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Young alumni stories: “Stay stubborn in the face of adversity”

Alumni News

Curtin social work graduate Esther Onek has had to endure significant trauma in her young life, which she described to a rapt audience at TEDxPerth.

Esther Onek presenting at TEDxPerth 2017 (photo credit: TEDxPerth).

Born in present-day South Sudan, Onek and her family were impacted by the Second Sudanese Civil War – a devastating conflict that claimed two million lives.

At the age of three, she fell into a fire pit at a Sudanese refugee camp, which burned her fingers completely off. Shortly after, her family fled to Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, where they spent the next seven years before being accepted as refugees in Australia.

“Like many others, we endured a long, arduous journey to get to Australia and then we faced a new challenge: transitioning to life in a country we knew little about,” the 24-year-old says.

“We were very fortunate because my father could speak English. We also learned English by watching cartoons! My transition was made more difficult because of my hands, especially at school where I was constantly teased for being different.”

Together, these events formed the foundation of Onek’s TEDxPerth 2017 talk on Saturday 11 November, in which her key message was to “stay stubborn in the face of adversity”.

The talk earned her one of the few standing ovations of the day.

“I knew that in telling my story to others, I was also telling myself the story for the first time. Developing the talk was like a therapy session, filled with flashbacks and tears of my lowest moments when I could not see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Onek says.

Esther Onek on stage at TEDxPerth 2017

“I believe it was important for my story to be in a mainstream setting. I did not want people to perceive it as just another ‘refugee story’ or that I was looking for sympathy or pity. I also wanted there to be a contrast between how I have made a contribution to Australia compared to the current portrayal of Sudanese youth in the media.

“After TED, I was asked to speak at a number of other events, such as the THRIVE youth conference in March 2018, which was great to be at too.”

The opportunity for Onek to speak at TEDxPerth came about in 2017, when, after finishing her degree, she joined the African Leadership Initiative, a State Government–sponsored program that helps young African Australians develop public speaking and project management skills.

While facilitating a workshop to encourage other young African Australians to speak up about issues impacting them, Onek met WA Office of Multicultural Interests Manager of Community Engagement Walter Gomes, who suggested she apply to speak at TEDxPerth.

“Walter saw potential in me and supported me to develop the talk. I also had two other mentors who assisted me through the journey,” Onek says.

How Curtin’s degree prepared Onek for her career

Onek says it was ‘natural’ that she chose to study a Bachelor of Social Work at Curtin University, because of her life-long passion to make a difference to those who experience marginalisation.

This passion has now seen her working as a Multicultural Women’s Domestic Violence Advocate for Womens Health & Family Services, a non-for-profit organisation based in Northbridge that provides medical, mental health, domestic violence and other support services to women.

“I will always be grateful to Curtin University for being inclusive and offering me assistance during my studies. The main skills I learned from my degree are active listening and empathy. Wherever my practice takes me, these two skills will always be fundamental,” Onek says.

“For me, active listening emphasises the value of human relationships. In my current role, I have women come to me in a state of hopelessness. I support them to discover their strengths; however, what they value most is someone to listen to their story.

“Listening without judgement and validating people’s need for understanding has built my empathy for clients. As a social worker now, I found that these skills have helped me connect with people, break down barriers and gain insight into how people cope with their experiences.”

This story is part of Curtin’s Young Alumni Stories series where we celebrate the achievements of Curtin graduates 35 and under. Learn more about the Young Alumni Program.

Graduate snapshot

Esther Onek

Name: Esther Onek

Studied: Bachelor of Social Work

Graduated: 2017

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