Rachel Riak. Source: NAB

Refugees too good to refuse

Abdul Abdi and Rachel Riak emigrated from Africa where they spent a combined 16 years living in a refugee camp. Inductees of a six-month corporate inclusion program, I chatted to them both about their time in Africa, living in Australia and what it’s like working for a Big Four bank.

Your morning alarm goes off. You hit snooze. You don’t want to go to work. It might be too cold or too windy or you hate catching the train. Maybe you’ve realised that your car needs petrol and whenever you stop at the petrol station you always get that chocolate bar you like. But you’re putting on too much weight, so you don’t want the temptation. Or maybe you had a late night, too much to drink. Or the baby kept you awake, or the neighbour’s dog.

What about gunfire?

“When the bullets started, we decided to move out for our own safety.” Abdul Abdi is 21-years-old. But you could mistake him for being older. He’s smartly dressed, with a grey suit and neatly-woven tie; he’s measured in his words, crafting articulate responses far beyond his years; and he’s “seen” more than any person should have by the start of their third decade.

“Australia’s a very secure country. People are very fair. If you respect other people and go about your business, no one is going to bother you. It’s a country full of opportunities.” He struggles to maintain eye-contact when he speaks, but doesn’t take his eyes of you when he’s listening. He also smiles a lot.

Born in Somalia, Abdul was only five when the country’s civil war intensified — a conflict known in the west for its infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident. When the situation got worse, and a clan-based coalition sought to depose the administration of the time, Abdul and his family left their home in the capital Mogadishu. They moved to the country’s third largest city, Kismayo, near the Kenyan border. There they decided to wait it out.

“We wanted to stay [in Kismayo] until the government was overthrown, and then hopefully the new government would improve things, and we’d go back to Mogadishu. [But] after the government withdrew, the clan issues started.” Despite the clans having brought down the Barre regime, the power vacuum saw a rise in inter-clan fighting and militia attacks. This meant it was too unsafe for Abdul and his family to head back to Mogadishu. This meant there was no going home.

They crossed into Kenya where they settled in a United Nations refugee camp. There they stayed for the next four years. “There were a lot of people [in the camp]. Malaria came in and a lot of people died. Sometimes, there wasn’t enough food. It was tough.”

Abdul couldn’t tell me exactly where his camp was or what it was called, but when recounting his time there he’s torn between the horror of his situation and the good intentions of the UN who ran camp.

Vacillation aside, he remained hopeful. “We had several interviews and medical check-ups. I was pretty young, but I remember it took, roughly, around two years.” Ambassadors from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia all came into the camp, seeking to relocate refugees.

Accepting help

Abdul started working for NAB as an inductee of their African Australian Inclusion Program (AAIP). Commencing in 2009, the AAIP provides African Australian’s with six months of paid workplace experience. From 2009–2013, the program has seen 107 participants, representing 16 African countries.

Rachel Riak is another AAIP participant who hails from South Sudan. A country new on the global scene, South Sudan declared its independence from the north on 9th July, 2011. Before its separation from Sudan, religious persecution forced Rachel and her family to flee into nearby Kenya as refugees.

When the bullets started, we decided to move out for our own safety.

You could forgive her for abandoning the reason for her persecution, but she embraced Christianity. “I wasn’t offered any counselling. So I read the Bible. That’s where I got my healings, you know?” She’d often participated with a support group, known as Youth Mama. “They would just be worshipping every day, and tour the camp, praying and crying to God.”

Her faith was often her only solace from the horrors in and around her camp. “There was no clean water. We spent days without food. Some people were taken from the camp during the night and killed.

“Your brain doesn’t really grow [inside a refugee camp]. I didn’t ‘have’ a tomorrow. I couldn’t dream of tomorrow.”

Yearning for more, Rachel jumped into her studies. Her older brother, Lazarus, paid for her to attend a Kenyan government school in her early years, and continued his support by sponsoring her to attend a private boarding school for her secondary schooling. He worked for the UN, digging and installing toilets in the camps, and making and installing toilet seat add-ons for people with disabilities. He died in 2007.

“He died very young. He was 47. He was in Darfur in a peacekeeping force and he was injured and died.” Rachel’s the youngest of 11 children, and one of only two still living. Her surviving sibling, David, lives in Australia, too. He was child number 10.

A new life

Rachel’s migration to Australia was her first time on an aeroplane. She was so overwhelmed by the experience, she missed where the toilets were during the initial announcements. And being too shy to ask, she refused to drink in the hopes of not having to use them.

“They kept offering me apple juice. But I told them I had a headache so they’d leave me alone; really, I just ‘know where to wee.” She’s having trouble composing herself — she clearly loves telling that story.

