A little support goes a long way


Support for refugees and asylum seekers in Australia can be as simple as offering help with reading, writing and speaking English. Photo: Kelsie Iorio

It is no secret, that refugees and asylum seekers flee their home countries in search of safety, security, and a better life.

Australian mainstream media is filled with negativity when the discussion relates to refugees and asylum seekers.  It swings between “no, these people shouldn’t be allowed into Australia ” and “those already here should not be allowed to stay”.  The stigma refugees face and the idea they don’t deserve sanctuary in Australia, let alone access to support, can make their integration into Australian society a challenge. It is difficult to integrate into a country that seems to resent you being there.

While there is a good deal of current evidence that shows how conditions in our detention centres are taking a toll on the mental health of asylum seekers and refugees, resettling within the community can also pose challenges to mental health and wellbeing. This is particularly the case for families who don’t have the option to just ‘go home’ and must start their lives aagain from scratch. For these people, even participating in regular, everyday activities can prove extraordinarily difficult and unless the problems are resolved they can undermine confidence, lead to isolation, resentment, depression or other mental health issues

“So much of it is really just giving people the skills and the knowledge they need to really grab life with both hands and make the best of it, and really feel satisfied and content and have a meaningful life in Australia.”
– Jacki Mayne, OOFRAS Member

According to Occupational Opportunities for Refugees and Asylum Seekers (OOFRAS) member Jacki Mayne, being able to do these activities is a core element of health and wellbeing for any person regardless of their background.

As refugees resettling in Australia, an activity – or occupation – can be just about anything from helping children with their homework, to seeing the local GP or reading a map to find the nearest grocery store. The situation for refugees is that their ‘occupations’ are often  complicated by a language barrier, and then compounded by the wider  knowledge that many Australians feel refugees and asylum seekers just don’t belong.  And they don’t need a great grasp of language to understand this. It’s visible in our politics, opinion polls and viral videos of people abusing women in hijabs on public transport.

Which is where organisations like OOFRAS  come in.

OOFRAS is a national organisation, dedicated to helping asylum seekers and refugees participate fully in regular Australian life. Started by a group of Occupational Therapists on a mission to provide resources for asylum seekers and refugees, OOFRAS is now well on their way to changing perceptions of refugees in Australia and providing newcomers with opportunities to flourish in Australian society.

“Because of the circumstances they’ve come from, people with refugee experiences often experience what we might call a deprivation of occupation, because they can’t necessarily do everything that they want and need to do,” Jacki said.

OOFRAS aims to help refugees and asylum seekers live their best life in Australia. Photo: OOFRAS

“As an OT working with refugees and asylum seekers, if I’m teaching them English, or doing a driving lesson, or if I’m going to a hospital with somebody or helping their kids enroll in school, my core focus is to empower that person to be able to engage in an activity that previously they didn’t have the confidence or didn’t have the access or the resources to be able to do.”

“So much of it is really just giving people the skills and the knowledge they need to really grab life with both hands and make the best of it, and really feel satisfied and content and have a meaningful life in Australia.”

Jacki is passionate about advocating for refugee rights, and specifically for more positive representation of refugees and asylum seekers both in the media and everyday discussion.

“Often the language that’s being used might be quite undignified and might be quite suspicious of the intent of refugees and asylum seekers which can actually block them from feeling confident and accepted to get involved in Australian society,” Jacki said.

“I think it’s so important that people are advocating for people to be understood for who they are as individuals and to not buy into stereotypes.”

“There’s a definite shift coming in the conversation of how we can promote equity for everybody in this country, because there is such a disparity between those who have all the resources and all the knowledge, so to speak, or have access to different types of knowledge, but then disregard the health and wellbeing and knowledge that other people have.”

Another group dedicated to making the transition easier for refugee families through support and education is Volunteer Refugee Tutoring and Community Support (VoTRCS – pronounced vortex).

VoRTCS is a free service for refugee families who have just moved to Brisbane, and focuses on teaching English and deciphering basic everyday aspects of life from forms and documents to public transport.

Volunteer Annie Pidgeon spends a couple of hours a week with a refugee family as a tutor for their school-aged children and a support person.

“I choose to volunteer with VoRTCS to grasp an understanding of the refugee situation at a time when debates about refugees coming into Australia was prominent and to provide help in any way I could to refugees in light of all that they have sacrificed to be here,” Annie said.

And it’s reaping rewards.

“We have supported and witnessed one of the daughters excel academically with her grades and widen her thinking to the possibilities of opportunities now available to her and she has taken strong interest into studying a medical related degree at university when she graduates in three years’ time,” she said.

Annie and other VoRTCS volunteers also teach English to the parents within the family, which she says has a really positive impact on their employment potential and their confidence.

“The positive effects that the refugees, community, Australia and the individual volunteer stands to gain are enormous,” Annie said.


With thanks to:
OOFRAS (Occupational Opportunities For Refugees and Asylum Seekers)
VoTRCS (Volunteer Refugee Tutoring and Community Support)

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