Walking into the midst of the charity Angkor Flowers is like wandering into a beehive. Everyone has a task to do and everyone is busy.
The backyard shed of an unassuming house in South West Sydney that has recently become the charity’s base is a colourful mess of bright flowers and foliage; hands tucking and twisting them into bouquets and bowers. This is not unusual, I am told, as today they are preparing to shoot photos for a wedding catalogue.
Sophea Chea is the softly spoken founder and fearless leader of Angkor Flowers and presides over the orderly chaos of organising the shoot.
The charity is dedicated to assisting migrant women, mainly from Cambodia, offering experience and skills they can use in the workforce by making and selling crafts and flower arrangements.
According to the Department of Social Services, the majority of women who arrive in Australia as refugees are younger than 26 and about 20 per cent are older than 50. This means many leave their homes in the middle of schooling and do not return to education. Their average family size is between three and four people and the expectation is that women will remain in the home and care for them.
Sophea, a Cambodian migrant herself, was prompted to action in 2014 after seeing her aunt, cousins and other female family members made to finish their education as early as grades 5 and 6 and become dependent on her father once her uncle died.
Feeling fortunate to have been to university, she is determined to help other migrant women let go of the mentality of a woman’s place being in the home, one woman at a time.
A study published by UNICEF in 2013 shows that only about 40 per cent of school-aged Cambodian girls were enrolled in a high school in 2008-2012 and the number of girls who graduated was even less. Some of these girls will be the women who become Australian migrants.
As these numbers suggest, Sophea and her team have joined an ongoing and significant battle – but not one without victories.
Sokveoun is one of the women who works at Angkor Flowers. She arrived in Australia from Cambodia 10 years ago with limited English and no tertiary education.
“I have always been jealous of my Australian friends who seem to have spare money to spend on their own things… living a very comfortable lifestyle on a disposable income because they are all in long-term, secure jobs,” she says.
“I wanted to do the same, but I couldn’t because I was not able to work. As a result, I became mentally ill for several years. Since I joined Angkor Flowers, I have been much happier and less stressed out.”
Her story is one that Sophea has seen repeated many times during the last two years. The choice to work with flowers is also not without thought or purpose, she tells me with a smile. A shared goal of making something beautiful with their hands brings these women together and instills a sense of pride and joy in what they do. It also means that women with even the most limited English skills are able to participate and contribute to something meaningful while receiving a modest pay.
But the goal is not without its challenges. The organisation is set up as a stepping-stone for women who are ready to work hard and learn – and many simply are not.
“You can only offer a hand to help,” Sophea says. “But if people don’t put their hand on, you cannot help [sic].
“Of course we want to help everybody, but we cannot grab everybody at the same time.”
Jill Gillespie, the Navitas English manager of Humanitarian Settlement Service (HSS) and Community, says the issue is extremely complex and does not just affect the Cambodian community. “We had large numbers of Afghan refugees settling in Newcastle over the past several years,” she says. “The men spoke quite good English because they were interpreters with the Australian Defence Forces in Afghanistan but the women were young and hadn’t been exposed to Western ways, protected by family at home. When they arrived here, the husbands engaged actively with our services and the women were discouraged from participating by their husbands. They were pregnant on arrival or shortly after, so studied only a short time and only part-time, as their husbands expected them to remain in the home sheltered from their new community.”
This is one of the most common reasons women have given Sophea for not joining Angkor Flowers.
Sophea believes there is also a widespread satisfaction with depending on welfare payments and spousal support. In Australia, welfare is nearly triple what many women would have earned from any job in Cambodia and they don’t see the need to put in the extra time and effort. She says this apathy can be frustrating.
Sophea and her team quickly realised that it is an almost impossible task to try to win everyone over themselves so have begun letting the women they have helped do the talking. After all, one of the most effective ways to convince a person that something is worthwhile is through their friends.
The other, according to Jill Gillespie, is time. Time in Australia and immersion in the Australian culture and community will often encourage women to move past their previous experiences and venture out into the world more broadly.
Once the women begin to see how rewarding becoming a part of Angkor Flowers is, they are far more open to breaking the mould and getting involved.
The approach seems to be working, as Angkor Flowers is planning to take its delivery branch nationwide within the next couple of months.
“We started doing such a small thing and now we can see it growing and growing,” Sophea says.
The pride in her face is crystal clear as she talks about this; what was once a tiny flower shop in Cabramatta has clearly come a long way in two years.
Angkor Flowers will now expand and be able to work with more and more women to become skilled and independent workers, helping them and their families to blossom and grow. – Ariana Norton.
Photo from the Angkor Flowers Facebook page.