“From meeting the Australian ambassador [in the camp] to arriving in Australia, it was very quick–it took only eight months.” The ambassador sponsored Rachel for a humanitarian program, which saw her settle in Launceston, Tasmania.

“I thought the people were really crazy. They look at me and they smile. I was like, have I gone mad? Why are they smiling for no reason?” In Africa, Rachel tells me, you don’t smile at people you don’t know. “So I say to one of my friends, ‘why do people see people and smile — are they crazy?’ And she say, ‘No you just smile at them — it just shows that you don’t have any problems with them — you just make them happy’.” Rachel enjoys this idea.

Back in the refugee camp, her mother encouraged her against smiling at people, especially because she’s female. But, when Rachel smiles, it lights up her face. Her high cheekbones get higher and her teeth-showing proves infectious.

She was, however, left disappointed by a slight fabrication-cum-urban legend she learnt of back in the camp. It was said that, to become wealthy in Australia, you needed to wake up especially early “and go into the street and grab as much money as you can. So I kept waking up earlier but I couldn’t see any money.” One day, Rachel felt her luck was changing: she’d finally found money on the street. “I came back to my friend and said ‘How much is this?’” It was five cents.

She spent 18 months in Tasmania, before being accepted to study software engineering at Melbourne’s Monash University.

Freedom to choose

“Australia’s a country full of opportunities”, Abdul says. “If you want to study, you can study. If you want to work, you can work. It’s a good place to live.”

He appreciates that you can come to Australia with nothing, and that your future is entirely what you make of it. Abdul lives with Ayan and Mohammad, his wife and son, in Heidelberg, in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. He met Ayan in Australia, and Mohammad was born here.

“How you turn out depends on your character and the decisions you make. In other countries, you can work as hard as you can but you’ll never get anywhere. That’s what makes Australia special.”

I thought the people were really crazy. They look at me and they smile. I was like, have I gone mad?

But, he concedes, it wasn’t as easy as he’d hoped. “I spent around six months looking for a job, and applied for around 400 with no interview.” He put his fingers to his mouth and paused before continuing. “It was really, really tough.”

He didn’t understand why he was constantly knocked back for interviews given that he’d studied IT at university, and now has a master’s degree in accounting.

“I did it properly; I didn’t just change the name of the jobs — I tailored an application to each specific job.” Unable to secure a job in his chosen field, Abdul worked in a chocolate factory, on a mushroom farm in Echuca, and in security, patrolling private buildings around Melbourne.

Rachel faced similar resistance, but not initially. Whilst lucky enough to secure a number of interviews from her 500-or-so applications, “when I arrived at the interviews, they were shocked when they saw me…because my name is ‘Rachel’”, she laughs. She has a master’s degree in business administration. “It was a full-time thing. I would spend eight hours a day on the computer applying for jobs.”

Rachel lives in Melton — in outer western Melbourne — with her family, where she once owned a hair salon. She was forced to close after repeated vandalism and racial abuse — often on a daily basis. “I didn’t get much out of it. Our windows were broken nearly every night.”

Diversity and inclusion

Eventually, after months of frustration with getting nowhere, Rachel and Abdul came across NAB’s AAIP. Run in partnership with Jesuit Social Services, it’s a professional program for skilled African-Australians providing six months paid corporate experience.

Given Rachel and Abdul’s lack of local experience, the program provides just that. As a result, participants can immerse themselves in Australian Workplace culture, build their professional networks, update their CV with local experience and obtain a NAB reference at the end of the placement.

“I got an email from someone [about the program] from within the Sudanese community”, Rachel says. “But the deadline was for the next day.” Not wanting to miss out on the opportunity, she applied straight away. She was accepted as a trainee software tester. At the end of her six months, she was offered a permanent role. She’s now a business analyst.

“It was nice that someone believed in me — someone believed they could really help me.”

And there’s no stopping her. She’s applied for her PhD at Monash and Victoria Universities. And, at the time of interview, she was heavily pregnant, and days away from heading off on maternity leave. Her job will be waiting for her when she gets back.

When Abdul was accepted for the AAIP, he was placed in NAB’s wholesale banking arm. He was offered a one year contract as an accountant after his placement. He was offered a permanent role six month in.

He’s looking to the future, now. “There are a few short courses I’m interested in. CPA is one of them. “I just remember the first people I met here being really friendly. And the systems, how people moved around, it was all so well organised; the first week or so I realised that it was a very safe environment.

“I said to myself just make the most of it. Try to do something with your life.”

This article was originally written in 2013 for NAB but went unpublished.

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