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About the program

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Refugee Week 2021​

Refugee week (20-26 June) provides an opportunity to reflect on Australia'​s history of resettling refugees and others in humanitarian need, and the many contributions that those individuals make to Australia.

Since the end of the Second World War Australia has accepted more than 920,000 refugees and humanitarian entrants. Refugees have brought diversity to our cities, suburbs and towns and helped create the Australia we know and love today.

Success stories

photograph of refugee women sewing pink scarves

Former refugee women are ‘United in Pink’ as they sew for breast cancer awareness

Gabriela Zampini is a qualified clinical psychologist who works with refugee communities to promote breast cancer awareness through community and social events.

When the COVID-19 pandemic stopped Gabriela Zampini’s plans to continue travelling around the world, she hopped on a plane in Africa to return to Launceston, Tasmania and went back to work.

Putting her degree in clinical psychology to good use, she applied for a position with Migrant Resource Centre (MRC) North Launceston.

Gabriela’s first project ‘United in Pink’ was started to help women with refugee backgrounds detect and treat breast cancer early. Women from Afghanistan and Iran came together to sew pink fabrics and create garments that they could wear during breast cancer awareness sessions and during their breast examination.

“By getting women involved in an activity that they enjoy and are familiar with, we have a better chance of increasing breast screening participation. We can also increase community connection and reduce the social isolation they often experience, particularly as new arrivals.” Gabriela said.

Speaking about the success of the program, Gabriela said MRC North created this project because  women with refugee backgrounds experience many barriers that can prevent them from attending a breast screening clinic or responding quickly to symptoms.

“These barriers include not being able to drive or fear of using public transport, not speaking English so they can’t interact with healthcare staff, or not knowing how to navigate complex healthcare systems,” she said.

“We know these types of programs make a difference in the lives of refugee women as more than half the participants booked in for their first breast screening session within three months.”

The pink scarves and hijabs sewn by the women have been used to create an art installation that will be exhibited at community and social events to spread the word about early detection of breast cancer. 

“Working with people who have a refugee background has been the most rewarding experience in my life. I was only exposed to this work because I migrated to a first world country that receives refugees. Since then, I kept undertaking cross-cultural training to be able to use my skills and clinical experience to help others in the best possible way.”

Gabriela has produced a short video to celebrate the “United in Pink” program.

Photograph of Manal Kudeedah in traditional headdress

Armidale restaurant gives refugees new purpose in life

Manal Kudeedah has used her sewing skills to create occasion wear and her cooking skills to prepare Ezidi food for special events in her community.

Manal Kudeedah and her family fled their home in Iraq when ISIS raided their village, murdering women, children and boys, and kidnapping women and girls for marriage.

Manal and her family were lucky to escape and be resettled in Australia.

Speaking about her first few months in Australia, Manal said it was difficult at first.

“In the first month I was frustrated because I did not know anyone. We missed our family in Iraq a lot, and often cried. We missed all of our friends,” she said.

Then, with the assistance of Jobs Australia, a not for profit employment service provider, Manal got a job at The Minnie Barn Restaurant and Bar in Armidale.

“My greatest success since settling in Australia has been to learn English and to work at the same time,” she said.

“I would not have been able to do these things if I did not come to Australia. I really want to help other refugees who are going through this experience,” she said.

Philip Mitchell, owner of The Minnie Barn Restaurant and Bar employs four former Ezidi refugees on a part-time basis. He spoke highly of his staff.

“We have three women and one man in the kitchen cooking Ezidi food and pastry here at the Minnie Barn,” he said.

“We are delighted to have these multicultural options on our menu. The Ezidi dishes are really sought after by the locals.”

Building connections in her new community has been one of the factors to help Manal and her family settle in and make a new life in Armidale.

Manal explained, “I talk with other refugees in my community when they are facing difficulties. People in the community often ask me to sew clothes for special occasions as there are limited clothes available in Armidale that are suitable. I have also been asked to help cook for special celebrations in the community. It makes me feel like I belong.”

Head and shoulders photograph of Heydayat (Nick) Osyan

Community Construction

Former refugee Hedayat Osyan teaches refugees and migrants a trade, entrepreneurship and business skills.

Hedayat used his educational success in Australia to start a social enterprise to help former refugees and new migrants become financially independent.

Hedayat (Nick) Osyan had to flee Afghanistan because the ethnic group he belonged to—the Hazara—were being persecuted.

“The Hazara are a minority ethnic group in Afghanistan and have been persecuted for centuries due to their physical features and their religion. The Sunni extremist groups such as the Taliban, Al Qaeda and ISIS believe that the Shia Muslims are not true Muslims, so persecution and genocide of the Hazara followed.

Describing the first few months settling into his new country Nick said, “For the first couple of months, everything was good. But, after a couple of months, I realised that I had a long journey ahead of me to be successful here. Australian society was very advanced and I was used to living in a developing country. But I was determined to work hard to succeed because this country and its people allowed me to be a part of their community.

“I worked hard to create a bright future for myself and I wanted to help my fellow refugees to thrive and to reach their potential like I did. I wanted to show the positive side of refugees, and I am living proof that we all want to make a positive contribution to our community and Australia has given us these opportunities.”

