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Helping refugees to the next level

Rachel Riak in her bank role.

Rachel Riak in her bank role. Photo: James Boddington

MANY of us would gladly be a little taller, but for Rachel Riak, height proved just another hurdle to her finding work in her adopted home. When Ms Riak, who is 1.8 metres tall, tried to get a job in a supermarket soon after arriving in Australia as a refugee, she was told she could not be employed because customers would think she was looking down on them.

It was just the latest cruel setback for Ms Riak, who escaped war in her homeland of southern Sudan and waited for 12 years in a refugee camp in Kenya, before arriving in Australia in 2001. After other knockbacks, she began studying software engineering at Monash University and opened her own hair salon in Melton.

But from the day the salon opened, a group of men would gather under a nearby tree, hurling racist abuse at anyone who went inside. Several times a week, Ms Riak would arrive to find a brick or bottle had been thrown through the front window overnight.

She was eventually forced to close the salon and found herself among many other African migrants struggling to find professional work despite Australian qualifications and excellent language skills.

It was a problem that the-then federal member for Melbourne and finance minister, Lindsay Tanner, had observed, prompting him to write to companies, including NAB, asking for their help.

Out of this came the African Australian Inclusion Program, a joint effort between Jesuit Social Services and NAB that gives African migrants the local work experience and contacts they need to gain a foothold in the Australian employment market.

Through the program, Ms Riak got a six-month placement at NAB as a software tester. NAB extended her placement for a further month, after which she was offered a continuing role. She has since moved into a business analyst role with the bank.

Since it started in 2009, 77 people have completed the program and 68 of these have found full-time employment, mostly with NAB, with others employed by companies including Accenture, PricewaterhouseCoopers and IBM.

A further 15 people have been placed in NAB offices in Melbourne, Sydney and Hobart in the current round of the program. Participants in the program receive full pay for their placements, and are mentored by NAB staff.

Jesuit Social Services is seeking more companies to join the program. Ahmed Yusuf, an African-Australian businessman who is a mentor in the program, said it had given other community members a glimpse of possibilities they might have thought were unachievable.

''This program says National Bank … is not too high for you to reach. If you're struggling to jump up to our level, we'll come down and hoist you up, and the message to the entire community is that everyone else can do it.''

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