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Refugee week 2020

Message from the Acting Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs the Hon. Alan Tudge MP

This week is Refugee Week and it occurs every June.

It’s a time when many Australians celebrate the contributions that refugees have made to Australia, as well as the fact that Australia has been very generous over the years to people who seek refuge in our country.

Many have gone on to make great success in our country. We’ve got people who have been governors of states or have been the captains of industry, have had success on the sporting field and elsewhere throughout the Australian community.

And in some respects this is what the Australian migrant story is all about—coming here and making a contribution to Australia.

It’s not to say we don’t have our challenges because we want everybody to be a key part of the Australian fabric. There are very few people who come to our shores who don’t want to grab all the opportunities which Australia has to offer.

So this week in Refugee Week we celebrate those great success stories but we equally celebrate the generosity of the Australian spirit.

Success stories

Ricard one of Free to Feed’s top chefs

Taste of bravery

Free to feed has helped Ricard and his family build a new life in Australia. He is now sharing his positive outlook during the coronavirus pandemic with the rest of the community through the Brave Meals program.

“A new food delivery service in Northcote, Victoria provides a taste of bravery and wisdom with every meal for its customers.

When coronavirus measures started to prevent not-for-profit organisation Free to Feed from running their refugee support program, stopping wasn’t an option.

They had to find a way to continue providing employment for refugees and migrants, maintain community connections and keep people from suffering social isolation—so on March 25, they launched the Brave Meals program.

Replacing the organisation’s usual face-to-face workshops and events (which couldn’t continue under COVID restrictions), Free to Feed's cohort of refugee participants continued generating an income by cooking take-home and home-delivered meals for the wider community.

The incredible chefs and team at Free to Feed are cooking a delicious rotating menu of nourishing, home-delivered ‘brave meals’ that are available for pick-up or local delivery on Fridays.

“Our menus are conceived by our participants and chefs to nourish families in difficult times. They are cooked with love to keep the community in good health,” CEO Loretta Bolotin said.

“Every Brave Meal also includes some brave and timely wisdom from the strong, compassionate and resilient participants who have so much experience to share on how to manage hardships and uncertainty, she said.”

Ricard is a chef employed by Free to Feed. He grew up in a small town called Bakhdida in Iraq. An old city with a rich history. Ricard is very proud of his culture because they have their own native language (Syriac), food and celebrations.

Ricard worked in his family's restaurant for many years as a chef. In August 2014, he and his family were forced to flee their hometown due to ISIS, leaving everything they knew behind them.

After a year in North Iraq, they travelled to Jordan where they were able to obtain a Humanitarian Visa and move to Australia in September 2016.

Today, he and his family are enjoying life in Australia. They cook and share Iraqi food and are also loving learning about new foods in Australia.

Free to Feed has helped Ricard and his family build a new life in Australia and share his positive outlook with the rest of the community through the Brave Meals program. His advice during isolation to his community is to keep positive, stay safe, keep healthy and embrace your hobbies.

Free to Feed was established in 2015 with the purpose of helping refugees find meaningful employment using their existing skills and experiences. Since 2016 they have provided more than 20,000 hours of paid training totalling more than $500,000 in employee wages.

You can learn more about Free to Feed and order a meal from their website at www.freetofeed.org.au

Attalah and his family in the kitchen

Refugee vows to give back

When Attalah Abo arrived in Australia as a refugee from the conflict in his Syrian homeland, he made two vows. The first was that his son Aboub would get a decent education and the second to give back to the country that offered his family sanctuary and a future.

When Attalah Abo arrived in Australia as a refugee from the conflict in his Syrian homeland, he made two vows.

The first was that his son Aboub would get a decent education and the second was that he would give back to Australia—the country that had offered his family sanctuary and a future.

Now, despite the economic downturn wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, Attalah continues to run a small business and employ other Syrian refugees.

“It’s important to support other people and we want to help them and the society generally,” Attalah said.

A former agricultural engineer and businessman in Syria, Attallah, his wife Helda and son Aboub were forced to flee their home near the city of Al Hasakah in 2016 as the civil war took hold.

Attalah’s brother had been living in Melbourne since the 1980s and it was that connection that brought them to Australia on refugee visas.

“It was a big change to come to Australia, we had lived all our lives in Syria and we left everything behind, friends, family, everything,” Attalah said.