Speaking about what he feels is his greatest success since arriving in Australia Nick said, “In Afghanistan I was considered a second-class citizen, but here in Australia everyone is treated equally. I graduated with an honours degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Canberra. This wasn’t possible in my hometown.

“Another great success was to establish a social enterprise in Sydney, called ‘Community Construction’ where former refugees and people seeking asylum are welcome to thrive. I’ve provided a safe platform for former refugees so they can be trained and employed in Australia. In less than four years, I’ve trained and employed over 65 former refugees and their families and helped four of my employees to establish their own companies. They are financially independent and are integrated into Australian society. We build homes and we build lives.”

Giving an example of the success of one of his former employees Nick said, “Hossain was working for me as a tiler when he joined my social enterprise. In a few years he became financially independent and bought his own home in Auburn in 2020 and established his own tiling company. I think that this is a perfect example of resilience and success. These former refugees have been successful because of equal opportunities and a fair society in Australia. I’m very grateful to this beautiful county and I’m trying my best to give something back to society.”

Nick’s future goal is to expand ‘Community Construction’ his social enterprise in Australia and across the world. Nick wants to help thousands of refugees to get jobs and settle into their new countries.

Nick said, “I strongly believe that all refugees deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. We can all help by making small changes. I am part of the movement to welcome refugees.”

Head and shoulders photograph of Hasan Saffuk

Armidale community welcomes Ezidi refugees

Former refugee Hasan Saffuk encourages new refugees to make connections and be part of their new community.

Hasan was resettled in Armidale, after fleeing his home town from ISIS and spending four years in Turkish refugee camps.On 3rd of August 2014, ISIS attacked Hasan’s home town Shingal, near the mountains in northern Iraq. The Kurdish forces left civilians to face ISIS alone, and many were forced to flee to the Kurdistan region.

Speaking about this terrifying time, Hasan described his refugee journey that led him to settle in Australia.

“They killed Ezidi people because of their identity, they kidnapped people, forced civilians from their homes and their land and destroyed everything. That day, I fled with my family to Zaxo, 157 kilometres away from Shingal. After a really long and hard journey, walking and climbing through the mountains we finally arrived in Turkey,” Hasan said

The Shingal massacre marked the beginning of the genocide of Ezidis by ISIS, with the killing and abduction of thousands of Ezidi men, women and children.

“After four years of living in refugee camps we became hopeless. We were homesick, we were confused and there were a lot of people with mental and physical health problems because of what we had lived through.

“As a result of this genocide, my family was destroyed and separated. Now we live in three different continents; North America, Europe and Australia,”

For Hasan who settled in Armidale with his wife, daughter and one of his sisters, he has used his own refugee resettlement experience to help others to settle into a new life in Australia.

Talking about his first few weeks in Armidale Hasan said, “At first it was difficult for me. Everything was different, the weather, the time zone, the culture, food and language.

“After my first week in Armidale, I started to assist my community. It meant a lot to me when I could help others. Because my English was good when I arrived in Australia, it helped me to understand the culture a bit more and settle in more quickly so I was able to start helping other refugees.”

With six months of volunteering under his belt, Hasan started to work as an interpreter and help the community in an official way.

“When you are able to communicate with other people you can join in on fun activities and meet new friends. Understanding another country’s culture definitely helps settling into your new life,” Hasan said.

Helping others, working in the community, engaging in activities like soccer are all good options for new settlers to make connections and be a part of their community.

"Because I needed help from others in the past, I know how important it is to help others. It’s something in my values that is hard to describe, but I feel like it is worthwhile.”

Photograph of Jacqui and Dorcas inspecting fruit

Former Refugee workers fill labour shortages for NT growers

A strong advocate for former refugees in the Northern Territory, Carol Zunker worked with farmers and growers who were short staffed due to the COVID pandemic, to match former refugees looking for employment.

Labour shortages due to the covid-19 pandemic have seen the employment of former refugees in the Northern Territory’s agriculture sector.

Carol Zunker is the manager of The Job Shop in Darwin, a recruitment agency specialising in sourcing seasonal workers and harvest providers for growers in the NT.

Due to the pandemic and related border closures, there was a significant shortage of backpackers and migrant workers to harvest fruit and vegetables.

“We were faced with a big challenge in finding workers who wanted to do the farm work,” said Carol.

“While many Australians lost their jobs due to businesses closing down, the majority didn’t want to do farm work”.

Carol worked in partnership with NT Farmers during the initial stages of recruiting workers from the Melaleuca Refugee Centre,  Carol and The Job Shop successfully placed more than 35 former refugees in farming roles.

Carol said, “It was a combination of growers needing workers and former refugees who were from farming backgrounds looking for work. It was a perfect scenario to get them started in farm work.”

Carol and her team helped the workers with refugee backgrounds overcome any challenges they faced in starting work and establishing a new routine, and the workers with refugee backgrounds  didn’t give up trying different roles and different jobs on the farms.

“Working with the Melaleuca Refugee Centre and employing people with refugee backgrounds for farming roles worked out to be very successful. The group completed at least eight weeks of work, covering a full growing season. Some were employed for longer and were able to graduate from one grower to another.” Carol said.

