"You're learning a lot that you can take home with you." Ayla Black on assignment in Dili.
For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, volunteering overseas also benefits closer to home.
When Ayla Black took on a volunteer role in Timor-Leste, she expected it to be a great opportunity to expand upon the knowledge acquired during her International Development studies at Melbourne University. But she soon discovered that the people and communities of Timor-Leste had a far greater affinity with her own Aboriginal heritage than she thought.
"I do feel the biggest similarity is the kinship network. Family is number one," she says. "You can always ask them where they're from, and they will refer you to their home district where their family comes from. So there is a large connection to the land that you belong to, and the area that your family belongs to."
Hailing from Worimi country near Port Stephens, Ayla is one of the first participants in an initiative that seeks to encourage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to become involved in international aid and development work: both to contribute their unique knowledge and perspectives, and to bring back skills and experience that will enrich their communities in Australia. This initiative is a collaboration between Australian Red Cross, the Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program and the Indigenous university student internship program CareerTrackers.
In her volunteer role, Ayla assisted the staff of Timor-Leste's human rights agency Forum Tau Matan (FTM) to expand their knowledge of research methods, analysis, surveying and data capture methodologies. This not only supported FTM in achieving its mandate in human rights and advocacy, but has also allowed Ayla a greater insight into the career paths available within the aid sector.
"It's very beneficial to my studies, and very much in line with my career goals and aspirations. It translates really well into the research I'm carrying out about places like Timor-Leste and developing countries. So it has given me an opportunity to experience that first-hand in a professional capacity."
The potential benefits and advantages of Indigenous internships and volunteering are vast, for communities in Australia and overseas alike. During his stint volunteering with the Obuya Cricket Academy in Kenya, Australian community worker Floyd Doyle discovered that his own insights as a Goreng Goreng and Meriam man created an immediate bond and understanding between cultures normally separated by oceans, creating a ready dialogue for future support and collaboration.
"A lot of Kenyan traditional and tribal stuff is very similar to our tribal stuff. Everything is very, very similar," he says. "Some didn't know we have tribes over here in Australia, and once you talk about stuff like that, it just breaks down barriers. It opens up the door straight away between each other."
Ayla agrees: "When you come to somewhere like this to work, you really become part of the community. In my organisation it's very small - it's a family of sorts - and you're really welcomed in. They want to show you their lives; they want to learn about yours. Everyone has something to contribute and share, and you just have the opportunity to learn from each other on so many different levels."
Red Cross believes that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have much to offer in the aid and development sector. As with all volunteering, the benefits go both ways.
Ayla also believes the initiative's potential to inspire and motivate young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is a significant benefit: "You're learning a lot that you can take home with you. Your resilience is increasing, you're becoming adaptable, you're becoming innovative and you can take all of that back to your communities. You can inspire people; younger generations can learn from your experiences. It's all very valuable and very translatable."
And if you are an Indigenous tertiary student interested in internship or volunteering opportunities overseas?
"I say go for it! It's a fantastic opportunity to be able to get that work experience while you're still at university, and it's going to give you a competitive edge after you graduate."
The Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program is an Australian Government initiative. Red Cross is one of three delivery partners for the AVID program.
Photo: Nicole Jenkins