The family wasted no time in starting new lives in Australia. A savvy business man, the family opened the Shamiat Syrian restaurant in Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs, which specialises in char-grilled skewers, traditional Syrian dishes and freshly grown vegetables cooked by Helda.

“We started off slowly but the business gained momentum as the local people found out about us and started coming.

“People were telling us they loved our food and we were full every night. People also love the atmosphere – they tell us it feels like being in Syria,” he said.

The restrictions imposed because of the COVID-19 crisis has meant that table service has been suspended but the restaurant is still doing a roaring takeaway trade.

“It got more difficult with the COVID restrictions but we changed the way we work and focused on takeaway. We’ve also taken the opportunity to renovate the restaurant.

“It’s going well with takeaway and we have managed to keep employing our three staff. They are amazing people and they have become part of our family.

“The COVID changes have been hard but there are many people suffering more than us. We are grateful to be here in this country and we are grateful for the support of the local people here; and also of the Australian people and government.

“And my son is getting the education we wanted for him,” he said.

Natsenet hard at work at Vanguard Laundry

Much more than a job!

Natsenet works at Vanguard Laundry Service. This not-for-profit commercial laundry, located in Toowoomba, is providing jobs for migrants and refugees from all over the world.

“Our refugee staff are among the most dedicated, reliable, hardworking people we have ever employed,” said Harry Sillett Social Impact Manager at Vanguard Laundry Services.

Vanguard Laundry is a social enterprise, not-for-profit commercial laundry located in Toowoomba. This regional Queensland city is home to migrants and refugees from all over the world.

In 2018, Harry and the team at Vanguard Laundry Services learned of the trauma suffered by refugees, their displacement and resettlement in Australia, and pledged to extend their support.

“We recognised that unemployment is a significant issue for refugees who have come to Australia and the effects of trauma make it even harder to adjust to life in Australia,” Harry said.

Working collaboratively with Mission Australia, BEST Employment, Multicultural Australia and their local TAFE’s Adult Migrant English Program they were able to identify workers and start employing refugees.

“We are proud of our refugee staff and their undeniable strength. I will not forget the day we welcomed our first refugee employee – Natsenet. She arrived in Australia from Eritrea in 2012 and had been unable to find work,” he said.

Natsenet was pregnant, caring for a toddler and without her partner when she fled her home. She spoke very little English and had no support network to help her care for her young family.

“We knew she had worked tirelessly to develop herself through training and engagement with the vocational education system here and would value her employment with us.”

“During this process we have learnt that when you give a refugee a job, you are imparting deep and transformative benefit onto their family and their community as well,” Harry said.

Engaging refugees from the local community has not just been a social project for Vanguard Laundry in Toowoomba, but also a great initiative which has had significant positive effects on productivity and commercial viability.

“Before we began our refugee employment program we had significant issues with absenteeism in our workplace. By hiring a core group of refugee staff we were able to stabilise our absenteeism.

“Whenever I speak to other employers in town I tell them about our experience and try to reinforce the message that hiring refugees is an excellent commercial decision.

In 2020, Vanguard Laundry services had plans to expand their employment program. Unfortunately, coronavirus has hit their laundry hard and their plans have been put on hold for now.

“The greatest thing we did to help our refugee staff was promote four of our guys to permanent full-time positions in October 2019, thereby protecting them from the worst of the impacts of COVID-19.”

“We have also been working extremely hard to support one another over the past six weeks to ensure all casual staff are safe and receiving some kind of income until we are able to give them hours again. We have been driving staff to appointments, travelling with them to buy food hampers, advocating on their behalf with banks and landlords, and checking in regularly with all of them to ensure they’re safe,” he said.

photo of Arash Bordbar

#foryou campaign keeps communities informed about COVID-19

Arash Bordbar is one of many refugees in Australia who have been working in their communities to tackle COVID-19.

Arash Bordbar is one of many refugees in Australia who have been working in their communities to tackle COVID-19.

Through an information campaign, called #foryou and other initiatives he has been providing valuable information about COVID-19 in different languages to make sure people know about and understand government measures and support services.

Arash is co-chair of the UNHCR’s Global Youth Advisory Council, which started the #foryou campaign to share verified information with refugee communities, especially youth, about the coronavirus.

Arash believes we will get through these times because we are working together.

“#foryou also showcases the positive contribution of refugee doctors, community workers, nurses and neighbours and how they have come together in this unprecedented time to help everyone,” he said.

In addition to the #foryou campaign Arash has been organising weekly live online conversations with doctors from refugee backgrounds to give information in various languages, including Assyrian, Arabic, Dari, Farsi , Kurdish and English.

“Australia has given me so many opportunities and opened so many doors for me to contribute to helping others as well,” he said.

“I am also working with the Community Migrant Resource Centre, running online workshops to build the capacity of young people from refugee backgrounds in accessing employment and entrepreneurship during COVID-19.”

At just 27 years old Arash has experienced more in his life than most people can say from a lifetime of experiences. Arash fled Iran with his mother and younger brother in fear of their lives because of political persecution.

They landed in Malaysia as refugees, with no rights or access to work, education, health care or housing.

“We were always under threat of being arrested. We never felt safe,” Arash said.

After registering with the UNHCR and after five years, Arash’s family received a humanitarian visa for Australia and resettled in Sydney in May 2015.

“I had mixed feelings the first few months after my arrival, however, I was very relieved that I was finally safe from harm and was also excited to start my new life, be an active citizen and get an education.”

“Australia has given me so many chances to succeed. However, the biggest success for me was that Australia gave me the opportunity to further my education. Within the 5 years, I now hold a Bachelor of Civil Engineering (Honours).”

Through his own personal experiences, Arash is determined to contribute in influencing change where people with lived experience are part of the decision-making process so that we better address the needs of refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia and around the world.

Assad and some of the team at Australia Wide Recycling

Refugee entrepreneur creating local jobs

For Assad settling in a new country and finding a job wasn’t easy. So he became his own boss and is creating employment opportunities for other refugees.

Assad Ibrahim came to Australia as a refugee. Like most refugees who have resettled in Australia, he survived a long and traumatic journey to build a new life, half way around the world from everything and everyone he knew.

Life in Australia set Assad on a new course. Once a member of a political party in his own country, in Australia he couldn’t even speak the local language. For Assad settling in a new country and finding a job was hard.

One way around that of course is becoming your own boss. Assad is now the Director of Australia Wide Recycling, which he founded in partnership with another refugee family.

AWR collects unwanted and second-hand goods, clothing and homewares and provides them to the community through their opportunity shop or in donated care packages to refugee communities organised through service providers.

Assad said he started AWR because of his experiences as a refugee and he wanted to do something to provide support for people in need, especially refugees.

“The main focus of our organization is to provide support in any way we can and integration of the new arrivals in to the Australian community,” Assad said.

“In our organisation we have been able to provide jobs for refugees and people with disability. Our team consists of 11 people from nine different nationalities.

“We employ refugees in a number of roles, including driving or assisting on collection trucks, unloading and sorting items in the warehouse, and retail work in the opportunity shop.

AWR recently diversified from their recycling operation into providing services under the National Disability Insurance Scheme, having been awarded NDIS approved provider status.

“This expansion is exciting for us as it allows us to employ refugee community members with skills and qualifications in caring and health care.”

“Because of our business infrastructure we have been able to continue to provide jobs for our employees even during COVID 19,” he said.

Photo of Kaw Doh and Eh Tha Dah

Refugee leader employing community members

Kah Doh and his wife Eh Tha Dah resettled in Nhill, Victoria. They now run their own business employing other refugees.

One of the first Karen refugees to settle at Nhill in western Victoria was Kaw Doh Htoo. He lived in a refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border for seven years and came to Australia as a refugee ten years ago.

He and several other Karen moved from their community in Werribee to take up work in Nhill.

“I found it very different at first, I lived in a big house with ten to twenty people,” Kaw Doh said.

“Looking back, it was a good experience, coming to live here (in Nhill). Melbourne was very expensive and here we had work.

“Since the Karen settled here about ten families, including me, have bought houses,” he said.

Now he has his own business too. Last year, he opened a grocery shop in the main street of the town selling traditional Karen foodstuffs and other items.

“I saw there was a need for people to be able to buy traditional foods because otherwise they would have to drive to Werribee to get them and that can be a long and dangerous drive.

“So, we opened the shop,” he said.

Kaw Doh employs three other Karen refugees and has managed to keep them on during the disruption brought by the COVID-19 crisis.

“As a leader of my community I felt it was important to try to keep people employed. It has been challenging but we are doing OK. Although we have to drive to Melbourne to get stock because it’s hard to get deliveries because of COVID-19,” he said.

One of Kaw Doh’s employees is Wah Ka Paw Law, 22, who arrived in Nhill from a refugee camp in Thailand in 2017.

“I like working in the shop because I meet everyone in the community and I can help people, especially the older ones,” Wah said.

She is studying English and sewing part-time at the Nhill Learning Centre as well as working in the shop.

“I like living in Nhill. We have everything we need and it’s very quiet,” Wah said.

Wah was born in the Mae La refugee camp on the Thai/Burma border.  She studied at school and graduated from Year 10.  Wah came to Australia by herself when she was 20 years old and settled in Nhill with her aunt’s family.

She says she misses her family but she likes Australia because it is a good place to learn and it is a free country.

Photo of carmen-lazar

Setting people up for success

Carmen Lazar is a prominent leader in the Assyrian-Australian community. She is committed to helping refugees build new lives in Australia and has been working hard to help refugees during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Each day I wake up committed to dedicating myself to help refugees excel and flourish in their newfound home," says Carmen Lazar.

Carmen Lazar is a prominent leader in the Assyrian-Australian community. As the Manager of the Assyrian Resource Centre, she manages the delivery of government-funded services at the Centre.

“For me, each refugee who learns English, finds employment, starts a business or buys their first home in Australia is a symbol of the success of everything Australia promises,” she said.

“My goal is to assist in any way I can to ensure all these elements continue to become a reality.

Working closely with the community Carmen has seen the immense impact COVID-19 is having on refugees. In particular, she said “the language barrier has proved to be a stressful point for refugees”.

The Assyrian Resource Centre has helped refugees during this time by providing all our services through a remote platform.

“We have partnered with various mainstream and NGO services to provide information as well as assistance to clients.

We have continued all educational classes through online platforms and provided support to youth with drop-in sessions that provide relevant information. We also use social media and local community radio programs to keep the community informed in their language and ensure their needs are met.”

Carmen appreciates the struggles refugees face in building a new life in a foreign country. Her family fled Iran in search of peace, safety and security.

“I found the initial transition into Australia extremely challenging, mainly because we did not know the language or were not familiar with the Australian culture. Of course, the support services that were offered 30 years ago did not set refugees up for success like they do now.

In any event, my three sisters and I had a loving home, which encouraged us to be resilient and to forge our path forward.”

Carmen has become a prominent and frequently featured figure in Australian media, telling the stories of those awaiting resettlement and the journeys of those who are being resettled in Australia, particularly Western Sydney.

In 2014, she received the Order of Australia for her work in helping refugees.

“I have been able to pursue and succeed in a career built on helping the most vulnerable make Australia their home and accomplish their dreams and aspirations.”

Parsu Sharma Luital, Giang Nguyen and Van Bawi Thawng with donated groceries ready for distribution by the Refugee Communities Association of Australia Inc.

United to help during COVID-19 – For Refugees, With Refugees, By Refugees

The Refugee Communities Association of Australia (RCAA) is a newly formed peak refugee led national organisation that has been providing food aid outreach for refugee communities and other vulnerable groups, including asylum seekers and international students affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Refugee Communities Association of Australia (RCAA) is a newly formed peak refugee led national organisation that has been providing food aid outreach for refugee communities and other vulnerable groups, including asylum seekers and international students affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The food aid has largely been coordinated and distributed through “RCAA COVID-19 Relief Taskforce,” established in partnership with Help Himalayan Youth Foundation supported by Karen and Chin from Myanmar, Assyrian/Chaldean from Iraq and Bhutanese refugee communities.

General Secretary of the RCAA, Parsu Sharma Luital JP said under the motto “For Refugees, With Refugees, By Refugees”, they started providing support during Ramadan to Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers through personal contributions from RCAA board members.

“This has extended to other refugee new arrivals from Iran, Myanmar, Bhutan, including Assyrian/Chaldean refugees from Iraq and Syria,” said Sharma Luital.

“This initiative has brought established refugee communities to support refugees from new and emerging communities together and empower each other.

Particularly, RCAA acknowledges the kind and generous contribution of food items from Vietnamese Community members who have been through a refugee journey themselves,” he said.

RCAA has also extended food distribution in regional Australia. Through the initiative of RCAA Chairperson Juma Piri Piri based in Launceston Tasmania, weekly distribution has started.

“We are very humbled and touched by the appreciation, trust and hope refugee communities and international students have shown to us for our small contribution when they are doing it tough,” said Piri Piri.

The RCAA is led by refugee communities and their representative groups in every state and territory, as a unified peak national body that advocates for people of refugee background, with lived experience in Australia.

“Through our work with refugee families the RCAA has also found a need for digital devices (tablets, laptops, smart phones) for students to study from home.

Families only have one or two devices but have around five or more family members who need access to individual devices to be able to study from home.

We are coordinating to seek these items through donations to assist refugee families, particularly from Iran and Syria who have large numbers of family members,” said Sharma Luital.

Syrian refugees Yousef Alhawat, Fadi Shedid and Issa Alshadaydah are among refugees who are volunteering to support the Whittlesea Food Collective

Refugee volunteers supporting COVID-19 relief efforts

Syrian refugees Yousef Alhawat, Fadi Shedid and Issa Alshadaydah are among refugees who are volunteering to support the Whittlesea Food Collective.

Refugee volunteers are helping out at a new community initiative in Melbourne’s north is supporting vulnerable people to get through the financial difficulties brought by the COVID-19 crisis.

Syrian refugees Yousef Alhawat, Fadi Shedid and Issa Alshadaydah are among refugees who are volunteering to support the Whittlesea Food Collective (WFC), a distribution centre not just for non-perishable goods but also for fresh food and vegetables.

The WFC was originally conceived as a one-stop shop where disadvantaged people in the local community could come for provisions, but the COVID-19 crisis has meant that food and other necessities are being delivered to asylum seekers, refugees, the elderly as well as ordinary Australians in the community who are struggling to make ends meet.

The three Syrians, clients of refugee and settlement agency AMES Australia, have struggled to find work in their professions and what work they have gained has been halted by the COVID-19 crisis. They are helping out in WFC’s warehouse and community garden.

Yousef is an accountant and farmer who arrived in Australia from in 2017.

“I started helping out with the Whittlesea Food Collective from scratch, because I love gardening and want to give back to the community,” Yousef said.

Fadi is a civil engineer from Syria who arrived Australia in 2016 with his family.

“I could not work immediately as an engineer so I decided to improve my English through attending English classes and doing some voluntary work,” Fadi said.

Previously, he volunteered at Helping Hands and is now helping out at WFC.

“Volunteering is helping me better communicate in English and meet people from different cultures as well as helping our community,” Fadi said.

Issa, a former sales manager from Syria, arrived Australia in November 2017.

“I wanted to give back to the community so I decided to be a volunteer. I am also a driving instructor at Whittlesea Community Centre and I’m helping out with the gardening at WFC and volunteer tutor at Melbourne Polytechnic,” Issa said.

WFC Project Officer Norma Medawar, herself a refugee from Syria, says that as well as supporting around a hundred families a week with food and necessities, the program is also providing social and emotional support.

“There is a lot of anxiety especially among refugee communities who have come from war zones. They are feeling isolated and not properly connected to the broader community. Our community groups have had to stop,” Ms Medawar said.

“But we have been trying to resume them online using technology. Just last week we held a women’s group remotely with 11 women. We talked about health issues, about COVID-19 and how people are feeling about it.

“Another issue is that people who have started work after struggling to find a job have now lost them and are back to square one,” she said.

WFC Coordinator Oreste Pompetti says the organisation’s long term vision is to establish an urban farm to address the issue of food insecurity.

“We are still working on the model with our supporting partners Melbourne Polytechnic, City of Whittlesea and Yarra Valley Water,” Mr Pompetti said.

“We’re a grass roots organisation with a vision to create a hub that is a place full of food and opportunity,” he said.

“We want to give experience and skills and the ability to learn and practice language in a real context with the possibility they could go on to gain employment.

Until the COVID-19 virus came along we were gearing up to be a place where people could come and get what they need. But since the restrictions were put in place, the public can’t visit us so we are delivering food through our partners like ‘Fruit to Work’.

We’ve established a call centre and now we’re servicing up to a hundred families a week,” he said.

Initial funding for WFC came from the City of Whittlesea and the organisation also receives food from Food Bank and community donations.