NORTH A GOOD FIT FOR REFUGEES
By Caitlin McArthur
Going about your Christmas and New Year festivities it can be easy to forget those in our community who could use a helping hand.
Over the coming months Victoria is set to accept approximately 4,000 Syrian refugees as a part of the Federal Government’s promise to resettle some 12,000 people fleeing war and persecution.
Exact dates and housing locations are yet to be confirmed, but those in the know argue Melbourne’s northern suburbs are a perfect fit for the refugees.
Joseph Youhana is a former refugee who left war-torn Iraq in search of a new beginning. He found a home in Melbourne’s north and now works to help others do the same.
The journey from homeland to asylum can be a harrowing one and one that Mr Youhana believes can be made a lot easier by a friendly face and a little guidance.
With a proficiency in English prior to his arrival, he says his experience differs from that of many refugees who face a language barrier, but adds the transition was hardly an easy one.
“I came to Melbourne on July 27, 2006. My experience was lack of consultation. I faced a lack of guidance as to what to do, where to go and how to build up a history in Australia,” he says.
Unsure of what jobs he should be applying for and what industry to enter into, Mr Youhana’s path to full-time employment and self-sufficiency was an erratic one.
“I wasted two years of my time, jumping from casual work to cash-in-hand work, to a barrister, to a cleaner, to study, to going through the VicPolice pre-course and volunteering at Parks Victoria and Spectrum,” he says.
Cultural differences also meant he didn’t excel in job interviews.
“One of the funny things is that in the Middle East you feel shameful if you talk too much about yourself,” he says.
“In Australia it’s the opposite… the language that you use, it helps you to get a higher position. It took me a long time until I comprehended this idea.”
In 2008, a recommendation from a friend led Mr Youhana to apply for a casual position as a community guide with AMES Australia, a migrant and refugee settlement agency.
“The idea behind the community guide is to match them up to a person in the community who has been a refugee and who speaks the mother tongue language,” he says.
“My role as a community guide was to help a newly arrived refugee after 24 hours of their arrival… to access Centrelink, Medicare, hospital appointments. It was just doing every single activity that is essential for those refugees and linking them to the community,” he says.
As a native Arabic speaker, Mr Youhana will be one of the people responsible for overseeing the integration of the Syrian refugees.
Mr Youhana is currently the accommodation team leader for AMES and knows how difficult it can be to present a positive case for taking on refugees in both tenancy and employment.
“It took the team a few months until we started convincing agencies that these people are a good business deal… how do you convince a real-estate agency that someone who is on Centrelink, who doesn’t have a registry, has limited income and who doesn’t speak the language and doesn’t know much about tenancy in Australia is a good investment?” He explains.
It’s not an easy question to answer, but Mr Youhana encourages people to keep the bigger picture in mind.
“These people want a better life here in Australia, they are not here to cause trouble.”
Melbourne is a city that stakes a proud claim in multiculturalism. But Mr Youhana claims that for refugees and especially those from Middle Eastern backgrounds, the north is something special.
“There is already a good, established community in the north,” he says.
“In the schools, the teachers, they understand cultural shock, they understand refugee needs. The cohort is very special… there’s churches, there’s mosques there.”
Mr Youhana says the number of Arabic background speakers also make it an attractive location, as do the many associations, clubs and community organisations.
These can all play a vital role in refugee resettlement, when, six months to one year after arrival, the support services are withdrawn from cases.
This can leave some people out in the cold, with not everyone able to learn English within six months or a year. Mr Youhana says links to the wider community then need to replace the state mandated support.
“The community are able to be leaders, real leaders on the ground, by making sure the quality of engagement activities are in reach of everyone. A lot of people don’t have links and aren’t connected, so encouraging people to join activities, to have that social cohesion and that involvement is very important,” he says.
Spokesperson for AMES, Laurie Nowell, says while the agency can provide refugees with accommodation and English language classes, there are other needs it cannot cater to.
“The things refugees will need are more sort of intangible things, like being welcomed into community groups and clubs.”
Another important aspect that is often overlooked is the need for practical work experience.
“Work experience is really vital to helping people get jobs and having local workforce experience is really key and difficult to come by, that’s something people could really help with,” Mr Nowell says.
Community members can also provide donations to organisations such as the Salvation Army, St Vincents or the Red Cross, who offer help both to refugees and the local community at large.
The Victorian Multicultural Commission says any reports concerning exact locations for refugee resettlement are premature with arrangements yet to be finalised and awaiting confirmation from the top.
Despite this, Mr Nowell says AMES has already leased several houses in the northern suburbs in preparation for the arrival of the refugees.
Moreland City Council’s Samantha Ratnam says Melbourne’s northern suburbs are a good fit for resettlement.
“It is a multi-cultural community that is very welcoming,” she says, adding the council continues to run anti-racism campaigns to combat discrimination and negative stereotypes.
She also encourages community members to reach out to refugees.
“Our community is very generous and we have seen them reach out to people seeking refuge and asylum in Australia consistently. We live in a global community and have a responsibility to offer safe haven for those fleeing war and persecution. That involves supporting their settlement journeys,” she says.
Caitlin has just completed a Bachelor of Journalism at La Trobe University. She enjoys covering community and political issues. You can follow her in Twitter at @CaitlinMcArthu1.