Wednesday, 26 June 2013

An Australian Girl in Los Angeles.

This was the first feature article I wrote for university last year. We had to do a feature on someone with an unusual story or experience.

At first glance, Aisha Dee is everything you would expect an average eighteen year old to be. Relaxing in her bedroom on a Sunday afternoon, she discusses the latest in celebrity news and jokes about what she should change her Twitter bio-line to. But at an age when most kids are only just figuring out what to do with their lives, Aisha has had Hollywood in her sights for years.

“When I was eleven, someone told me that I couldn’t be an actress and that I had to choose a ‘proper career,’” she says with a slight grin, “I was like ‘screw you!’”

With this feisty personality and her distinctive African-American looks, a career in acting seems to be tailor-made for the teenager. From the age of fourteen onwards, Aisha traded in school bells and textbooks for roles on various different Australian TV shows, admitting that she “hated going back to the kid world” after experiencing the mature environment of a television set.

Then in 2009, just a few days short of her sixteenth birthday, she decided to enter the lottery for the notoriously elusive American green card, which, if won, would allow her to live and work in the US. An advertisement on the side of the page read ‘transmission of citizenship through biological parent’, and suddenly it clicked.

“I hadn’t thought about actually contacting my biological father, who I had never met before [and who was a US citizen]. So we got onto him and I got my citizenship and passport for the U.S,” Aisha says. “I felt quite stupid that it had never occurred to me before then.”

Despite being only sixteen years old and having just a few acting credits under her belt, she admits that the incredible opportunity she had been given was just too good to think twice.

“I felt like if there’s that many people out there who have waited ten or more years to get a green card, and I get one straight away, I may as well go over and take advantage of the situation.”

Poised and confident, Aisha travelled to Los Angeles and began auditioning for various TV shows and movies. She landed roles on shows such as Steven Spielberg’s ‘Terra Nova’, and starred in the FOX comedy ‘I Hate My Teenage Daughter’, which she claims is the “funnest thing I’ve ever done… because we filmed with a live audience and you knew if a joke was working instantly.”

However, with our culture of misbehaving starlets and celebrity scandals, you would be forgiven for thinking that tackling the entertainment capital of the world might be somewhat stressful to a mere sixteen year old, but Aisha takes it all in her stride;

“I think the main issues people deal with come from inside of them, and the pressures they put on themselves.  I don’t think it’s something that the industry does so much as it’s something that people do inside themselves,” she says.

“The main way to avoid that is to just be confident in you.”

This levelheaded attitude may seem strange given the extent to which the industry is blamed for promoting negative values, but Aisha’s best friend Kayla says that her approach to it all comes as no surprise to those who know her.

Aisha is confident but is always working hard to improve herself… She's able to take criticism and use it to better herself where others might shy away.”

On the other end of the spectrum, I pose the question of whether the industry is indeed as glamorous as it’s made out to be, and how much hard work is actually involved. Aisha points to her dressing gown and laughs, “Clearly I’m the most glamorous person ever!”

Taking on a more serious note, she continues; “there is hard work involved, but I wouldn’t say that the hard work is actually doing the work. As an actor, I think that when you’re actually working is when you’re auditioning. But when you get a job and you film something, that’s the reward you get.”

“Filming is not hard work; it’s the best job ever.”

While Aisha’s obvious passion and love for the entertainment industry is something that cannot be denied, she admits that while the lack of African-American women, such as herself, in leading roles is “getting much better”, it still “leaves a bad taste in my mouth”.

“I’m being overly critical, but sometimes they do make a bigger deal out of it than it needs to be… You don’t need to explain yourself or give the audience a reason for why you did that- just make the leading character an African-American woman and don’t say anything about it,” she explains.

“It makes me want to be the exception.”

She describes her routine in L.A as “really volatile… Some weeks I’ll have seven auditions; sometimes I’ll have none… But it’s not the audition that takes up the time, it’s before.”

“I’m kind of a perfectionist,” she adds with a shrug.

Helping with these auditions is her mum Donna, a trained opera singer. Although Donna admits that she “can’t even help Aisha read her lines correctly”, she “comes from a performance angle… so I know when she needs her space, but I also know when she’s not doing something that she needs to do.”

Even though she openly professes her love for L.A- “everyday is absolutely gorgeous and there’s always so many things going on”- Aisha is not ashamed to admit that living away from home is challenging.

I’m really close with my family, so it is really difficult. But with FaceTime and Skype and everything it makes it a lot easier.”

It seems that embracing the life she has away from her family and friends is the only option at the moment, as her efforts to make it big in L.A show no sign of easing up. As she looks around her bedroom and sighs at the thought of packing for her trip back there next week, I ask her where she sees herself in the next few years.

“I have absolutely no idea, but that’s really exciting to me,” she pauses for a second before continuing, “I see myself in a very different place, like a universe away from where I am right now.”

With her unwavering determination and passion for acting, it only takes a few minutes with this young hopeful to know that the universe she dreams of is undoubtedly just around the corner.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Humanitarian Hope.

It is one o’clock on a Monday afternoon and outside a seemingly ordinary building in Werribee is a small sign; ‘Saffron Kitchen’ it reads, next to a picture of a smiling lady wearing an apron. Without the usual trappings of a standard storefront, you would be forgiven for perhaps not noticing that there was a café here at all. But then again, this is not your usual café and inside are not your usual chefs.

