sharpe, who collaborates with The Social Outfit, attended the graduation and said she made no apologies for her tears.

“I was touched by just hearing from the wonderful new graduates, that, yes, they’ve learned a bit about retail, but also confidence, English, making friends, feeling part of it, understanding and interacting with people, and also relating to people here in this country, because it’s different in every country – different etiquette and different ways,” she said. “Whatever these young women do, they may stay in retail, but whatever they do, this is grounding in understanding all of those things. It’s so wonderful and I’m thrilled to have been involved in some way.”

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