As the mass movement of refugees fleeing war zones grows, Australia has agreed to become a destination for an additional 12,000 Syrian asylum-seekers over the next twelve months.
Their plight is controversial and contested in Australia. Not only is there the struggle of seeking asylum being lived out by those detained indefinitely on Manus Island or Nauru but once refugees are allowed into the Australian community they face other struggles in renewing their shattered lives. That story is seldom reported.
Every week a diverse group of refugee women gather at Mary MacKillop Catholic College Wakeley to learn English with Lesley Gyton – and support each other.
‘The Peace Hub’ at the college is a simple, small aluminium shed offering hope and companionship for women who are refugees or asylum-seekers in Australia.
Vivian Matti is an Iraqi and the Arabic Community Liaison Officer at the college who manages the activities of the Peace Hub. She said the hub offered a safe, welcome shelter to women who have been traumatised.
“It’s very hard to start again – most people quit and stop… they also find it hard to communicate with their children once the children learn English,” said Ms Mati.
So, twice a week the women gather for English and citizenship classes in the hub presided over by a large, approving portrait of Mary MacKillop. It’s become a nurturing community for the women, most of whom are United Nations refugees from Syria and Iraq.
Many of the women are university-educated and anxious to resume their professions, but many are also on ‘bridging visas’, so unable to do paid work. Some of the women have daughters at the college or other Catholic schools on bursaries. All have suffered and witnessed trauma that’s incomprehensible.
Ms Matti said some of the women had mental illness after what they have suffered in getting to Australia. She said not having the right to work can cause a loss of self-esteem: “I keep telling them ‘don’t think that you are not important – even if you are not working you are doing something’.” She said she reminded those who had children that they were raising them to be good Australian citizens.
Janeen from Iraq has been in Australia two years and five months. “I was a teacher in Iraq – PDHPE. I am not able to work here – It’s very hard to teach here,” said Janeenn who’s studying for a Diploma in Childcare at TAFE.
Her husband was a Maths teacher in Iraq, but without a suitable visa is also unable to get work in Australia.
Sanaa from Iraq has been in Australia one year and eight months. She is married with an 18-year-old son. “I want to learn, I feel connected. My husband is pensioner because he was a war prisoner for over 15 years in Iran and was disabled in prison.”
Vargouhi is from Aleppo, Syria and has been in Australia for seven years and five months. She said she also has to care for her husband. “It’s very nice here, we speak English good, the teacher is good and a very nice school,” said Vargouhi.
Shamia Younan is a single mother. She has four children and is a university-qualified engineer. She fled Iraq nine years ago when her husband was murdered by the state. “I miss my husband – they killed him in my country.” Mrs Younan said when he was murdered in 2006 she grabbed hold of her four children and literally fled to Jordan.
Sundus from Iraq has been here for four years and has a small business decorating wedding receptions while she studies a secretarial course at TAFE. She was a designer/decorator in Iraq.
“To have a job means a lot for me… there is always chance, there is always hope,” said one of the women.
Ms Matti said some women who have attended the hub have now found jobs.
“I have a Mum who finished her childcare course and is working full-time now, I have a Sudanese Mum who came to the English classes and has found a job at a bakery shop. This is great! To build their self-esteem and empower them to make a difference…”
Then, she interrupted herself to embrace and personally farewell each woman from the class. She reminded them she’d see them next week.