Carol and the team at the Job Shop have also worked hard at building connections between the growers and refugee communities to ensure an ongoing relationship and opportunities for future work.

“We are seeing some of our growers, like Acacia Hills Farm ask for their previous workers with refugee backgrounds to return again for this year’s harvest season and seeking to increase the number of former refugee workers on their books,” she said.

Speaking about the positivity of the program Carol said, “It gives former refugees some pride that there is a job there for them. And once one or two workers get a job, it gives hope to the others.

“I have been the driver of this initiative for a long time and moving forward I hope to see more families with refugee backgrounds given similar opportunities for greater financial independence.”

Photograph of Chuol Puot at graduation

Australian shares his past refugee experiences and addresses justice issues for African-Australian youth

Chuol Puot works with agencies and stakeholders to address justice issues impacting African-Australians. He promotes social cohesion, diversity and inclusion programs to raise awareness of the mental health impacts of racial discrimination.

Chuol Puot came to Australia as a refugee from Malakal, South Sudan after spending 10 years of his childhood living in African refugee camps. Forced to flee from the devastating civil war in Sudan without his parents, Chuol arrived in Ethiopia in 1995 with his siblings and aunties after walking for weeks.

Today, Chuol works as a Community Engagement Officer for Youth Justice at the Victorian Department of Justice and Community Safety (DJCS). In this role, Chuol provides expert policy advice on justice issues impacting the African Australian community to a range of Victorian government agencies, including Victoria Police.

Choul was awarded the 2019–20 Larry Osborne Victorian Youth Parole Board Scholarship to investigate innovation and best practices to collectively divert at-risk African Australian youths away from the criminal justice system.

In 2020 Chuol was presented the Police Community Exemplary Award for outstanding contribution to advancing meaningful relationships between multicultural communities and the Victorian Police.

Speaking about his career Chuol said, “I work with all responsible agencies and stakeholders to address justice issues impacting African Australians, promote social cohesion, diversity and inclusion. I raise awareness of the mental health impacts of racial discrimination and vilification.

“My goal for the future is to advocate for all human beings, including refugees, to be treated with respect and dignity – fairly and justly.”

Speaking about his refugee experience Chuol said, “Sherkole refugee camp was puzzlingly beautiful. It was more like a village to me, with us living in tukuls (mud huts) with thatched roofs. In this camp, we were treated as people, not just as refugees. The UNHCR did its best to provide a ration of grain, pulses, oil, and salt, enough for our short-term survival, but deficient for our prolonged diet. In these camps, nutrition was a luxury and malnutrition was common among children. We played barefoot and only wore our shoes for special occasions, like Christmas.”

In 1999 Chuol’s father wrote a letter explaining how he planned to visit Chuol in Ethiopia. Chuol said, “Adults coming from the North to the South were accused of being Northern agents and adults going to the North were accused of being rebels. It was a case of trust nobody, suspect everybody. Still, I waited enthusiastically for my Baba. The meeting never happened. Baba died before we could meet.”

Fortunately, Chuol’s uncles and aunties assumed parental responsibilities of caring for Chuol and his siblings.

In early 2003, Chuol went to Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya in search of a better life and his uncle was able to send him to boarding school. It wasn’t long after his life changed dramatically, receiving sponsorship under Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian program.

In 2005, a relative who had received resettlement to Australia, through the Community Support Program, included Chuol in his sponsored visa application.

Settling in Australia was challenging for Chuol but after all he had been through his resilience gave him the strength to grasp the study opportunities available to him in Australia.

Chuol said, “I worked to provide for my impoverished family in Africa while completing my degrees at Monash University, opportunities that only Australia provided. In Australia, I'm safe, can work, study, and have a passport that allows me to travel anywhere in the world. I'm grateful.”

Chuol completed a Bachelor of Arts (Criminology) and a Bachelor of Social Work degree from Monash University and is currently undertaking a Master of Criminology at the University of Melbourne. Chuol has been appointed to the Victorian Government’s landmark Anti-Racism Taskforce. The taskforce will support multicultural and multi-faith communities to tackle racism through funding local anti-racism initiatives.

After building a successful life for himself in Australia, in 2010 Chuol took a trip back to Sudan to find his mother who he had not seen since 1994. After a long search, Chuol’s sister found their mother and they were finally reunited in January 2011. Talking about this reunion Chuol hopes to one day be reunited in Australia with his immediate family.

Head and shoulders photograph of Mamta Kochlar

“Migrants need a hand up, not a handout”

Mamta Kochlar is President of the United in Diversity and Kitchen of Diversity programs which help refugees and migrants settle into their new communities in Australia.

Creating opportunities for migrants and refugees to contribute to their community is at the core of the ‘United in Diversity’ program, which helps Australian Migrant English Program (AMEP) clients integrate and build social cohesion in their local community.

Established by Mamta Kochlar, the United in Diversity program is a not-for-profit organisation helping migrants and refugees become part of the local community where they live, by contributing to the community using the skills they already have — cooking, sewing, photography and public speaking.

Mamta started working with the AMEP at South Metropolitan TAFE. While working with people from migrant and refugee backgrounds, Mamta realised that something else was needed to help drive social cohesion in the community.

