• Some of the women who work at the Spice Exchange in Brisbane. (Supplied/Access Community Services)Source: Supplied/Access Community Services
This group of refugee and migrant women from around the world have been united through their love of cooking.
Alyssa Braithwaite

16 Dec 2016 - 8:26 AM  UPDATED 16 Dec 2016 - 8:26 AM

They might be busy baking gingerbread for Christmas, but the women at The Spice Exchange sing while they work.

A social enterprise founded by Access Community Services in Brisbane, The Spice Exchange helps refugee and migrant women gain employment through cooking, creating spice blends and making gingerbread using knowledge and recipes from their home countries.

No surprise, then, that they have been nicknamed the Spice Girls. And, just like the English girl-group, they are all about girl power - empowering women who have limited education, language and literacy skills, and have families to care for.

The women, who come from countries including Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Sudan and Burma, are so excited to be earning their own money, says Access Community Services CEO Gail Kerr.

"As the women work, they sing, and they just make up songs," Kerr tells SBS. "It's that empowerment, it's about 'I'm not getting a hand out, I'm actually earning money'.

"It's the social connection and the confidence that they've got to see they've got something valuable to offer. And the joy! As much as this is a job and they by all means want the pay, it really is a business of love."

The Spice Exchange products, which are available online, range from Christmas hampers and gift boxes containing chutneys, dukkah, crackers and spices bags and blends, as well as their hand-made gingerbread. 

Set up with seed funding from the Scanlon Foundation a few years ago, the Spice Exchange has grown steadily and has "really flourished into a business", employing five women full time, in addition to part time staff and volunteers. 

"One of the most vulnerable groups amongst the refugee and humanitarian entrants are those refugee women, women who usually come here with additional issues and have been probably more isolated and more vulnerable, even in refugee camp situations," Kerr says.

"They have often lost husbands or are very separated from other family, so they are an at-risk group within the refugee and humanitarian cohort.

"So the Spice Exchange was really a way of bringing those kind of women together in conversation, and what we found was they had these great cooking skills."

Mary Mabil, who came to Australia from Sudan, started as a volunteer at the Spice Exchange, and now works full time for the organisation.

She says the job has opened up opportunities for her, and allows her to send some of the money she earns to her mother in Sudan.

"The job means to me, it gives me power," Mabil tells SBS as she takes a break from making dukkah.

"When you come in the country you don't know how to speak English. This job gives me a lot because I learn different culture and they give me opportunity ... and we learn English through each other. They let us create something in the future for our lives.

"When I get this job I'm happy, my kids are happy, everyone is happy."

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