by Katherine Willis
A new initiative in Brisbane is looking to unite young refugees with Australian youth.
It is called, ‘I AM A FRIEND’ (IAAF), and is being developed by Hillsong Youth Services (HYS) in Queensland in conjunction with Multicultural Development Australia (MDA).
QLD Coordinator for HYS, Kath Jenner, says their desire for IAAF is that genuine friendships and relationships will be built.
“The goal of these events is to specifically see young refugees being engaged with and connected with,” she says.
It is believed these refugees “will then leave these events and programs, feeling a sense of worth and respect,” Jenner says.
Professor of International Migration at Coventry University, Heaven Crawley, says these sorts of programs are exactly what’s needed today, to help deter negative refugee sentiment.
“Rather than putting up refugees as a problem that needs to be addressed in some way, instead, this is identifying the things people share in common … and in that way, builds these bonds of solidarity, which is not just located in someone’s immigration status.”
Jenner says one of the greatest refugee needs expressed to them by MDA is time and friendship.
Associate Professor at Boston College, Westy Egmont, says this is normal, as refugees have gone through a very traumatic life transition.
“… by the time they arrive in a new community, their needs are extreme,” he says.
“The quicker we absorb a person into the community and identify them as a welcome part of our circle, the quicker they can take advantage of the resources in the community and contribute back,” Egmont says.
A refugee living in Australia since 2002, Fariba Burgees, says she fled Iran to escape the oppressive culture of women.
She also says she left because of her Baha’i faith which is contrary to Muslim ideals.
“I was in danger. People wanted to shut me down … so I left in the middle of the night with my family. We had no choice.”
Fariba says coming to Australia has made a huge difference in her life and her family’s.
She says Australia is a good country and that the government was very supportive.
“We had a case worker and she helped us a lot. We also had an interpreter wherever we went.”
She also attended community events relating to her religion and culture, and felt embraced by the Australian community.
To this day, she takes part in these events, and enjoys the time she gets with different people.
But while Fariba says Australia offers security, she says it doesn’t take away from the problems that are overseas.
A lot of people, including some of her family, struggle to leave Iran, because there is no freedom.
It took her just over four months to get a passport, because she didn’t have any documentation in her name.
Similarly, Crawley says many young people don’t have proper documentation.
“… whether or not you have documentation and whether or not you can make what is considered to be a good claim for asylum, will then determine how easy it is for you to get protection.”
In spite of young refugees facing legal or technical issues, on top of persecution, human rights abuse and conflict, Crawley says young people, and young refugees in particular, are incredibly resilient.
“They’re also incredibly adaptive and to spite all those difficulties, they do often manage to do really well in host societies,” she says.
IAAF hopes to work in with refugee youth from locations like Iran and Iraq.
Currently, HYS volunteers are attending monthly events hosted by MDA to network with these refugees and provide a sense of community.
Just this week, they attended a graduation dinner presented by MDA.
300 refugees from Iraq, Iran, Tibet, Somalia and Sudan were there.
While a step in the right direction, Jenner says relationships are not going to be built after a couple of picnics, but built through consistent community engagement and regular events with these families.