Let's Talk: The Flamingo Project
When meeting Neha Samar, the first thing that comes into focus is her kind smile and soft nature — a warm energy surrounds her.
But within, Neha holds a fire.
A fire to stand up for what she believes in, to break tradition and to give others the opportunities that weren’t always available to her.
Neha grew up in Mumbai and was the first female in her family to study — an opportunity she didn’t take lightly.
“Girls are not encouraged to study, and I don't want to make it sound like it's a bad place or anything because I was very loved,” she said.
“The only reason girls don't get an education is because it's how it has always been.”
As the founder of women’s mentorship program The Flamingo Project, being on several advisory committees and a part of Goulburn Valley Pride Group, Neha has always been pushing for change.
In doing so, she has unknowingly become a mentor herself.
“I joined the Pride group because as per the religion that I belong to and the culture, it's not very fondly looked upon,” she said.
“I wanted to literally break the bias by being involved in something that is nothing but people loving each other — it's as simple as that.”
After posting on social media about the group, Neha received a message from a young boy in her village in India, grappling with acceptance of who he was and experiencing bullying.
“It was very confronting for me because there are so many other kids who might not even know what's going on with them and it's because it’s never even spoken about,” she said.
“I think all he wanted to hear was that he was normal, that he was okay.”
Now with two children, Neha works at Indie College to re-engage youth and adults in education, but at only 16 years old, she experienced a life-changing event.
Living in India, she caught the train to school every day, the same train, the same time — her routine was set in stone.
For no reason in particular, she was offered a lift to the station by a friend and consequently took the train prior to her regular one in a decision that would save her life.
Tragically, the train following was part of the Mumbai train bombings.
“At 16, I didn’t know what the world was like, I used to go to school, come back home, maybe get married when I was 18 or 19, like it is tradition,” she said.
“But I didn’t want to ever go through anything like that again, so my mum and dad, they fought for my education and they sent me to Malaysia to study.
“It was a big step for me knowing that I’ve never been out alone, I’d been in a girl’s convent, I hadn’t spoken to another male figure in my life except my father and brothers.
“That was a huge turning point in my life.”
Completing a double major in marketing, Neha worked in Malaysia for eight years before making the move to Australia.
Despite her experience, in migrating to Shepparton with no contacts Neha was confronted with difficulties in sourcing work.
She spent her time trying to find her way in a new city through applying, volunteering, networking and putting herself out there.
Using the power of word of mouth, a fellow mother she met at the library referred Neha to a position in a small lending company.
While grateful for the work, it gave her a new perspective on the region.
“You would see people coming in begging for $10 and it was a really heartbreaking place to work, to be in a position that you are working and talking with such vulnerable people,” she said.
“That’s the place I realised our region needs help, that the reality is far worse than what we see.”
Through this work and her own experiences, she concluded that it’s not always about what you know, but who you know.
She said her breakthrough came when participating in the Fairley Leadership Program, inspiring her to create The Flamingo Project.
“I started to listen to these women, when they spoke I knew they were just like me, with children, families, a successful life,” she said.
“It was really inspiring for me to get there but I always had questions on how? How did you get there? How do you do that?
‘’It made me think, why aren’t people talking to each other without these terms and conditions? Because I really am passionate about getting to know somebody outside of what their profession is.”
The mentorship program began last year with a vision to bring together women from all walks of life, and it now has eight graduates.
“The circle of life came in a way that the woman who helped to get me a job, eight years ago, she was the first person to graduate from The Flamingo Project,” she said.
"She was the first person who actually gave me a chance by giving me a call saying, ‘hey, I've heard of something’, that's all it took and I got that first place.“
Caitlyn Grant and Megan Fisher are opening the conversation on all things with their new weekly column, Let’s Talk. If you or someone you know has a story, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com