APANDE Gong believes work is the key to a person’s hope and dignity.
The 37-year-old single mother fled war-torn South Sudan as a 19-year-old in 1998 and began a new life in Australia, first in Coffs Harbour and then finding her way to Brisbane.
Apande shut her eyes, shook her head and drew a sharp breath as she thought about her difficult arrival.
“I grew up in a war. It got so bad and eventually I got out,” she said.
“Coming to a new country as a refugee you are a person with no identity. All you have is your dreams.
“You have no job, no experience and no references.”
Apande recalled the frustration and sense of little worth as she searched for jobs, but only experienced knockbacks.
“I wanted to work, but everywhere I went they asked ‘Do you have experience, do you have references?’,” she said.
“I would say ‘No, but I can do the job’.
“The reply was always ‘Sorry, but that’s not how it works in Australia’.
“So I went back home and asked myself ‘What am I going to do?’
“So I got busy, … I ended up with five kids.”
Apande said that while she was busy raising a family she still had an ambition to join the workforce.
“I didn’t come to Australia to be sitting at home for someone to be giving me money every fortnight, and then I go and spend it,” she said.
“One night I started praying. The kind of prayer that you do without even closing your eyes or being in private.
“You just talk. And those prayers are the best because you are desperate. And you are talking to him.”
Apande said her prayers were answered.
She received a call from Mark Taylor, a teacher at Brisbane’s Padua College who had started a job program, Work and Welcome (formerly known as Job Pledge), to stand in solidarity with some of the most vulnerable in society.
The program is now run in partnership with Multicultural Development Association (MDA), an independent, non-government settlement organisation, which has focused on helping refugees and migrants since 2000.
Employers who sign up for the program pledge to provide 12 weeks of paid employment to a refugee or migrant.
It is a first-time hand-up offering valuable experience, a reference and often a pathway to a full-time job.
“Mark (Taylor) invited me to join the program,” Apande said.
“All I could see were the responsibilities around me, my five little kids, so I had to say no.”
However, Mark Taylor was persistent.
Perhaps he sensed Apande’s deep desire to work and her difficult circumstances at that time.
He phoned Apande a few days later and repeated his offer to join the job program.
“This time I said yes,” Apande said, “and I have never been without work since.”
Through the Work and Welcome program, Apande started short-term employment at Padua College as a librarian in 2006, and then went on to work with children with learning difficulties.
She did similar work at Marist College, Ashgrove, in the following year.
Apande’s natural flair as a communicator was instantly apparent when she delivered presentations to the two schools’ staff and students about her early life in Sudan, and coming to Australia as a refugee.
Apande said the work experience she received was just the spark she needed.
“What we need is that opportunity,” she said.
“Anybody who comes to a new society – indeed from a war-torn country – all we need is a society that welcomes us with a job.
“Nothing is more welcoming than someone who gives you a tool to do it for yourself.”
Slowly, and with her will to work, opportunities have come Apande’s way.
For the past six years, she has been employed as a youth worker with Youth Housing Project in Brisbane.
She completed a Diploma in Community Services at Bracken Ridge TAFE, a Bachelor Degree in Social Science and has now turned her attention to post-graduate peace and conflict studies.
Apande continued sharing her personal experiences with new audiences through MDA’s Work and Welcome 500 program, which has the backing of the Queensland Government, the Catholic Archdiocese of Brisbane, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry Queensland, and Queensland’s Council of Unions.
Work and Welcome 500 partner with schools, business and organisations to provide 12 weeks of work experience for refugees and migrants.
Through her work for the program, Apande has become a confident and accomplished public speaker, and she is now the public face of MDA’s efforts to find 500 work experience places for 3500 Syrian refugees soon to arrive in Brisbane.
In this way, Apande’s talents and spirit have created a pathway to employment for people she has never even met.
It is a pathway advocated by Pope Francis during a catechesis on the dignity of work, delivered in August last year.
“Through work,” Pope Francis said, “the family is cared for and children are provided with a dignified life.
“Work is sacred, work gives dignity to a family: we must pray that work be not lacking in any family.”
Apande is now enjoying her working life; she is studying and watching her five children grow up in a safe country.
She said it was important to give Syrian refugees work experience – and the same opportunity she had been given during the past decade in Australia.
“When you see a person walking on the street you have no idea how you can help them,” she said.
“But Work and Welcome is one of those ways you can actually help.
“The program gives you tools to go out and do it for yourself to regain the dignity that you lose when you are a refugee.
“Work and Welcome is what Australia is about.
“It’s about giving a person a fair go, and showing people what you can do if given that opportunity.
“Where it takes you is something that cannot be explained.”
By Mark Bowling