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Building relationships settles refugees


Teaching refugees There's been a lot of talk lately about Australia's refugee program. Unnecessary remarks made by Immigration Minister, Kevin Andrews, have upset some, and given others the false impression that Africans — Sudanese in particular — are not settling in to life in Australia.

Seventy per cent of Australia's refugee intake in 2003 was African. Due to recent policy changes, the 2008 figure will be 30 per cent.

The minister could have explained the change in policy as taking on a more regional focus, much like Australia's international aid agency, AusAID. That would have sufficed. But instead, he added anecdotal evidence about Sudanese refugees having difficulties settling in Australia, rather than reliable research or data prepared by key agencies doing resettlement work.

As an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher who has worked with refugees from many countries, including Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan, as well as having worked in a war zone and with the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture, I can only wonder if the minister has any understanding of the critical need for refugees who have suffered severe dislocation, loss and trauma — as have the Sudanese — to experience a sense of safety and security in their place of resettlement.

And was the minister unaware of how upsetting his remarks would be to the African community?

One Sudanese woman expressed a common sentiment. 'We came here half way across the world so our children would be safe and now we don't feel safe.'

Using anecdotal evidence to back up government policy is dangerous. If there are resettlement challenges with any refugee community, they need to be dealt with in a more systematic way than having the federal minister spout off to the media.

I have as many positive anecdotes about Africans as the minister has negative. Teaching refugees, you build relationships, offer students the opportunity to express themselves, and know that their life stories are respected. You accompany them over the many hurdles associated with resettlement, which years in the refugee camps or on the run have not prepared them for.

One of my students, Maryam, is so inspiring. A Sudanese woman who has not seen her husband for over a decade, she was on the run with her five children, before making it to Kenya. Somehow she managed to get her oldest son educated, and when he was given a scholarship to medical school in Australia, she soon followed. Maryam is a determined woman, full of life and vitality, serving her community and keen to become a politician.

Last year Maryam's family grew to include six of her brother's children who no longer had anyone to look after them. When we had a class celebration, Maryam was first up to dance. She was also the only one of my ESL students to bring along meat pies and sauce.

Emma Drew, an Australian aid worker based in Africa, who has spent time in Southern Sudan and in Kakuma refugee camp, is inspired by such stories of hope, which arise amid the hardships endured every day by refugees.

'I am totally devastated to hear about Sudanese being beaten in Australia,' she wrote. 'Imagine surviving 13 years of war in Southern Sudan, walking for days, months, and thousands of kilometres to get to Kakuma refugee camp, waiting for years to be processed as a refugee, finally coming to a beautiful, multicultural country like Australia, and then you are murdered at a train station!

'It's heartbreaking ... I really respect them for surviving such persecution and neglect for the past generation, and coming out of it all with a smile and determination to succeed in our society which is so absolutely, totally different from theirs.'

Recognising the distress of Sudanese refugees, last Saturday, the Fitzroy Learning Network and the restaurant Lentil As Anything, in inner-city Melbourne, organised a festival 'celebrating the rich dignity the Sudanese bring'. Many gathered, not just Africans, but people of many cultures - a show of support for the Sudanese community. Thankfully, not everyone thinks like Kevin Andrews.

Michele GierckMichele Gierck is a freelance writer. Her book, 700 Days in El Salvador, was published by Coretext in 2006.



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Existing comments

Thanks for this article Michele. Like so many people, I was outraged about the actions of Kevin Andrews. What kind of country have we become when we cannot reach out in compassion to people who have suffered incredible trauma? Surely a more appropriate response would be to give increased supporting networks for care for these people who have suffered so much. Have we lost some of our national vision about being a 'fair-go' people, especially to the dispossessed?

kevin treston | 19 October 2007  

Working as a volunteer with EASL was a wonderful experience. I wonder if more publicity in the local papers showing the individuals' achievements would help break down prejudice?

Mary Rose Fraser | 19 October 2007  

I am actively involved with our Sudanese community through our parish. The people I see are generous, willing to work, if given the opportunity and devout Catholics. They are offered very little support to help them integrate and suffer discrimination from many in the community. We should be doing all we can to help as many as we can. Thanks for keeping people informed, although I wonder if you only reach those who care?

bill | 22 October 2007  

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