“My experiences as a migrant were crucial in my decision to start United in Diversity. I felt that I had the language and qualifications but I still felt as if I was navigating a stormy sea. Juggling my full-time work along with volunteering was challenging, and I could only imagine how hard it is for people who are struggling to learn functional English, raise a family and seek employment.

“I found myself in a very privileged position to understand the specific needs of newly arrived migrants and refugees through my work. Just because people from refugee backgrounds are working on their English language skills doesn’t mean that they can’t make a meaningful contribution and gain employment.

“For people from migrant and refugee backgrounds, mental health issues are prevalent. Their self-esteem suffers when they are isolated and with no purpose in their day. People need to be able to find an avenue to contribute from the day they arrive, even if they only have Basic English skills.

“Everyone can contribute to building community, connections and resilience if there are enough opportunities for frequent, positive intercultural interaction. I began to see that the integration of the community at all levels is the only way to leave a thriving community for our future generations. If there aren't enough opportunities for migrants and refugees to contribute to their community then the whole community loses out,” she said.

“Migrants need a hand up, not a hand out. They need opportunities. Sometimes, these opportunities may be for upskilling or retraining. But we have to build a community where there is enhancement of life because of migration, not a sense of short changing oneself.

“Our program aims to bring people together in a relaxed, fun, friendly environment so they can interact, understand each other, support, collaborate and form genuine cultural connections.”

Mamta divides her time between her work with AMEP and her voluntary responsibilities as President of the United in Diversity program. She attributes the success of the program to the kindness and generosity of the Australian Community.

“The Australian community welcomes all migrants and refugees, but there is a lot of scope for improvement. I feel like the goodwill in the community will increase if everyone has the opportunity to feel they are an asset. People from a refugee background just want to make a difference in the community where they live. That is the only way to feel equal and like they actually belong,” Mamta said.

Providing examples of how the United in Diversity program has helped refugees and migrants fit into their new community, Mamta said, “We started a collective social enterprise called ‘Kitchen of Diversity’ to provide employment to economically marginalised women.

Kitchen of Diversity provides catering for community events and is supported by local government and community organisations. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic all Kitchen of Diversity events were cancelled, leaving members feeling lonely and isolated. A curtain sewing project was initiated with the support from the City of Canning in August 2020. Eight women from Perth began to bond on topics of settlement, employment, and social connections while learning how to sew curtains.

“At the end of the program, the finished curtains were donated to the City of Canning, but the ripple effect of this small program was far-reaching,” Mamta said.

During the next lockdown in February 2021, the women who had participated in the sewing program expressed their willingness to use their skills to sew face masks, which were donated to the homeless community in Canning.

Mamta said, “This is just another successful program where refugee women used their skills to give back to their community. As it was so successful, we incorporated this mask making activity as an out-of-class English language learning activity for our TAFE clients.”

Photograph of Habibullah Noorani on football pitch with football

Soccer and surf for former Afghan refugee

Habibullah Noorani spends his time playing semi-professional football and teaching children how to swim and mentoring with the STARTTS refugee youth program.

Habibullah Noorami’s life sounds a lot like any young, sporty Australian boy, but it’s a dream come true for this former Afghan refugee.

Habibullah and his family arrived in Australia in 2017, after fleeing to Iran from the war in Afghanistan.

“Australia was the country that offered us as a place to begin our new life. The first few months were difficult but also dreamy and exciting. Schooling was enjoyable, the teachers were good and I made new friends,” Habibullah said.

“My successes and the experiences I had in these first few months have made me want to support other refugees.”

Habibullah spends many hours of his time as a volunteer helping other young people, whether that be in the pool teaching children to swim through Aquatic Tutoring Australia, or mentoring young footballers through the well-being football program as part of RISE-Coffs Harbour.

”Since settling here I have had success in football, surf lifesaving and mentoring others. I play semi-professional football for the Valentine Football Club in Newcastle and I completed my bronze medallion in surf lifesaving,” said Habibullah.

“When I was training for my lifesaving Bronze Medallion the ocean was very difficult for me. But I persevered and overcame some very hard challenges to stay safe in the ocean to complete that course,” Habibullah said.

Habibullah also gained confidence and made friends by participating in the NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS) youth program, which aims to bring young people of refugee backgrounds together to learn how to communicate, play, live and learn together.

“I made connections by attending the STARTTS youth group and I met new people who were involved in this program. This continued as I made contact with other new people who I came across in the programs. I talked to everyone and took each opportunity offered to me.”

Talking about his future goals Habibullah said, “I want to encourage other refugees to reach out to their communities and participate in community activities.”

“I want others to follow their dreams.”

Head and sholders shot of Sara Yousif

Iraqi interpreter raising awareness of mental health issues in refugee and migrant communities

Sara Yousif works with former refugees and humanitarian entrants to help them settle into their new life in Australia and figure out what they want to do.

Sara Yousif has come a long way since spending six years with her family in limbo, with no right to work or study, as a refugee in Syria.

Sara now lives in Queensland where for the past year she has been working in the Mental Health Sector to help members of the Iraqi community deal with depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and missing loved ones who remain overseas.

Speaking about her work in Australia, Sara said that in Iraqi culture, there was a stigma attached to mental health problems and expressing one’s feelings.

