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BSL panel explores what life is really like for refugees in Australia

Refugees share their experiences of Australia on World Refugee Day

From left: Joseph Youhanna, Heikama Siraj, Noura Hachem and Mubarek Imam

By Chris Shearer

June 21 2019 

Four Brotherhood of St Laurence staff who arrived in Australia as refugees or asylum seekers have shared their experiences of integrating into Australian society in the latest ‘Brotherhood Talks’ event held on 20 June.

Coinciding with World Refugee Day, the panel featured Joseph Youhanna, a Chaldean Assyrian from Iraq, Heikma Siraj, originally from Ethiopia, Noura Hachem, who arrived from Syria six years ago, and Mubarek Imam, a prominent member of Melbourne’s Eritrean community.

The Q&A session was styled on the ABC’s You Can’t Ask That, with the panel responding to anonymous questions submitted ahead of time by the audience.

Sometimes funny, sometimes sad, the panel delivered an insightful look into how refugees experience Australian society based on their own experiences and that of their BSL clients. Below is a selection of their questions and answers, slightly edited for brevity.

What would you say to those people worried that refugees are going to “take our jobs”?

Noura: Yes, we have come from different countries of this world but we all grew up with dreams and goals and ambitions that we want to do. Unfortunately we couldn’t do it in our country, but we have ability and we’re lucky enough to be able to do it here. It doesn’t mean that we care any less about the country. It doesn’t mean that we love it any less than you do. It doesn’t mean that we’re going to be any less hard working than anyone is.

What was the thing that most shocked you about Australian culture or workplaces when you first arrived?

Mubarek: Where I come from, the relationship between a boss and [their] worker, you can’t call them by their first names. You have to add “Mr” or “Doctor” or in Egypt for example baaša which means “my master”. If you don’t do that you will probably lose your job.

Noura: When I came here, I was happy I could finish a chocolate bar by myself, because in our culture you have to offer food to other people! And then you end up with a tiny bit like that, and no one cares. That’s all you get! … Also everything here sounds a bit cute: let’s have brekkie, a barbie, and all that.

How hard is it for refugees to find secure and affordable housing?

Joseph: People were thinking that when they arrived in Melbourne they would be taken to public housing and it’s all good. That was an unclear reality for them: that you actually have to work hard to get a private rent … The market price has gone up and up and people have been pushed to the developing areas where they are missing the good public support and services. So it’s a real issue that people need to tackle.

What are the strengths of refugees that have been underestimated?

Joseph: There’s a lot of experience, a lot of willing, a lot of passion to restart and reset your life in a new country. People have been waiting for months, years, until that little hope was opened.

What’s your advice to new arrivals?

Heikma: My advice would be: be open to new cultures, be involved, don’t be afraid to ask questions, access services, and also socialise. Talking is really important to get a job, to continue in new languages, new cultures, to integrate themselves. So that’s really important. Don’t be afraid to talk to people who you don’t know – it’s absolutely fine to say hello!

Noura: Don’t be afraid to ask. I think this is a really important one because back in my culture in Syria, if you have a mental health issue, you can’t talk about that, because if you say that people will talk about you because it’s something embarrassing. So when we come here, coming from war or any other situation, most of us would probably have that. It’s important to seek help, to ask for those services. No one is going to judge you.

How do you discuss the refugee debate with locals given the toxic nature of debate around the issue?

Mubarek: I like to think I’ve handled this situation really well since I arrived in Australia, and that’s by responding, not reacting. The first thing I would do is provide that safe space for them to talk and express their opinions, and then I would respond to what they say by getting the facts right or if there is any misconception to treat it. They don’t necessarily have negative ideas about refugees, but ignorance … so it’s about sharing that awareness, not making the assumption that that person is racist or discriminatory.

What’s the most helpful way for locals to help new arrivals feel more welcome?

Noura: Don’t treat us any differently. We are not different. We might have different cultures, different ways that we like things to be done, but that’s all humans.

Heikma: Sometimes [refugees] are split from their family and they don’t have anyone to talk to, so it’s not always about work, it’s not always about support that needs providing. Just give them some time to talk, and just listen.

How do we engage with the history of western nations causing problems that eventually lead to refugee crises?

Noura: We should learn from history, but I don’t think that’s the case … I wish it was, but it’s not, and that’s why we try and talk and raise our voices and say “this is affecting us, this is affecting a whole generation, the next generation”. Even if it gets better now, how long is it going to be until it gets rebuilt? How long is it going to take until the people who struggled and lost their homes, to actually come back? We are living our lives, and we are here, moving on, but a lot of other people are not.