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Welcoming refugees is part of the Australian story

by PAUL POWER

Think of refugees or asylum seekers at the moment and the last words you would have heard were likely to be mouthed by political representatives in their daily sniping over “border control” policies.

But behind the political point-scoring is a success story that was worth celebrating during Refugee Week this week.

Since Federation, Australia has successfully resettled more than 750,000, an impressive achievement for a nation of just under 23 million people.

Humanitarian arrivals have been a critical part of the Australian story since post-war refugees helped build the Snowy Hydro Scheme. Refugees continue to make their contribution in ways we Australians hold dear – on a football field, in business, in comedy, the arts and on the international stage.

Refugees embody the entrepreneurial spirit we admire. Some, like Frank Lowy, translated a survival instinct into business success, arriving in Australia in 1952 with little English to become Australia’s richest man. Sir Gustav Nossal arrived in Australia as a refugee and established a distinguished medical scientist and immunologist. The A-League and AFL boast players of refugee background.

Why does it work? Because when it comes to resettling refugees, Australia punches above its weight by providing the most comprehensive and sophisticated systems of support for resettled refugees anywhere in the world.

Humanitarian Settlement Services (HSS) provides intensive settlement support to newly-arrived humanitarian clients on arrival and throughout their initial settlement period.

These services help new arrivals become active participants in our communities as soon as possible through intensive support during the initial settlement period.

This includes intensive English tuition, learning how to open a bank account, how to enrol children in school, how to use public transport, applying for a driver’s licence as well as cultural orientation about societal norms and behaviour.

On Saturday, we launched Refugee Week in Sydney with a speech by a young woman who is testament to the success of Australia’s refugee resettlement policies. Nooria Wazefadost arrived with her family in Australia in 2000 as a 14-year-old. As members of the Hazara people from Afghanistan, the family was forced to flee civil war, persecution and ethnic cleansing. Seeking hope and safety, the family endured 10 days on a small wooden boat, arriving in Australia where they were detained at the Curtin Immigration Detention Centre. In 2004, after three months in detention and three years living on temporary protection visas, Nooria and her family were granted permanent visas. Nooria achieved her burning desire to attended school, enrolling at Holroyd High School in Western Sydney. With intensive English support, Nooria finished her schooling and is now studying accounting at university, while holding down a job as a teacher’s aide and community liaison officer.

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But settlement is a two-way process. It is not just something that refugees must do – there is also a need for the wider community to make adaptations to accommodate the refugees. A spirit of hospitality, where refugees are made to feel welcomed into a community, underpins successful refugee settlement programs.

Take Brad Chilcott, a Pentecostal pastor in Adelaide, who last year saw the need for a non-political response to the never-ending political debate about asylum.

He formed Welcome to Australia, a community initiative which engages Australians in cultivating a culture of welcome in our country. Brad believes there are thousands of Australians who don’t care much for politics and don’t know much about immigration policy but do know that they care about people. His organisation promotes parties and local gatherings of welcome for new arrivals, which culminates this Saturday in capital cities with Walk Together.

Tomorrow, Welcome to Australia is inviting everyone to “Walk Together” in recognition that although we’ve all arrived here via different pathways we share a common journey and that we are all part of the modern success story that is Australia.

Refugee Week is a diverse commemoration and celebration of many things associated with the lives of refugees, asylum seekers and community supporters like Welcome to Australia. But perhaps more than anything else it is a celebration of the great resilience of human beings, of how from so many appalling situations people who have been persecuted can rebuild and inspire – people Australia can be proud of.

For information about Refugee Week visit www.refugeeweek.org.au

Paul Power has been Chief Executive Officer of the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA), the national umbrella body for 150 agencies working with refugees and asylum seekers, since 2006.

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