A place to call home

At fifteen minutes to noon, a teacher’s aide from Lindsay Park primary school was knocking on Wasila Shamal’s door. “Just checking,” she explained, “to make sure you hadn’t forgotten about Balkees’s school assembly today.”

 It seemed people were always knocking on the Shamals’ door in Figtree. Other children in the small apartment complex were over almost daily, usually with a tennis ball in hand. The cement lot in front was quickly transformed into a handball court, and two tall blue poles doubled as a soccer goal. One family whose children also attended Lindsay Park gave the family their old lounge set.

 The two boys, Shaffi and Qais Shamal, were popular students at Warrawong Intensive English Centre, playing cricket and soccer and practical jokes. Their younger sister Haseeba was shyer, but coming out of her shell, playing drums in a community theatre production called Landed and again at the Viva La Gong festival while Balkees, the youngest, quickly made friends at her suburban Australian school.

 The Shamals, Afghanis who had spent two years in Pakistan before arriving in Australia as refugees in early August, 2001, seemed to be settling in better than most. But in January this year they packed their bags and moved to Carlingford in Western Sydney.

 In recent years the Federal Government has established a number of programs to encourage migrants to move to regional areas, and the numbers of refugees arriving in the Illawarra has been steadily increasing.

 Under the Government’s Humanitarian Program, refugees can specify if they have relatives in Australia already while those who don’t—38 percent of humanitarian entrants between 2000 and 2002— are linked up with programs such as Refugee Support Scheme, Wollongong (RSS).

 This not-for-profit organization, funded by the Department of Immigration Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA), is the only one of its kind in the Illawarra with a mandate to assist refugees in all aspects of resettlement, from finding a flat to signing up for basic services.  In 2002, 89 individuals were settled into the Illawarra through the RSS, while this year, 80 individuals have already been settled. Overall, most of these individuals will stay in the Illawarra, says Sujin Park, a senior settlement worker with RSS. But some are more likely to stay than others.

 “It depends on where they are coming from,” Park says. Families from the Middle East and Arab backgrounds that don’t have the network of long standing communities are much more likely to go to Sydney to join up with larger ethnic communities. They are going where there is more support, where they know someone, Park says.

 The RSS says that of the four Middle Eastern families Refugee Support Scheme has resettled, three have left for Sydney. The fourth had planned to leave as well, but arrangements fell through.

 “They felt lonely and isolated. The communities here are really little. People say the Lebanese community (here) is huge, but compared to Sydney it’s tiny,” Park said. There is one Somali family, one Ethiopian family, two Liberian families.

 “If there were three or four Somali families people could talk to each other in their own language and help each other. Right now they (DIMIA) send one family to try it out.”

 Before the Shamals arrived in 2001, all of the families receiving initial settlement support from RSS were from the former republic of Yugoslavia, so an extensive network developed for people from that region. Traditional Serbian dance classes are taught, Serbian Orthodox and Croatian Catholic Churches cater to crowds; walk into the Illawarra Migrant Resource Centre, and you’ll easily find staff that speak the languages of the region of the former Yugoslavia. For Farsi or Dari or Arabic, you’ll have to look a little harder.

 When the Shamals arrived in Wollongong they knew of only three other families from Afghanistan, and those families were educated professionals they had little in common with beyond their country of birth.

 Part of what draws people away are the resources offered in bigger ethnic communities. It’s relatively easy to find a mosque in the Illawarra, but an Arabic speaking Christian church?  For that, it’s up to Sydney.

 For the Shamals, services as simple as a Halal butcher were difficult to access from Figtree.

 Statistics support the notion that migrants with a support network or an established community around them prosper. The latest migration information from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, collected from 1999 to 2000, shows that recent migrants with family or friends in Australia were less likely to be unemployed than those without family or friends.

The report also showed that barriers are much higher for humanitarian entrants than they are for immigrants on independent visas.

 After six months in Australia 11 percent of immigrants on independent visas considered their English skills to be poor; compared with 79 percent of humanitarian entrants. After three and a half years 49 percent of the humanitarian entrants continued to struggle with English, while just 7 percent of those on independent visas expressed the same problems, according to ABS figures.

 Despite these hurdles, the federal government is pushing ahead with its plan to increase the number of refugees in regional areas, confirming its commitment in a new report in May.

The report, launched by Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs, Gary Hardgrave, recommends a boost in funding to regional organizations like the RSS to assist more refugees in the resettlement process.

The report recommends that refugees be encouraged to resettle in regional areas and Hardgrave is adamant any challenges can be overcome. He refers to new migrants from non-established ethnic communities as “trailblazers”, and believes that once one family finds jobs they are likely to attract other families from their own ethnic backgrounds.

 “Nobody migrates to this country to fail,” he said. “They come here saying ‘I want work.’ In the main there are a lot of new and emerging communities that are not as established as they will be (in the future).”

 “The more established communities in Australia have to be the first to put out the hand of friendship and say ‘welcome.’ It’s important that local communities take up that challenge.”

 The minister will set off on a nationwide tour later this year to foster discussion and seek feedback on the Government’s plan and the support structures it will be implementing.

 Colin Chamberlain, RSS team leader, expects the new policy will bring with it both possibilities and challenges.

 “The positive is that refugees are coming to a fairly well serviced, multicultural community,” he says. “On the negative side, it would be preferable to have larger ethnic groups so that they can support each other.”

 As the Shamals can attest, the support of tight-knit ethnic communities cannot be over-estimated. The family was grateful for the support they did receive: staff and volunteers from the RSS stopped by often to visit and help when they could, and Wasila appreciated it, thanking them with epic meals of marinated vegetables and meats with flavoured rice.

 When things were tough, though, Wasila had to hunt through her vocabulary, carefully stringing words together, miming and explaining the background information, the little details another Afghan would have already known and understood. Jokes had to be stripped down and translated and acted out. Conversations in English were a patient and lengthy affair, laborious and strained if heartfelt.

 The Shamals, at least, are happier now.

 “In Wollongong I was home all the time. I never went out. Now I am always busy. I have many more friends here,” Shaffi said after arriving home late one Saturday evening.

 It took his brother and sisters a little longer to warm to their new surroundings, but now they agree. The one setback?

 “Well,” laughs Qais, “in Wollongong my English was much better. Now we talk all day to other Afghan kids at school.”

Illawarra Mercury Weekender

28 June 2003.