Three years ago my life turned upside down. A week later, I found myself searching for a share house and soon after I moved in with Caspar. I quickly learnt that Caspar is one of those people who gets along with just about anyone, puts everyone else’s needs ahead of his own and injects a sense of humor and creativity into life whenever he can. Knowing how attached I am to my hair straightener, he once hid it from me, forcing me to complete a treasure hunt, with cryptic clues that led me to its hiding place. And that’s what living with Caspar was like- entertaining, surprising and occasionally humiliating. While we’re no longer housies, I’m pretty stoked that I can still call Caspar a good mate. A humble under-estimator of his own achievements, I’m so grateful that he agreed to this interview and was inspired by his unrelenting enthusiasm and outside the box thinking.
“I remember my catalyst for staying in this sector. I was talking to a couple of guys who had escaped a war-torn country and fled to Australia, only to spend three years in immigration detention.
They were let out but didn’t have any rights. They’d spent their whole lives as outsiders, and in Australia, they remained outsiders. All they wanted to do was work, support the community, meet people and learn English properly. But they weren’t able to. They were weeping and I was weeping. It just seemed so unjust.
That conversation cemented my decision to continue supporting people seeking asylum.
My relationship with, and passion for, supporting migrant groups facing disadvantage started at a really young age. When I was growing up Dad worked in ethnic affairs for the City of Darebin and both my parents were active in supporting the local Cambodian community. For as long as I can remember, I was being dragged along to Cambodian weddings, Italian funerals, bar mitzvahs and every other kind of cultural celebration you can think of. It was probably a natural progression for me to step into this sector and stay here.
VICSEG New Futures was set up 35 years ago to support newly arrived families seeking asylum. Dad has been Director for 20 years, Mum started New Futures Training (the accredited training wing of the organisation) in 2001 and I’ve been working here since 2004.
We work to link families with support services as well as providing training and pathways to employment. Ultimately, VICSEG New Futures helps people to feel empowered, included and able to lead a dignified existence.
Back in 2004, our training centre was a single room with 12 desks. Now, we train over 4,000 students a year across six sites in Victoria. We’ve responded to different waves of migration. Each group has faced different challenges and we have supported them to resettle and rebuild their lives.
A lot of our students are daunted by the idea of a classroom and the certificate they earn through us is often their first kind of formal education. It’s always really special. I remember one of our early childcare students bursting into tears when she got her qualification. She took a moment to compose herself before telling us it was the first time in her life that she had passed anything.
If she had been left to the traditional pathway of VCE, the system probably would have chewed her up and spat her out, but now she is second in charge at one of our childcare centres and she’s incredible with children. That’s the sort of difference we can make in someone’s life.
Each of our main campuses, in Coburg, Epping and Braybrook, has a childcare centre. Offering low cost or free childcare means having a family isn’t a barrier to employment. We mainly employ our students at these centres and we also use them as a dynamic learning space. Each centre has one-way windows that allow our students to observe and learn. A two-way microphone and earpiece means students can work in the space while following prompts from a trainer. This sort of support and mentoring really helps them to build their confidence.
I’ve worked in a number of roles across the organisation. While I was going through art school, I worked as as a Trainer and Assessor, then moved onto a management role and, following a rapid period of growth, became Operations Manager. It was challenging but it wasn’t my passion. I had gone from teaching people from diverse backgrounds to managing spreadsheets, position descriptions and budgets. So, I made the decision to move into a new branch of New Futures Training called New Futures Creative. Working with different cultures to celebrate diversity in a creative sense has been an opportunity for me to combine my two passions.
The idea for New Futures Creative came out of active days that we used to run at VICSEG New Futures. Paper, paint, scissors, glue and recycled materials would be laid out on the table and students were encouraged to express themselves.
Mum talks about one Somali student sitting down with a big bit of paper, a brush and red paint. Dipping her brush into the paint, she was drawing a large red circle and crooning. Mum was taken back to her own childhood and the joy of spreading thick paint on paper. It gave her cause to realise that many of our students don’t have this experience as many cultures don’t celebrate the connection between creativity and childhood.
That was the impetus for what we wanted to create here: a space for people to be able to express themselves creatively. We wanted different groups to come together and share their skills, crafts and cultures, celebrate the differences, learn new things and build connections.
When I started here, my first step was to ask our students about the skills they have and the skills they hoped to develop. Food and textiles were far and away the most prominent choices, and now we’re well underway when it comes to textiles. We bought some materials and machines, and now have a little sewing corner that has become a buzzing, vibrant space. We discovered a few women had particularly good skills and had fallen in love with the warm, welcoming environment here, so we launched Second Stitch, our refugee and asylum seeker run textile enterprise.
We were lucky enough to get a substantial donation of really good quality fabrics to launch a cushion-making project. Anyone can come in, choose their fabric, and have a cushion made while directly employing a seamstress from a disadvantaged background. We also have a clothes alteration and repair service, where people can get their pants taken up or a hole fixed while helping those who might be struggling to find employment.
We’re setting up and delivering a whole range of classes, events and information sessions with sharing cultures at the heart. For example, we are hosting a community dance project ‘A Place to Land’ which, through a series of weekly workshops, has taken stories of migration and place and translated them into movement. This will culminate in two free performances in late August. We also have a multicultural choir who are exploring the cultural value of lullabies. Memories of childhood can transcend culture, race and skin colour, and music is a really beautiful way to access and share these memories.
We have a lot of other irons in the fire. We’ve got plans to run a series of food workshops. A couple of women have approached me keen to run a henna painting session. One of our Tamil seamstresses wants to run a sari making workshop. I’d like to do some digital media and photography projects. New Futures Creative really is a multi-purpose jamboree of a space.
While we run these programs and events for the groups that we work with, we are also open to the wider community. We are based in Coburg, which is a vibrant area that’s in the midst of a really interesting period of change, and we want to be part of that change. We’re not setting out to build an empire, but we hope our space can counteract racial fear and segregation by celebrating diversity and difference.
A lot of the people we work with are really damaged and really alone. They’re trying to operate in a system that’s fighting against them. They’ve had traumatic pasts and carry a lot of scars. While there’s recognition of the challenges of migration and the trauma of escaping war; resettlement and finding a sense of belonging in a new country comes with its own onslaught of challenges. I want to spend my life supporting people through this process because I think the different colours and flavours of all aspects of life are crucial.
I hope that in future people can be valued for being human. I hope people stop being treated like political pawns. I hope that anyone who looks at those fleeing persecution and war and somehow thinks that compassion isn’t the answer, can learn to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.”