"I am currently running sessions with the Queensland Program of Assistance to Survivors of Torture and Trauma (QPASTT) for the women in my community,” she said.

I want to give them a voice and encourage them to speak up, I want them to know that it’s actually ok to talk about their feelings, Sara said.

“I want to increase their understanding about mental health issues. I feel it’s important to let them know where they can go to find help not only for themselves, but for their family members who may also be struggling.”

Before moving to the Mental Health Sector, Sara worked as a cultural support officer for Multicultural Development Australia (MDA), where she gained experience assisting new arrivals to settle in Australia and understand Australian culture.

“I worked very closely with the new families and interpreted for them. I worked to build their trust and be their voice if they needed anything.” she said.

“In this role interpreting was not just translating what they were saying, but interpreting their needs and helping to translate their feelings. My community trusted me and I passed on their feelings and their needs to their settlement case managers and other who could help them.” Sara left Iraq in 2006 with her parents, two siblings and grandparents for Syria after three years of war and violence that showed no signs of stopping.

Recalling the events of 2006, Sara said her family had a protection order from the United Nations to stay in Syria as refugees. 

“All seven of us lived in a two bedroom unit and my father and grandfather spent all of their life savings to cover the rent. We initially thought that we would return home in a few months once the situation settled in Iraq, but that didn’t happen. The situation was getting worse day by day.”

Three years later, Sara’s uncle Naser came to visit their family in Syria. He had been living in Australia for over 20 years and encouraged his family to apply to relocate to Australia under the Refugee and Humanitarian program.  

“My uncle Naser wanted to help us by sponsoring my family to move to Australia. We all thought this was insane. Australia was too far away and had such a different culture, food and language but in the end we had no choice as the situation in Iraq was terrible.”

Describing the first few months in Australia Sara said it was very hard at the beginning.

“Everything looked new and it was a completely different country, nothing looked similar to where we used to live. 

“I studied English in University back in Iraq and I thought I would be ok to communicate here. But I was shocked as I could not understand the Australian accent at all.

“The first six months at TAFE helped me improve my English. When I started looking for work, the first job I chose was to help refugees on this hard journey.

“I help refugees and humanitarian entrants settle into their new life and figure out what they might like to do in Australia. I initially thought to myself, it's impossible to learn the language and culture and work here. I needed to break that way of thinking and feeling, and I championed myself to be an example for these new families, to show them that it could be done.

“My goal is to help break down the stigma of mental health issues in my community.

“If people can make an appointment with a psychiatrist or psychologist who communicates in their mother tongue, they will understand their needs and be able to explain the differences between the two cultures. Planned sessions with a qualified mental health practitioner can really help people to move through their healing journey.”

Head and shoulders photograph of Evelyn Pe at work

Pharmacist and interpreter dedicates life to helping Hepatitis and HIV positive patients

Evelyn Pe works in her community to help refugees navigate the Australian health system, complete health forms and understand health promotion messages

Evelyn Pe settled in Australia in the 1980s with her family from Myanmar as they didn’t want to live under a military government. Evelyn has spent the last 15 years helping former refugees and their families navigate the health system and promote health education in multicultural communities.

In Myanmar Evelyn worked as a pharmacist in a hospital and then in charge of a factory producing medicine. After moving to Australia and learning English, she decided to help other people in her community by working as an interpreter.

“In a million years, I never thought I could be an interpreter. I was very scared to talk in a foreign language and always depended on my husband. And yet the hospital was shocked that I knew all the medical terms and told me I should do it. I tell refugees when they arrive, if I can do it, you can do it!”

After Evelyn and her husband finish their day job, they both help people in their community by reading them their letters and filling in forms and paperwork. They visit families at home to give them what they need, such as food and clothes. They have taken community members to apply for jobs, and even gone with people on their first day of work to help them understand what to do.

“We have provided transport to and from work for those who need it until they could get there by themselves. I feel that my greatest success is having helped people to get jobs, buy their own house, speak English and stand on their own feet!”

The Multicultural Development Association reached out to Evelyn when a cohort of refugees from Myanmar were coming to Australia. They asked Evelyn to help them.

“I really wanted to do the job because I understood what it would feel like to be scared and do everything by myself. I was asked to welcome the new arrivals to Australia, in front of lots of media and I was scared to death. The people getting off the plane were scared too, but they were so happy to hear me speaking Burmese as they got off the plane. I encouraged them to go to school, to learn English and I gave out my phone number so they could call me anytime.”

Evelyn’s volunteer experience and connections at the Mater hospital helped her secure a permanent role as an interpreter.

“The Mater Hospital called and asked me to volunteer as an interpreter because a Burmese patient required an operation after an accident. They told me I did an incredibly good job, especially with my medical background and the doctor recommended I apply for an interpreter job. That was back in 2006 and I have worked as an interpreter ever since.”

Evelyn has also held many volunteer positions in her community. She was the President of the Australian Myanmar Friendship Association of Queensland for three years and is a member of the Refugee Health Advisory Group.

“In all my roles over the years, I have been driven to help refugees from Myanmar. I have advised settlement services on the little things that make a big difference to the early hours and days of a migrant’s or refugee’s first arrival to Australia. For example, where to buy cultural food so they feel happy to eat their own food. Whereas previously new arrivals were provided bread and pasta; for the same budget they now receive rice and other cultural foods.

