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Refugees seek a life of freedom, dignity and security

By Hanin Al-Sayfee, Practice Manager CatholicCare Sydney

Refugees seek a life of freedom

There are a lot of misconceptions about refugees that I’d like to put straight. I’d like to explain simply, who they are, why they are here, the sorts of situations they have had to endure, and what we can do to support them.

I’ll start with this simple statement – refugees are regular people who have fled horrific violence and persecution. They have lost everything.

Before being forced to flee, refugees have experienced hardships such as war, persecution, incarceration, torture, loss of property, malnourishment, physical assault, being separated from family members and loss of livelihood. They may also have been forced to witness or endure torture from loved ones or inflict pain themselves on loved ones. This betrayal or guilt impacts their ability to develop trusting relationships, which are critical to resettlement and healing.

The actual process of escaping these situations can be days but can also extend across many years. In many cases, they arrive in Australia with just the clothes on their backs seeking safety and a place where their children can receive an education. They want to use their skills to work and contribute to society, however, getting to this point can be a journey.

When I was 11 years old my family arrived in Australia as refugees. I can remember hearing my parents say, 'we don’t want to live off welfare benefits: we want to work, but no one will give us jobs because our English is not good enough yet, and we don’t have the right training'. Refugees, like my parents, have a desire to contribute and share their skills and knowledge. They are grateful for the second chance, but it isn’t easy to resettle in a new country with no certainty for the future and often no understanding of the Australian culture or language. They are doing their best to re-establish a home and identity while also coping with the psychological scars of what they have experienced.

Over half of the world’s refugees are children. Many spend their childhoods away from home, sometimes separated from their families and experiencing or witnessing violence. Some children never receive education until they arrive in Australia, in fact, they could have been the only breadwinner in the family. While children are incredibly resilient, we must acknowledge the past traumas and help them find ways to adjust to their new lives, community, and culture.

The daily lives of refugees, whether a child or an adult have changed dramatically, along with the lifestyles and traditions that defined their identities. As a community, we need to assist refugees to develop positive coping skills to help regulate emotions, manage stress, and adjust to a new culture.

As service providers, we need to acknowledge what they have been through and be mindful of cultural sensitivities in our approach, but there are a number of ways we can assist.

  1. Identify and address the obstacles they face; cost of services, a lack of trust in authorities, accessibility, mental health challenges, language and cultural or conceptual differences in health perceptions.
  2. Effective case management to find the right service - this includes assistance finding housing, employment, and legal help while considering the challenges of resettling as a refugee when managing each individual case.
  3. Addressing isolation - understandably, many refugees arrive in Australia missing their family, friends and everything that was familiar to them. Once here, many feel desperately alone and are worried about their loved ones back home or in a waiting country.
  4. Language barriers – provide interpretation whenever needed while keeping in mind the importance of confidentiality in small communities. Ensure the interpreter doesn’t provide personal opinions in translations.
  5. Asking questions - we need to respect refugees as the individuals they are, however, don’t be afraid to ask questions and discover their unique skills, abilities and personalities. This will encourage them to do the same and lead to a better understanding of the differences in our cultures and a more effective settlement process.

About the author

Hanin Al-Sayfee Practice Manager CatholicCareHanin Al-Sayfee is the Practice Manager for CatholicCare Sydney’s South-West Sydney family programs -Family Support, Intensive Family Preservation, Family Support in Schools and the CatholicCare Parish Program.

Along with arriving in Australia as a refugee herself and experiencing first-hand the difficulties of resettlement, Hanin has significant clinical experience working with refugees and asylum seekers. She is an advocate for trauma-informed practice, culturally sensitive service delivery, and ethical and collaborative approaches that support the safety, autonomy, and healing of those that have experienced trauma.