The woman who came from nowhere

The woman who came from nowhere

“My heart is a little bit happy now because I am working. I think the work is good. I like it because it changed my life.”

Nyankiir Deng fled Sudan in 1988, setting off on a month-long march into neighbouring Ethiopia. Three years later she was moved into a refugee camp at Kakuma in the remote north west of Kenya, an area bordered by Ethiopia, Sudan and Uganda.

Dry, dusty and almost entirely treeless, Kakuma is presently home to more than 100,000 refugees from 13 countries. Nyankiir remained there until 2007. In Swahili, the word ‘Kakuma’ means nowhere.


As grim as life in Kakuma was, it was a life. In her homeland of Sudan, forces of the Arab Muslim government based in Khartoum killed many thousands of her Dinka people in fighting that broke out in 1983. About the time she was moved to Kakuma, Sudanese government forces killed 2000 Dinka people in the so-called ‘Dinka Massacre’. Nyankiir will not discuss the experiences that drove her to seek refuge in Ethiopia.

Before internal conflict ravaged Sudan, Nyankiir’s family had been living in Dubai where her father was a policeman. “We came back and went to our village and the war came. We ran away. It’s too much. I can’t talk about that one,” she says.

In the refugee camps she began working with children, taking them to counselling, cooking for them as well as her own children. An aunt who had been granted asylum in Australia persuaded Nyankiir to move her family to Melbourne.
So she began English classes to learn her third language, after Dinka and Arabic. She was 38 years old.

In Melbourne then, the precursor to United Voice was the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Union. Its state president, Jane Farrell, was among those seeking a greater role for the century-old union.

“The union leadership had been discussing how to change since the 1990s,” says Jane. “We felt we had a role in the community. We needed to widen our voice.

“We felt that being restricted to workplaces limited what we could do – it places you in a conflict framework: you win or you lose. Our thinking was that if we widened our voice it would tell our members what they are seeking was fair and it would tell employers they are part of something bigger.”

For African migrants the political climate was unwelcoming. The then-immigration minister Kevin Andrews claimed that African refugee migrants were not integrating well, and announced cutbacks to their annual intake. Something bigger was beckoning.

Knowing first hand that cleaning and hospitality were industries that drew on the most recently arrived migrant communities, Jane and others like United Voice secretary, Jess Walsh, saw an emerging union role, helping these newcomers find their place in Australian society.

The Flemington and North Melbourne public housing high rise estates – home to many African migrants – were close to the union office. The people there had homes, children at school and Medicare cards. This community of African refugees had all the essentials for a life except one: work.

“The women we found had never worked and didn’t understand work relationships, but they knew they need to work if they were to become independent. We had to give them that before anything else,” says Jane.

Jane drafted the catering companies Spotless and Peter Rowland to the cause in order to create work related training in their own kitchens. United Voice knew them as responsible employers in an industry prone to exploitation. While the companies mapped out the work skills the women needed, the new recruits also required more fundamental knowledge about how employees behave at work.

“We arranged basic kitchen training in food handling and food hygiene and responsible service of alcohol in commercial kitchens,” says Jane.

“With the football season leading into the Spring Racing Carnival we could see 10 months steady work. Our training also covered dealing with colleagues, customers and workplace language.”

From the inaugural program, a social enterprise, Service Stars, was created. It is not a union organisation, but Jane runs it from the building that houses United Voice’s Victorian headquarters, and it receives in-kind support and assistance from United Voice.

“While it’s independent of the union, it has a union heart and it’s important people know where it’s come from.”

Jane only works with employers that pay staff their correct legal entitlements and respect their right to be union members.

Most of the people who have gone through the program are African, but it has also recruited people from the Burmese, Korean, Afghan, Iranian and Chinese communities.


Classof09.jpgService Stars graduates from the class of 2011

“There is so much that United Voice members work for that is common ground with the people who go through Service Stars,” says Jess Walsh.

“Members want good, secure jobs that enable them to build a life and to support their families, and they understand that they can best do that by working together. They want precisely what the Service Stars graduates are looking for: a fair go, not a free go.”

For Nyankiir the job was her introduction not only to work, but to the Melbourne Cricket Ground. “Because I did the course and I know some ways in the kitchen at Service Stars, I got the job at the MCG. I wanted to see MCG because I see a lot of people going there. I went to see. Even though I did not have enough time to see the football, I went inside.

“We worked three hours, but I wanted to work full time. I want to work five hours, ten hours.

“Everything has negative and positive. You can’t say everything is positive. In my house I am talking my language always. I want to go outside so I am speaking English. For my second job Jane took us to the race course in Flemington with Peter Rowland company. This is good company. This one is sometimes six hours.”

As well as giving participants a pathway into work and the wider community, Service Stars has introduced its graduates to the importance of unionism as a vehicle for decent pay and workplace rights. Nyankir, like her many of her fellow graduates, joined United Voice while at Spotless and remains a proud member.

Nyankiir has continued to build her qualifications and is now working in a community child care centre. That is the point, Jane says. The program, which has now introduced more than 200 African women to work, was about launching the participants into work and greater independence.

It was only meant to be their first job, and to equip them to find roles that suited them which has been Nyankiir’s experience:

“My heart is a little bit happy now because I am working. I think the work is good. I like it because it changed my life.”

The collateral gain for the union was a broader role in the community, says Jane: “We wanted to marry our place in industry with our place in the community. We wanted change that could not be legislated into oblivion.”


Service Stars director Jane Farrell (centre) with recent graduates, Ali Ishag (left) and Ayen Garang.

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