A refugee has told how a fashion social enterprise helped her find her feet in Australia after she was kidnapped and close relatives killed by militias in her native Sudan.
The charity called The Social Studio, which marks its fifth anniversary with a gala show at Fitzroy Town Hall on Friday, has helped hundreds of refugee women find skills, work, confidence and friendship.
Abuk Bol's story may top them all. Eighteen months ago, the Sudan-born seamstress opened a Dandenong satellite of The Social Studio's Collingwood not-for-profit design and retail business.
The shop, Twich✓ Women's Sewing Collective, which Mrs Bol manages in Dandenong's CBD, is doing a brisk trade in custom-making clothes, doing alterations, making crafts to sell at markets, and whipping up chair covers for epic African weddings.
Talk for a while with the softly spoken mother of six and you realise how far she has come.
Kidnapped by a militia group in 1991, at age 14, from her village in the Twich region of southern Sudan, she was freed a year later in the north, not knowing where she was.
An uncle rescued her from a camp in Khartoum three years later but she was cut off from rejoining her parents by war in the south. Mrs Bol married and had four children and in 2001, the family fled to Egypt, where they spent three years as refugees.
After arriving in Melbourne in 2004, Mrs Bol found out, by phone, that her mother was alive, but her father and three brothers had been killed in the civil war.
Mrs Bol had two more children in Australia, but with poor English, felt isolated from the wider community.
In 2009, Mrs Bol lost her job of four months making clothes in a factory because she didn't have formal qualifications. But she wanted to work – she had to financially support eight relatives in Africa, including her mother. Her teenage daughter Adut,✓ who was doing work experience at The Social Studio in Collingwood, suggested Mrs Bol study there, too.
The studio enabled Mrs Bol to study free for a TAFE certificate in clothing production, including design, pattern making and sewing.
It led to a three-month stint working on bridal gowns for high-profile couturier Mariana✓ Hardwick in Brunswick.
Mrs Bol then formed a women's group at home making knitted cushions, pillow cases and chair covers, then she approached the Social Studio about starting Twich in Dandenong.
Now she passes on her skills to newer immigrants, some of whom have just arrived in Australia, and may not even have used an ATM card.
Mrs Bol said the shop "has been good for me because I learnt more English. When I first came [to Australia], for three or four years, if you asked me what was my name, I wouldn't know what you said.
"And now I know a lot of people, from different communities. Before, I don't know any – the people at church, that was all. What I like about working here, it makes me link with people. That is a good thing."
In the future she wants for it to be "less hard to get a job in it [at Twich], and to grow it so they can employ more women".
The Social Studio, funded by philanthropists and income from sales, with little government support, celebrates its fifth birthday on September 5 with a fundraising gala at Fitzroy Town Hall for Melbourne Spring Fashion Week.
For details, go to www.thesocialstudio.org
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