“I have also helped provide information sessions about Australian healthcare, patient rights and responsibilities, taboo subjects such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis, and more recently, information about COVID-19 and vaccinations.

“I know that I am helping to make people’s lives better and brighter.”

Photograph of Sanam celebrating in traditional dress

Former Afghan refugee advocates for mental health of multicultural communities and diversity and inclusion programs in universities and workplaces

Sanam Ahmadzada aims to change the Afghan refugee narrative and give Afghan-Australians a platform to address issues in their community

Sanam and her family fled Afghanistan due to the civil war and political unrest that put them at risk. What was supposed to be a move for a few months, ended with Sanam spending most of her early childhood as a refugee in Pakistan.

After seven years and a long application process, with many family interviews and forms, Sanam and her family were settled in Australia under the Refugee and Humanitarian program.

Like any teenager, Sanam Ahmadzada wanted to be accepted by her peers and to fit into a new school, but she remembers feeling confused, shy and lonely.

“I used to wake up in the night with panic attacks. It was terrifying and confusing; I didn’t know that it wasn’t normal to feel this way.” Experiencing discrimination pushed Sanam to try to change herself to fit in. “I felt like I was living a double life inside and outside of my home. I didn’t talk about my feelings with my family, because I knew they were struggling with their own challenges. My silence took an enormous toll on my mental health.

“Finding good friends along with teachers who accepted, nurtured and guided me made a massive difference to my life in Australia. From being the ‘shy and strange girl’, I managed to finish high school as ‘Graduate of the Year’!

“I continued struggling with my mental health. These feelings only went away when I started accepting my roots and formed a culture and life of my own. Becoming more active in the Afghan Australian community played a massive part in that.”

Sanam’s own experiences and proactive approach to help others saw her start the Afghan Students’ Association (AfSA) at the University of Queensland in 2015.

“I wanted to create a safe and welcoming space where young Afghan Australians could find a sense of belonging, connection to their roots and a source of inspiration,” Sanam said.

For young Afghan Australians and their families, navigating the culture clash was a hot topic.

“Every young person who joined the AfSA group spoke of identity crisis and intergenerational gaps and conflicts caused by the clashing cultures. By setting up AfSA, the students were able to work through their issues and create a network of opportunities for growth and learning in the wider community.

“AfSA allowed us to take control of our narrative and help change the perception of Afghanistan and Afghan people. We were able to work on some amazing programs through AfSA and Afghan Professionals Australia where I served as the Queensland State Coordinator, and later the National Coordinator. Those of us further into our journey or careers could guide and support the younger generation.”

Experiencing how their move to Australia impacted her family and the issues faced by the other refugees sparked Sanam’s interest in refugee health education and advocating for more diversity and inclusion in health and education-related programs.

“Using my privileges and knowledge of public health to contribute to the lives of other people, especially those most disadvantaged, is my passion that continues to drive me. “

Sanam is currently involved in the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (ED&I) Committees at the University of Queensland, as well as her workplace, Queensland Centre for Mental Health Research (QCMHR). As a member of these committees, Sanam advocates for diversity and inclusion.

“There are many barriers people from diverse backgrounds face when entering the workforce or large institutions. By having representation in these committees, I can voice concerns based on my own experience to ensure that the current and coming generations have a safer and more welcoming environment to study and work in.”

At the University of Queensland, Sanam is also part of the Cultural Inclusion Council who are putting together UQ’s first Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) Inclusion Strategy, as well as working on other initiatives to foster a respectful and safe environment for CALD staff and students.

In 2020, Sanam was asked to join a Refugee Health Advisory Group called the G11. It was set up by the Mater Health Refugee Network with eleven members from different multicultural communities. In her G11 role, Sanam advises and consults on various programs, projects and health-related activities around Queensland.

“The G11 provide a community perspective on initiatives to ensure they are culturally and linguistically responsive. I advocate on behalf of the community, highlight their health needs to service providers and disperse information on many health matters.

“For example, with COVID-19 related information we help with messaging on border restrictions, lockdowns, safety measures and vaccines. We take long and wordy documents and make them more accessible to the refugee communities. This includes creating audio recordings with simplified messages that we can share on community group platforms like WhatsApp and Viber.”

Sanam has worked on several projects with different stakeholders looking at the mental health of CALD communities as a Research Officer at QCMHR. She has started work on her PhD, which is to study mental health stigma in refugee and migrant communities and co-design a mental health promotion program aiming at stigma reduction. Sanam wants to continue to advocate for the health of former refugees and act as a reminder that health, along with other socio-political factors such as language skills, housing, employability and discrimination are all linked together.

“Everything that I do today is not only because of the opportunities that came from settling in Australia, but also because of my upbringing, the challenges I have faced and the guidance and support of my parents and family, mentors and positive influences along the way, my community, and my own hard work.

“It takes a whole village to raise a child and in appreciation of that I strive to lead a life where I can play a part in someone else’s village.”

When reflecting on the theme of Refugee Week, Sanam said,

“I want to see unity amongst all communities in Australia, but that will only come when we acknowledge our privileges, fill gaps in the system and strive towards a fair, equitable, welcoming, and accepting Australian community that caters and respects the needs of all.”

Photograph of Nen behind lectern making a speech

South Sudanese refugee proves the sky’s the limit

Nen John Phaltang volunteers to teach STEM subjects to refugee children. He is passionate about avionics and engineering and wants to ensure that all children have the same opportunities to reach for the stars.

Nen John Phaltang has been celebrating World Refugee Day (20th June) each year since he was a child living in refugee camps in Uganda and Kenya. Speaking about his refugee experience Nen said, “I know that every refugee who has come to Australia will have their own story of struggle, but many are able to overcome the past horrors to live a good life here.”

For Nen he has certainly proven this to be true. After resettling in Australia he has become a qualified aerospace engineer. Nen holds a Bachelor of Engineering Aerospace Avionics, Bachelor of Engineering Electrical and Master of Systems Engineering (Space Systems).

Nen became a refugee in 2000 after fleeing his village in Leer, South Sudan. His village was attacked and captured by the Sudanese government and a military base was built near his home.

“There were lots of atrocities being carried out by the army at that time. Our parents told us we should leave the village due to insecurity and the possibility of being forcibly enlisted into the army,” Nen said.

Nen and other children from his village travelled on foot from their village until they found refugee support in Uganda. After three years there Nen decided to leave Uganda for Kakuma refugee camp, where he was registered with the UNHCR and finally resettled to Australia.

“My refugee experience has made me both strong and appreciative of life. The toughest experience for me was being a refugee without my parents and having to fend for myself throughout the terrible journey. I always thought about my parents whenever I needed their support,” he said.

“To be honest I had never heard of Australia, but I am so lucky to be here. My brothers who were among the group of refugee children known as the lost boys, were living in Kakuma after escaping the child soldiers program. They left before I was even born and were sponsored to come to Australia in 2002. When my brother in Australia heard I had made it to Kakuma, he sponsored me and my two siblings through the Humanitarian program.”

Describing the challenges of starting a new life in a new country Nen said, “I was hoping to be taken to a refugee camp in Australia where I would be joining other refugees, but on arrival I was shocked. It was a totally different world and culture for me. I failed to comprehend how to live on this side of the world. I had to start from scratch. I left all my friends in the camp. It was a hard transition for me as it would be for any new refugee. Learning a new language and culture at the same time was challenging. I was lucky to have my siblings who guided me through my initial settlement.”

Nen said that he always wanted to support other refugees.

“The challenges I overcame have encouraged me to support those who are new to Australia. I have always wanted to support people to achieve their dreams the same way I was supported in my refugee journey,” he said.

Today, Nen is an active volunteer and mentor in the South Sudanese community and through the Queensland chapter of the African Professionals of Australia organisation.

Through his volunteering work he is trying to make sure that STEM subjects, in particular, are accessible to all refugee children.

“When I was in high school, I was refused science subjects that I liked simply because I was from a refugee and non-English speaking background. I don’t want this to happen to refugee children today, they should be able to do the subjects they like. A refugee should have the same opportunities as the next child, they might just need some support to get started.” 

Nen also shares his story at community, school and university events in the hope of inspiring emerging professionals and youth, especially those at risk of disengaging from school.

Reflecting on the past fourteen years and his greatest success in Australia Nen said, “I am grateful to the Australian government and to the people of Australia for opening their doors to refugees.

“Regardless of what I had faced in my life prior to coming to Australia, here I have found opportunities for growth as a young man without my parents. Just like other refugees I took this rare opportunity very seriously and worked hard with honesty, diligence, discipline, determination and resilience.

“There was no education or opportunity for university in the camp, especially not a university that taught engineering, which is my passion. There were so many obstacles in the camps which made it impossible for the people living there to aspire to further education. The money I am earning from my engineering job here in Australia, I do share it with those I left behind in Kakuma camp to support their educational needs.”

Nen is part of a non-profit charity organisation called “I STRETCH MY HAND”, which supports the children he left behind in Kakuma Camp.

“I think if I was still in Kakuma refugee camp my success wouldn’t be possible. The people I left there in 2007 are still there. They have no access to opportunities. If I didn’t come to Australia I do not know where I would be right now. Maybe I would have been forcibly enlisted into the army as a child soldier. Today I am an aerospace engineer – the result of the opportunities this country has given to me.”

Nen is now an Australian citizen. Revealing his vision for the future Nen said his dream is to see refugees and migrants belong and thrive with equal access to the many opportunities Australia has to offer.

“I am committed to continuing to mentor new and emerging professionals and to volunteer in my community to support lots of wonderful initiatives and events.”

See Nen John Phaltang's video

Photograph of Hannah Costello and Vanessa Brettell, owners of Café Stepping Stone’

Café Stepping Stone in Canberra creating employment opportunities for refugee and migrant women

Vanessa Brettell and Hannah Costello use food to bring people closer together. Their social enterprise café in Holt, ACT gives leadership opportunities to refugee and migrant women to become financially independent.

When COVID-19 forced Vanessa Brettell and Hannah Costello to close their social enterprise café in Cartagena, Colombia and return home to Australia, they seized the opportunity to open up shop at Straithnairn Arts in Canberra.

