A young student from Syria has been in Australia fewer than 18 months but she’s already achieved something many people never do: she’s identified her dream and is chasing after it.
Alice Kswani, 24, is working as a design and customer services officer at eyewear manufacturer Dresden Optics, while also undertaking an industrial design course to build experience for when she applies for university next year.
"Australia opened up for me the opportunity to start again and study what I love," she said. "My aim is to study architecture at UTS."
Architecture is a long-held passion of Ms Kswani's; she narrowly missed out on studying it at university in Syria, instead pursuing her second choice of biology.
"When I started university the first semester, everything was fine," she said. "The second semester, the war started and everything changed. We only went to the laboratory classes because they were really important. We studied the lectures at home because we needed to limit the amount of time we were on the roads.
"War is war in any country. It was just something we couldn’t imagine happening in our country. When the war started happening in Iraq, we thought it wouldn’t happen in Syria. While we knew the whole area was in danger, we didn’t think we had those issues in our country. But just like that, everything changed and it was not in our hands."
Ms Kswani and her family eventually fled their home in Damascus, residing in Lebanon for two years before resettling in Australia in June 2015.
The first English conversation Ms Kswani had on arrival was with her SSI case manager, who gave the family local support to settle in Sydney under the Humanitarian Settlement Services (HSS) program.
"It was so cool to start using my English," she said. "I was really worried about my university and my studies, so our case manager started giving me tips for how to start again here. She also went with us to all the banks and to Centrelink. We started to do everything together. We didn’t know about any of that before we came here, because it’s not the same as in our country."
Ms Kswani soon became an active participant in a number of SSI’s youth initiatives, including a pilot employment project from the Youth Collective: Gateway to Your Future.
As part of the project, Ms Kswani and 10 other newly arrived young people received specialised employment training, work experience opportunities, and one-on-one mentoring support to help them identify and achieve their employment goals.
Ms Kswani signalled her interest in pursuing a career in architecture and design so, following a two-week foundational skills training course at TAFE Granville, she began a six-week placement with Dresden Optics.
"It was amazing," she said. "I was so happy and excited, thinking I would love to work there. At the beginning, I was afraid to contact the customers because I was still learning English, but step by step, they encouraged me just to have a go with it."
After the placement finished, Dresden Optics offered Ms Kswani a job, which she happily accepted. She’s now waiting to apply for university in the New Year and is undertaking a TAFE Certificate IV in industrial design in the meantime.
Ms Kswani said she had been lucky to find work so quickly after arriving in Australia, which she credits to her involvement in SSI initiatives that extended beyond the support offered under the HSS program.
Just last week, Ms Kswani signed up for Youth@Work – an innovative program that uses mentoring to help young workers from refugee and migrant backgrounds adapt to the Australian workplace and work towards future employment goals.
Ms Kswani will soon start meeting with an experienced architect for regular mentoring sessions that will help her achieve her career aspirations.
"I have a lot of goals," she said. "I don’t know if one life will be enough for me. I would like to be someone who gives back to the country. Australia has given me a lot. Hopefully one day I can also go back to my country again and rebuild it. I would like to be able to help my country when I am strong enough."
Youth@Work is currently looking for more young people of refugee or migrant background who are interested in getting one-on-one support and advice to help them to reach their employment goals. Full details are at the link below: