How Cooking Provided a Lifeline for Aboriginal Youth by Mark Bryers

When we talk about the troubled youths of Australia, it’s important to remember that indigenous youth are disproportionately affected by the unemployment crisis. The unemployment crisis is only one thread in a whole web of societal problems, including homelessness, that affects the indigenous community.  Australia has a long, dark history of racial discrimination towards the Aborigine population. Of this minority group, many of the young members have criminal records and drug histories, or teenage pregnancies. Because of this, they are typically labelled as “unemployable” by society. 

This is where Aunty Beryl Van-Oploo, an aboriginal elder, stepped in. She was the head of Yaama Dhiyaan, a cooking and hospitality school for young indigenous people. She understands the hardships that the youth face well: she is of the Gamillera tribe and grew up on a reservation about 500 miles from Sydney. As a teenager, she lost her mother and lived with her aunt and 15 other family members in a small home. She got her education later in life at the age of 31, and now she’s dedicated to giving back to the youth in her community.

Van-Oploo helped to name the vocational school, which took about 20 students per eight-week session. Yaama means “hello” in the Yuwaalaraay language, and Dhiyaan means “family;” together, the phrase means, “Hello family and friends,” reflecting the welcoming spirit of the school. The Aboriginal Employment Program oversaw Yaama Dhiyaan, and aside from the cooking program, it also offered carpentry and construction courses. Yaama Dhiyaan, however, was unlike other vocational programs. While the cooking program taught its students practical skills for employment, it served a greater purpose of connecting Aboriginal youth to their cultures and provided them with important role models. Dani Hore from the Employment Program mentioned that other skills taught to the youth included, “self-esteem and life skills that a parent would normally teach about punctuality, cleanliness, how to talk to people [and] how to eat together.” Of the program’s efficacy, Dani said, “It’s a very short period of time, but it’s quite transformational.” 

The legacy of the Stolen Generation lives on as many of their descendants try to trace back to their cultural roots and rediscover from where their culture and traditional foods derive. When whole generations of children were forcibly taken from their parents and put into missionary schools, native languages and traditional foods taken away and forbidden, this cultural connection can be very empowering. Through the school, Aunty Beryl reintroduced a lot of traditional foods, known as bush tucker, into modern-day cooking. 

Despite the benefits and success of Yaama Dhiyaan, the training centre has permanently closed. While employment programs for indigenous populations are still beneficial, many could follow in the footsteps of Yaama Dhiyaan in providing programs that are culturally conscious and empowering in addition to providing vocational skills. 

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