Esther's African Hair Braids


You will more than likely pass Esther’s African Hair Braids and Garments walking from Sydney’s Blacktown Station towards the Westpoint shopping centre.

The brilliant colours of traditional African garb are visible from the window but it isn’t until you walk inside the shop that doubles as a hair salon that you see the intricate weaving taking place.

The shop stands as a testament to Esther Suwa’s determination. ‘To start my own business wasn’t easy, it was very, very hard,’ she says.

Suwa is from southern Sudan and arrived in Australia with her family in June 2000 after living in Naroibi, Kenya, as a refugee for 14 years.

Suwa began to look for work within one month of arriving in Australia. She said she was fortunate she got two weeks of processing work through the husband of the woman who sponsored her family to come here under the humanitarian program. But others aren’t so lucky, she says:

They’ll give you [one of]three answers: either you have no Australian experience, or you’re over-qualified or you are not qualified [enough]. Unless you get Australian experience, even for one day, not many people are willing to give you the first job because they are not sure about you.

The Darfuri refugee community is a comparatively new and small refugee community in Australia. President of the Darfur Community in Sydney, Hafiz Mansor, says there are about 27 families from Darfur living in Blacktown, the first of which arrived in 2003. Of these, just five people are working, he says, most of them in cleaning jobs. Most of the community are studying at TAFE.

Within a few short weeks of arriving in the country the maze of registering, interviews and referrals begins for refugees.

Anyone who comes to Australia through the Humanitarian Program is entitled to up to 510 hours of language classes through the Adult Migrant English Programme (AMEP). Some people are eligible for a further 400 hours if they meet certain criteria, such as special needs because of torture and trauma, or limited schooling. Refugees also undergo a Job Capacity Assessment within the first few weeks of arrival to identify their capacity to work.

Once a refugee has completed their AMEP hours they go back to Centrelink. Refugees who are required to look for work, or volunteer to work, are then connected with a Job Network member (the employment agencies contracted by the Australian Government and made up of private, government and community organisations) in their local area.

For clients from non-English speaking backgrounds, there is AMES Employment in Auburn , Parramatta, Fairfield, Cabramatta, Campsie and Bankstown.

Everywhere, it seems, but Blacktown the greater-western Sydney suburb with a comparatively high population of Sudanese refugees.

Mansor tells of people with little English who were directed to search for a job unattended.

‘They are not helping. They ask you to come [twice a]week [for]one hour, sit here at the table and look in the computer. If you don’t know how to find a job through the computer they ask you to check in the newspaper.’

Suwa received assistance through the New Enterprise Incentive Scheme, which included studying for her Certificate IV in Business (Small Business Management) at Mission Australia. But after completing her training and defending her business plan for an African hair business to a panel of three, Suwa had no starting capital.

Suwa says no bank would give her a loan because she didn’t have a credit history in Australia and she hadn’t been working in the country for long.

She decided to become a mobile business, traveling to her clients’ homes by train to braid their hair. In 2002, Suwa managed to open a shop in Flushcombe Road in Blacktown and moved to her current location in 2004.

While the members of Blacktown’s Darfuri community still face problems securing work, Suwa says the situation is improving. ‘We still need a lot of support. It will take time, they just have to be a bit patient with us.’

‘I’m sure we [will]settle.’

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