The 2017 Young Women of the West award has been awarded to 19-year-old Maja Podinic after she created a Pen Pals Cross Cultural Program to engage refugees and students from non-English speaking backgrounds.
The program’s incentive is to educate society about the inaccuracy of opinion and negative stigma that surrounds refugees. The initiative has since been introduced across two greater western Sydney schools. By targeting the young and impressionable to hear the stories of these refugees, Podinic believes it will be a chain reaction to disputing the prejudice that currently exists.
“The youth are the future, it is up to us to change these opinions,” Podinic says.
Ultimately, the cross-cultural program lets students become connected through their personalities rather than appearances, which Podinic says is something that is too often used to fuel these stereotypes.
“Refugees risk everything. They leave familiarity and escape a terror that is haunting them. They hope the hardest part of their journey will be the route, from their homeland to ours but often it’s settling into their new environment that’s the hardest part,” Podinic says.
More than 81,893 refugees were resettled in 2015 according to an Australian parliament report, making the need for Podinic’s program all the more crucial.
“Unfortunately, judgment on appearance has become a norm in society. Instead of helping refugees fight the demons of their past, society sees them as damaged goods,” she adds.
As a result of her efforts and commitment to the youth in her community, Podinic’s next vision is to reach out to Indigenous minority groups exposed to the same injustice. “I know I can’t change the way an entire community thinks but if I am able to alter the way even one or two people see refugees, then I am on my way to achieving my goal,” she says.