Talking about the decision to set up their enterprise in the country’s capital Hannah said Straithnairn Arts in Straithnairn/Belconnen had welcomed them.

“We were very happy to create a new home in a quiet, relaxing and quintessentially Australian location close to where we both grew up. The stars aligned and the café was born,” Hannah said.

Growing up in Australia, Hannah and Vanessa were surrounded by friends and family from migrant and refugee backgrounds.

“We loved the mix of cultures and learning about different customs and traditions. But despite the positives, we also saw how many refugees needed opportunities; they were faced with language barriers and suffered from isolation, homesickness, and a lack of their own culture,” she said.

Hannah and Vanessa knew they could help and provide opportunities for refugees by opening a new business that would be more than just another café. It would also be a work integration social enterprise, designed to provide inclusive and quality employment and training for people disadvantaged in their community.

“From our research and childhood reflections, we decided that migrant and refugee women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds would benefit the most from our business model,” Vanessa said.

“We view Australia's multiculturalism as such a positive asset and with this enterprise we want to ensure that diversity is celebrated.

“We believe that everyone, no matter what their background is, should have an equal opportunity for employment, housing and education.

“The women we work with are hardworking, enthusiastic, willing to learn and share their knowledge with us. We feel privileged to be able to work with them. We have been able to employ more than eight staff members who are the sole or major income earner for their family,” she said.

Connecting and collaborating with other organisations that work with migrant and refugee women has enabled Hannah and Vanessa to have a greater impact on the community.

“In Canberra the other organisations who interact with refugee and migrant communities have responded really positively to our business model,” said Vanessa.

“The community of Strathnairn is developing quickly into a vibrant and well connected place. With many new residents, changes and developments, the sense of community is growing and we feel like we are a central piece as one of the only businesses in the area.”

Hannah added, “Food is a wonderful way to bring people together and we have formed a great relationship with the Arts centre, housing development, the rotary club and locals of the Belconnen area. We are about to start collaborating with the Support Asian Women's Friendship Association to provide free English conversation classes.”

Reflecting on their journey so far and the challenges of setting up a social enterprise, Vanessa said the business had all the normal challenges of a new venture.

“The first few months were a learning curve as we got to know our staff and their different needs. With many varied levels of English competency among staff, communication has been our biggest challenge, but through different methods and innovations we have been able to overcome this,” Hannah said.

Hearing the stories of the refugee and migrant women they employ has motivated Hannah and Vanessa to try and help even more women.

Looking to the future, Hannah and Vanessa are setting lots of goals not only for Café Stepping Stone, but also for the refugee and migrant women in their community. Their vision is for all migrants and refugees to feel like they have equal opportunities to gain meaningful employment and support themselves in whichever way they wish. This would create a much more unified, diverse and resilient society.

“Our role is to show, through example, that it is possible to run a successful business and create a positive impact in the lives of as many women as possible in our community.”

Head and shoulders photo of Jennifer Diaz in front of her range of nail varnishes

Venezuelan refugee receives first THRIVE Enterprise business loan in South Australia

Jennifer Diaz is a Venezuelan refugee and a single mother of two. She successfully applied for a $12,000 loan to open her dream business — a nail and beauty shop in Adelaide.

“I am originally from Venezuela, but I had to leave in a hurry due to political reasons. Trinidad and Tobago is the closest island to Venezuela. My father was living there and he arranged for my sister and me to join him. In Venezuela I had a similar business and I was very successful at it and I loved it. I also had my own beautician shop while a refugee in Trinidad and Tobago.

“Our experience in Trinidad was not a great one. Both the government and the local population were hostile towards us. They thought that we were illegally residing in their country and that we were taking jobs away from the local people. We had very few rights and lived under very harsh conditions.”

A year after arriving on the island, Jennifer got a phone call from the UNHCR explaining that they had qualified for the Refugee and Humanitarian program to resettle in Australia. Jennifer applied for her father to also be included in this application so they could travel to Australia as a family.

“My first experiences in Adelaide were of getting acclimatised to everything, the Australian way of life and finding my way around. It was very overwhelming as I spoke little English. I had a lot of support from AMES Australia, my local migrant resource centre, TAFE SA and other settlement organisations, which also helped me meet other Venezuelan people who had come to Australia as refugees.

“I wanted to keep my career going in the beauty industry when I arrived in Australia. It felt natural as I am good at this job and I love doing what I do. By far my greatest success since settling in Australia has been the opening of my Nail and Beauty shop.

“I came to Australia with little or no English 18 months ago, as a single mother of two children and with my elderly father. In that time I have managed to complete an intensive English course, research my business and the market, source equipment, find premises and obtain a loan. I feel like I have achieved a lot. This was only possible because of my move here.

“Losing loved ones and being left to fend for a young family is a massive challenge for anyone, and I have been able to overcome this and start my own business. I am very proud of what I have achieved for myself and my family in such a short period of time.

“In the future, once I am more settled I intend to support other refugees in a similar situation to me. I feel very committed to helping other refugees, especially those from my country. Once my business is up and running for a year, I intend to get involved and support other refugees.”

See Jennifer Diaz's video