Reading books, packing bags and doing homework, for most young children these are the dreaded daily chores. Yet for refugees they are the small pleasures that take their minds off the trauma and tragedy.
Australia holds hundreds of refugee children, many fleeing from war-torn countries such as Syria and Jordan, having lived most of their life working and living on the streets to survive.
Life for refugee children is tough and many don’t get the chance to simply run around outside, read books and come home and play after school.
Having already missed out on a portion of their childhood they are marred by the traumatic experiences they went through to get to Australia, with most refugee children having developed some form of mental illness.
Dr Graham Thom, refugee coordinator of Amnesty International says the trauma young refugees face at such a young age often leads to them developing mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Dr Thom has extensive experience in dealing with young refugees and has seen many cases where refugee children carry around the trauma they witnessed at such an early age.
“In Jordan, there was one child were his father had been kidnapped, his finger had been cut off and they mutilated his tendons in his arm, the family had to pay a lot of money to get him back and then they fled,” he said.
“Situations like this does impact greatly on the child’s mental health. In that circumstance at least he was reunited with his parents, however the psychological impact also impacts on them and their ability to provide a safe physical environment and a shield for their child is also eroded in those kinds of environment.”
According to the Department of Immigration and Boarder Protection there are currently around 1,852 people in immigration detention facilities, of this figure 104 are children.
An additional 331 children remain in community detention.
Despite fleeing the adverse conditions of their home country , Dr Thom points out that upon arrival in Australia, after being placed into the community, most often in community detention, the mental health of the young children is still in a fragile state.
“When they get into the community a lot depends on the Visa’s they’re on; bridging visa or community detention, that uncertainty still hanging over them, makes it very hard for them to get on with their life. There’s still the nightmares, anxiety and poor concentration which then impacts on their schooling,”
This was corroborated in the findings of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into children in immigration detention, A Last Resort? National Inquiry into children in Immigration Detention.
In the report it was found that the uncertainty of their future in Australia leads to many children feeling a sense of disappointment and helplessness which stays with them long after their placement.
“On average you would expect a significant proportion of these children to continue to suffer, throughout their life, the effects of the detention experience” the report stated.
With so many children in Australia for a better life, support programs are key to providing them with coping mechanisms to help minimise the effects of their mental illness, especially programs that focus on education and play which not only help with their development but also their mental health.
“Once support is put in place they are able to start to overcome some of those psychological conditions, we’ve seen that a lot here in Australia. There are some schools in NSW where the Principal has put in some amazing programs to help support refugee children. Those children have gone on to do particularly well” Dr Thom said.
St Vincent De Pauls run a support program for young refugees across Queensland, VoRTCS (Volunteer Refugee Tutoring and Community Support), which involves volunteers visiting refugee families providing community support and assistance in developing their English skills.
Local VoRTCS volunteer David Lee Lewes says he is amazed at what the program does for refugees from all different countries.
“I have found that it has made a profound impact on the lives of the refugees that I have been fortunate enough to work with” Mr Lee Lewes said.
“I have worked with two families, one from South Sudan and one from Ethiopia.
“Both families had very recently arrived in the country and had trouble adjusting to Australian culture.”
What is most beneficial about the program is the education and play it offers for young refugees, Mr Lee Lewes says he enjoys seeing them develop and trying to live a happy childhood.
“I enjoy working with the children, who are very receptive to learning new norms and it is very rewarding to see them learn and adapt. I help them with their homework, assignments and any school work they may have, but I mostly just be their friend and let them have some fun” he said.
School is perfect for young refugees as it provides them with an opportunity to play and further their development, however for most it is an experience vastly different from other Australian kids, as Dr Thom points out.
“These kids have guards escorting them to school, guards picking them up, guards checking their bags” Dr Thom said.
“One of the horrible situations we’re seeing on Naru at the moment is that the kids who were really engaged with the Salvation Army school, inside the regional processing centre, it was the most positive thing they had in their life, when that was ended and they had to go to the local school and they were subjected to bullying, physical abuse, including bullying from teachers,” he said.
“A lot of them dropped out and a lot of parents took their kids out of school.”
It is imperative to the mental health of refugee children that support programs like the Salvation Army on Naru and VoRTCS in Queensland are available, as being at home, community housing or detention is detrimental for their already fragile mental state.
“They found when the kids were at home, that’s when their mental health began to decline and go into a spiral, kids started to self-harm, a lot of the kids threatened or attempted suicide.”
There are some examples of refugee children who have managed to gain access to education and make the most of their new life in Australia. Dr Thom recalls two young refugee girls who were determined to complete their HSC.
“They were the first children to complete the HSC while in detention, which is quite an achievement,” Dr Thom said.
“There are some great kids, who go on to accomplish great things, they just need the support.”
Refugee children are resilient. They have been through more than most Australians will in a lifetime. It is important to remember that are they are still children and every child deserves the support to have a chance at having a childhood, a chance at just being a kid.