A woman who fled conflict in DR Congo has found a better life in Middlesbrough – and now she’s helping others to do the same.
Ester Monguilo gained the skills she needed to find work through the Specialist Training and Employment Programme (STEP), run by Middlesbrough Council’s Stronger Communities team.
She was pregnant when she arrived in England in 2017, and legally unable to work as she awaited a Government decision on her asylum application.
When she was told her application had been successful in 2018, she was simply “trying not to be homeless” with her young son, after losing her accommodation.
But with the guidance of her Employment Adviser Rozie Rafiq and a willingness to learn and volunteer to gain experience, the 27-year-old found success.
Now, Ester helps others who find themselves in the same situation she had once been, as an assistant employment advisor with Open Door North East, a charity supporting refugees in central Middlesbrough.
“I had no real experience when I started,” said Ester.
“I didn’t really know anybody, and I was confused a lot of the time. I did not know I could use Google, for example, to find out where I needed to get to.
“Waiting for my (asylum) decision, it was very stressful, it feels like your life is on hold. I could not work and my CV was not great.
“But when I talked to Rozie and saw how much the team was helping, then it was like a lightbulb going off.”
The STEP programme helps refugees gain language skills, qualifications, and training along with one-to-one CV writing support, interview skills, finding work, or setting up a business.
Advisers also host behind-the-scenes workshops with employers like Greggs to give an insight into working culture at a company in the UK.
Ester said gaining experience to make herself stand out to employers was the most difficult part of job-hunting.
“That is what I had to understand,” said Ester. “With volunteering – at first, it can be difficult to see the value in it because you need a job and you need money straight away.
“It’s hard when you are struggling because you don’t quite know how it is helping.
“But it is very valuable because you learn so many things that help you in the future.”
Ester first volunteered at a charity shop where she learnt how to use the till, price stock and serve customers, then moved to volunteer at Roseberry Park hospital and at Marks and Spencer.
Rozie and the team supported Ester by finding placements, helping with applications and arranging childcare and a nursery place.
“I went for more and more interviews and every time I got more confident and I knew how to deal with different questions and situations,” continued Ester.
“Then a job came up working with people who are going through what I had and Rozie encouraged me to apply. I’m just so grateful.”
Ester now works alongside Rozie on the NE Rise project, which aims to help newly recognised refugees build a happy life in the North East.
She calls east Middlesbrough her home and is putting down roots - her son is attending a local primary school – and says her new role is a dream come true.
And she’s keen to pass on the wisdom of her experience to other people.
“The support that I had, now that’s what I can give others,” she continued.
“To have Rozie’s trust is brilliant and gave me confidence, she was a massive help.
“The work is really good for me. I can help people I can relate to.
“And when people thank you and say you’ve helped, this feeling is so great because I have been the person on that other side of the table.
“I would never, ever have thought I would be in an office with the people who helped me when I needed it.
“I sometimes stop and think that it doesn’t feel real.”
In her new role, Ester wants to pass on a simple message to those she helps: Never lose hope.
“Always now there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” continued Ester.
“You can go places. I am really proud for where I have come from.
“If people like me can have that support and give something back then you can do anything.”
Rozie Rafiq, Refugee STEP Advisor at Middlesbrough Council, said: “Middlesbrough is such a welcoming place and Ester’s story is one that the whole town can take pride in.
“When Ester first came to Middlesbrough, she didn’t have any work experience and was starting completely from scratch. The fact that she can now user her experience as an inspiration to help other people is wonderful. The work that we do is life changing for our clients.
“As a single mum, she’s worked so hard to volunteer, learn new skills and build her knowledge and confidence and she fully deserves all her success. ”