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Youth expo provides inspiration, opportunities

By Fiona West | December 1, 2023
Nika, Roman and George helped inspire other migrant and refugee youths with their personal settlement stories.

A Ukrainian teenage girl forced by Russian bombing to flee her home on foot in freezing conditions, a former Taekwondo national champion and activist rushed out of Afghanistan due to threats from the Taliban, and an award-winning Year 12 student whose life was “shaped by the shadows of war” in Syria were three young speakers helping inspire and empower other migrant and refugee youths at the Youth Employment Expo in Fairfield last week.

Despite the harrowing circumstances of their journeys to Australia and the challenges of moving to a new country, Nika Kovalenko, Roman Abasy and George Alkhoury said they chose to focus on the positives of their new lives, to embrace opportunities and to follow their dreams.

Speaking to more than 70 fellow youths from a range of backgrounds and circumstances, they encouraged their audience to learn English, connect with others, view challenges as opportunities, and stay focused on their unique goals.

George, who has just completed his HSC and been accepted into Western Sydney University (WSU) to study architectural engineering, said he felt like a stranger when he arrived in Australia in 2018, with the initial days “marked by language barriers, cultural adjustments, and the unfamiliar Australian way of life”.

“It was hard to fit in and be accepted for who I am,” he said. “I had to learn fast and become resilient and adaptable. I faced moments of self-doubt. But I chose to view these challenges as an opportunity for growth. I knew if I could survive war in my homeland, I can overcome any challenges.

“With the help of many people who were like mentors to me, these challenges became less overwhelming over time, and building relationships with others really helped.”

George became a dedicated member of his school council and, through community engagement, mentorship and volunteering, has won a number of community awards, including the Fairfield City Mayor’s Youth Achievement Award in 2022 and 2023.

Likewise, as a schoolgirl, Nika threw herself into volunteer work in Australia, becoming an integral member of the Ukrainian community in Sydney, mentoring, teaching, and organising events and performing for a number of organisations, while designing weekly programs for community radio.

Roman said in the early days of his settlement he took whatever opportunities were available to him, including work that he didn’t enjoy. But he never lost sight of his passion for sport, and he is now living his dream, working as a Sports Coordinator at Reclink Australia, offering free sports and recreational activities to vulnerable communities.

The Youth Employment Expo – cohosted by Navitas Skilled Futures (NSF), Settlement Services International (SSI) and STARTTS (NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors) – gave South West Sydney youths an opportunity to network and connect with each other, attend practical workshops for employability skill development, have fun at musical and movement health sessions, enjoy a healthy catered lunch and engage with relevant services, education providers and charities about future work and study options. Those represented included WSU, TAFE, Youth Linkers, Services Australia (Centrelink), Australian Retailers Association, White Box/Civik, Vinnies and Green Connect. There was bilingual support for all languages and volunteer students from NSF Liverpool.

NSF Stakeholder Engagement Manager, Genevieve Lewis, said the expo was a pilot that would hopefully be repeated, depending on feedback from attendees, but it “appeared overwhelmingly positive”.

“The purpose of the day was to try to connect migrants and refugees aged 17 to 28 with opportunities for education and employment pathways, and to be inspired by each other,” she said.

“All the panellists, workshops, and sessions were youth-led and youth-focused, dynamic and engaging, to really help young people get a taste of what they can do, and to realise there’s actually a lot of opportunities out there for them, and they can fulfil their dreams in Australia.”

Genevieve said one of the key messages for attendees was not to feel rushed into decisions about their futures.

“They are young and we want them to realise that the first thing they choose may not be what they’re going to be doing in five or even ten years’ time; that there are a lot of different options for them in terms of studying, part-time or full-time work, and university,” she said.

“There were many organisations at the expo that we were able to connect the youths with, and who could talk to them about what they might do, short-term, mid-term, or long-term. So it was all about having that two-way engagement, asking them what sorts of goals and dreams they have, and as the inspirational youth speakers said, there are going to be challenges, but to see each challenge as an opportunity for growth. We want them to feel that there is hope and there are opportunities and choices. Yes, there’s going to be difficulties, but there are people to support them through those challenges and to help them live their best lives.”

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