Saffron Kitchen is a café and catering service whose food is cooked by newly arrived migrants to the Wyndham area. The interior of the building is primarily a long hallway with classrooms on either side. The walls are decorated with paintings and pictures of the workers smiling and preparing food. Outside is a beautiful picnic area with green grass, leafy trees and a wooden pergola where several teachers from the nearby high school are eating on their lunch break.

“The aim of Saffron Kitchen is to get students, new arrivals, asylum seekers and refugees engaged within the community,” coordinator Pauline states, “it’s quite unique.”

The social enterprise was introduced in 2008 after the Wyndham Community and Education Centre received funding for renovations on the original Synnot Street premises.

At that stage, Saffron Kitchen was a modest Friday lunch working purely on donation. Pauline describes the idea as “a prototype of Lentil As Anything,” the string of not-for-profit Melbourne restaurants where customers simply pay what they believe the meal is worth.

Fast-forward to 2010 and Saffron Kitchen expanded to the redeveloped Wayaperri House on Duncans Road, the site is currently runs from, as well as opening a second location in Wyndham Vale. It now operates five days a week from nine o’clock in the morning until two o’clock in the afternoon, offering a vibrant range of morning tea and lunch dishes that reflect the many cultures of those who make them.

Saffron Kitchen is just one of several humanitarian services created by the Wyndham Community and Education Centre that work hand in hand to assist the settlement of newly arrived migrants and refugees. It is estimated that since 2008, over 3,000 Karen and 700 Sudanese people have moved to the city of Wyndham.

Many of these people have little to no knowledge of the English language, and find it challenging to adapt to a culture of unfamiliar laws and social practices. A parliamentary report written in 2011 states “refugee/asylum seekers… culturally and linguistically diverse communities” as key issues facing the Wyndham community.

With this in mind, the Wyndham Humanitarian Network was established in 2006 with the aim of providing “an integrated settlement service to newly arrived migrants and refugees to Wyndham.”

Craig Spicer, settlement coordinator at the Network, describes it as a “team effort… there are between 40 and 50 different agencies working together… we identify a problem and we’ll do something to go out and educate the particular group.”

When asked what the most common problems are for newly settled migrants, Spicer lists a number of tasks that many Australian’s would consider a simple part of their day-to-day life.

“Tenancy issues, filling out forms, citizenship, housing, understanding our laws, basic things like how to catch a train, schools, banking and Centrelink” he states.

However, one of the biggest issues facing newly arrived migrants and refugees is the difficulty of finding employment. A 2011 community profile stated that 25% of people in the City of Wyndham came from countries where English was not their first language, and Spicer admits that this severely impacts their ability to find a job.

“New arrivals want to work, they do,” he says, “they work their guts out when they do work, [but] employers acknowledge that language is the barrier.”

This is where the complimentary nature of Wyndham’s migration and settlement services is put on display. While the Humanitarian Network offers a five-year term of support for a range of problems facing migrants, Saffron Kitchen works to build practical skills that can help them to overcome certain obstacles.

“[Saffron Kitchen] gives them a certificate of participation where it is stated what they actually learned within the course,” says Pauline, “we also provide for them a checklist of their skills and a letter of reference, so it gives them work experience.”

Amy, who arrived from South Korea two and a half years ago and started working at Saffron Kitchen in April, agrees that her experiences have given her the skills needed for other areas of her life.

“I think it can be my basic experience here in Australia if I find another job,” she says, “I’m working with Australian people and I feel like it’s helping a lot.”

Continuing, she reveals, “Serving customers improves the English skills… the simple English comes out more naturally, so I think that’s the good part of this.”

But Pauline concedes that it’s often a matter of confidence for those who have moved to a foreign country, many in an attempt to achieve a better quality of life for them and their families.

Speaking of a co-worker named Johanna who moved from Thailand in 2008, Pauline calls her “an inspiration.”

Smiling, she says “when Johanna first came here she was a single mum of three young children… she wasn’t very confident at all. Now she’s taken on that much responsibility in the kitchen I think she surprises herself.”

She continues, “new students come in and when we say that Johanna is now a paid kitchen supervisor and they realise that she started off as a student as well, they can relate. Because she came from the camp herself.”

As two o’clock approaches, the café clears out and Amy brings over two plates of mushroom risotto and garlic bread left over from the day and places them in front of us. She speaks about her family, what she likes to cook at home and her worries about sending her young son to a good high school.

Perhaps at the core of it all is the hope for loved ones to live and enjoy a better future, a feeling that many people can relate to no matter which country they are from or how long they have lived there.

“The older ones, in their 40’s and 50’s, can see that they might not get work because they have the language barrier, “ Spicer says, “but they're giving their kids an opportunity.”

This embodies the importance of services such as the Humanitarian Network and Saffron Kitchen in the Wyndham community. Without these organisations, it is likely that many people wouldn’t get the opportunities to thrive as they do now, and undoubtedly will continue to do in the future.

The counter, menu boards and various photos of Saffron Kitchen workers.
The outside area where customers are able to sit and eat their food.
Cleaning up after a day of cooking and serving food.