Home » Zeynab had ‘lost hope’. Then a phone call changed everything

Zeynab had ‘lost hope’. Then a phone call changed everything

Key Points
  • IKEA Australia has used Refugee Week to confirm it will make permanent its pilot refugee employment program.
  • The company has issued a call to other Australian businesses to consider employing refugees.
  • Researchers say perceived barriers still exist, but can be overcome.
When Zeynab Noori arrived in Australia as a refugee in 2018 at the age of 18, she did not fully understand how long it would take to feel truly settled in.
Of Hazara ethnicity, her family fled Afghanistan for Iran and then settled in Adelaide.
“In Iran, we were always classified as a second citizen, and I feel like even less than that, because we don’t have the most basic rights there,” she said.

“For example, we were not allowed to buy basic SIM cards under our own name because being an Afghan you don’t have a valid Iranian identification card.”

Zeynab Noori says she feels good about giving back and helping to induct other refugees in the workplace, easing their anxieties and helping them to feel at home. Source: Supplied / IKEA Australia

Those early years in Australia were tough. Learning the English language was one challenge, feeling a sense of belonging was another.

“I came to Australia and there was a honeymoon period, everything is fresh and exciting. And after a while, the culture shock thing starts to hit,” she said.
“You start questioning everything – ‘why am I even here?’.

“The sense of belonging doesn’t click straight away. You don’t feel like you fit in.”

She graduated high school and began the search for a job. Over two years, she filed multiple job applications but had no success and “lost hope”.
Then a phone call changed everything. Community Corporate, an agency specialising in matching refugees with jobs, had found an opportunity with IKEA Australia. A new pilot program for refugees was rolling out – but it was only for two months.
Ms Noori completed the training program and was offered ongoing employment. Three years later, she moved from logistics to sales, relocating to Sydney.
She said her outlook on life has completely changed as a result of having secure work.

“It made a huge difference in my confidence, how I presented myself in the society and how I talk to people. Having my own source of income, I feel I’m standing on my own two feet.”

Ms Noori said her future “is bright”. She is about to start an arts degree in August – a dream she was not able to achieve as a Hazara in Iran.
“After five years of being in Australia, finally, I feel like I’m in the right space to really pursue my studies and really put my mind and soul into it,” she said.
A buddy system paired Ms Noori up with two other employees who paved the way for her to feel welcome at her new workplace. Today, she is returning the favour and is a buddy to other refugees new to the program.

“I feel programs like this really should be embraced, and I can see how much value refugees bring,” she said. “People are important in any community and society; every person has their own story … that is what makes a society stronger and more diverse.

Harriet Pope, a project leader at IKEA who oversaw the pilot program, said it had “exceeded expectations” and would be made permanent.
“Eighty per cent of those who graduate from the program have ongoing work with us,” Ms Pope said, confirming the company’s decision during Refugee Week. “There is a very strong business case for us to make it permanent.”
She said the pilot program over three years has exceeded its goal of 180 graduates – reaching 186 with new hires to start in the next week. A similar target is being formulated to ensure the benefits are ongoing.
Ms Pope said the results of the pilot program in Australia show it can be done by other companies.

“It is an investment for our workplace and society. We encourage other companies to get started, otherwise you’re missing out on a fantastic opportunity,” she said.

Calls for other companies to follow suit

Selena Choo from the group Humans Like Us has been spearheading an initiative since 2019 for employers to come together and share how they have launched refugee employment schemes at their workplaces.
Members of the Australian Employer Network for Refugee Inclusion have been meeting four times a year since 2019.

“I’ve had about 16 roundtables, over 100 employers, which includes 11 social enterprises. I’ve had over 250 people come to those roundtables,” Ms Choo said.

She said the examples of refugee employment programs can be seen in multiple workplaces, including ANZ, Woolworths, Service NSW, and Australia Post.
A critical lynchpin has been the involvement of community groups, social enterprises, and refugee settlement agencies.
“There is so much that corporate Australia can do to help with this situation,” Ms Choo said.
“That’s what I hear again, and again, and again. It changes the lives of people who get the job, but there is also this ripple effect to their colleagues and to the organisation.”
Only six per cent of refugees find work within six months of arriving in the country, according to the Australian Institute of Family Studies. That number rises to nearly 25 per cent after two years.
Professor Betina Szkudlarek has been researching the in Australian companies.

Professor Szkudlarek said factors that present challenges include concerns about getting it perfect and finding service providers who can match the company’s needs with the refugee talent pool.

Betina Szkudlarek smiling at the camera.

University of Sydney Professor Betina Szkudlarek said her research has found companies that have yet to start a refugee employment pathway or program overinflate the challenges of implementation. Source: Supplied / Betina Szkudlarek

She said there is a when employers who have started a refugee employment program often perceive the barriers to be much larger than they are in reality.

“For example, employers might be not aware that refugees will come to Australia. Once they are accepted through the UNHCR program, they become permanent residents, they have all the legal rights to work, and quite often, they come with extensive work experience, credentials, and so on.”
Professor Szkudlarek said there is a long way to go before any absolute dismantling of the “canvas ceiling” – a term she has used to describe structural barriers preventing refugees from securing ongoing work.
“We recommend to employers [whether large corporations or a small business] to start small. Hire one or two people and see how it goes. It’s really about the initial starting point,” she said.
A , World Refugee Day, by refugee settlement not-for-profit Settlement Services International used input from 50 experts to recommend five actions to take by 2025 to boost refugee employment and in doing so “add billions to the Australian economy”, while plugging skills gaps.

Refugee Week runs from 18 June to 24 June.