Tina Kuek is a passionate advocate for human rights and the African community in Australia, which has been reflected throughout her career. Currently, she is working as a Senior Policy Officer within the Victorian Government and running her own non-profit, Kazi, which is dedicated to improving the work prospects of refugees and migrants. Before this, she worked in the United Nations and the Australian Department of Defence in various roles. Recently, she was even on the Amazing Race Australia! Today, she reflects on her journey from dreaming of working in politics as a child to her present career.
How has being a woman of colour in Australia shaped your experience in politics and your personal life?
I’ve been quite fortunate to have not experienced much discrimination against me in my career. However, certainly, it is something that I’ve experienced on a personal level. Just by being a young woman of colour coming into a space where I am a minority, it’s hard to get guidance from people who look like me. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to reach out to other women in politics who’ve been able to mentor me, which I am so grateful for. Still, I would like to see better representation so that the next person going through what I’m going through will find it easier to access these people and experiences that others might take for granted.
I did have a very positive experience as a woman of colour when I ran for Council last year. There were two other African women and eight people of African heritage that were also running, which was a record I believe! It’s so important that women of colour and people of colour are involved in counsel and are involved in decision-making and not just letting it be. Ultimately, it’s going to impact our lives one way or another, so it’s better to be involved in that decision-making process. Eight sounds like a small number, but it’s significant enough to be able to stand out.
What inspired you and motivated you to start your non-profit, Kazi?
Kazi really wasn’t planned and only came about when I met this man. He had qualifications and previous work experience in East Africa, so when he moved to Australia, he thought that he would be able to get a job in his field. However, four years passed, and he was still driving a taxi. I thought it was very strange and wondered why this was the case. A few days later, I met another group of young educated African migrants, and they were in a similar predicament. From there, I decided to survey university-educated migrants, and I really wanted to look at their level of qualification and whether this matched their current job in Australia. Interestingly, I found that many people were overqualified for their jobs or in fields that didn’t even align with their qualifications. To me, this meant that there were systemic issues at play that were creating barriers to work. People come to a new place and have the degrees and have the skills, but if they don’t understand the Australian job market and how it works, how can they access employment? That’s where people can get a little bit stuck.
What I realised was that there are practical ways we can improve this issue. I remember one of my first participants at Kazi had twenty years of experience, overseas and a CV that was eight pages long. One of the first things I did was I worked with her to cut that down to about two pages, and she got a job. This made me realise that there’s a space here to work with people and help them secure employment in a practical sense. That’s why I started Kazi, and it’s why we provide free workshops on resume writing and preparing for interviews. We also try and create professional networks where people can support each other throughout the process.
What inspired you to join the UN as a Senior Protection Assistant?
When we moved from Nigeria to Kenya when I was a child, we had heard about this camp called Kakuma refugee camp. So, my whole family went up there to see if we could find any relatives who had fled that we hadn’t seen for years. I remember looking around the camp, trying to find our missing family members and just seeing the UNHCR logo everywhere. In my mind, I began to associate the UNHCR with the kind people who were helping us locate our family. Since then, I’ve always wanted to be a part of the UN so that I could find a way to give back.
Later on, at university, I did an internship with the UNHCR and eventually, I went to work with them as a senior protection assistant, working on protecting refugees and asylum seekers in this region. For me, it was incredible giving back to a cause close to my heart that I had internalised from such a young age. I definitely see myself going back in the future and working in the field. I’d love to keep giving back in this way.
Based on your journey, what is one piece of advice you would give to young females who aspire to one day be where you are today?
Never hold yourself back and never let other people hold you back. Even if you’re the first one to do something, keep doing it. This advice means a lot to me because I’m an instinctive person and tend to just do what feels right. I always trust myself and let my instincts guide me.
What’s also important is having the confidence and willpower not to be dissuaded by other people’s opinions. You have to start internalising that you’re right and we all have to be our own cheerleader and learn to clap for ourselves even if no one else is clapping.
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